Teach Kentucky

Claire Humes, Valley High School chemistry teacher. Photo by Steven Anselm.

Claire Humes, Valley High School chemistry teacher. Photo by Steven Anselm.

The nationwide teacher shortage “looks like it is only going to get worse,” noted a recent article in The Washington Post.

Fortunately for Louisville, a local nonprofit organization known as Teach Kentucky is bringing top teacher candidates from across the nation to area schools. Teach Kentucky recruits candidates who are interested in pursuing an education career through an alternative route to the master of arts in teaching while they teach full-time and earn a salary.

According to Outreach Coordinator Elizabeth Mays, Teach Kentucky strives to enhance not only the quality of education that Louisville students receive but also the city’s civic life because the program brings bright young professionals to the region.

A group of first-year and veteran teachers at Teach Kentucky’s Summer Institute at Olmsted North Middle School. Courtesy photos.

A group of first-year and veteran teachers at Teach Kentucky’s Summer Institute at Olmsted North Middle School. Courtesy photos.

Seeking Strong Content Knowledge

Entrepreneur Rowan Claypool created Teach Kentucky in 2003 as a nonprofit organization funded mostly through donations from individuals and local foundations. During its first year, Teach Kentucky brought in two recruits from a few dozen applicants. This year, the program accepted 28 candidates from more than 500 applicants.

Administrators look for those who have strong knowledge in particular content areas – especially those who can score in the top 25 percent on a content-specific Praxis exam.

“We have very high academic thresholds,” Mays says. “We work to attract high-achieving college graduates.” Many of them come from such leading universities as Yale, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt.

Of the 500 applicants this year, only 125 met the program’s academic standards. Forty-five were invited for a recruiting weekend, where they took a personality test and participated in a formal interview in which a dozen people from the University of Louisville and Jefferson County Public Schools observed them addressing a series of education topics for 15 minutes. The observers considered the applicants’ ability to make complex topics understandable and to engage their audience as a teacher needs to do.

“They must have interpersonal skills,” Mays notes. “We look at how they present themselves in different settings.”

One of the 28 recruits to make the cut this year is Elaine Zhou, who grew up in Chicago and graduated from Swarthmore College just outside Philadelphia. She’s now an English teacher at Moore Traditional School on the Outer Loop. Zhou says she was drawn to the Teach Kentucky program because Claypool himself called her “just minutes after I submitted my online application. This was the first of many signs that Teach Kentucky was different from other programs I’d applied to. It was also the first of many calls from Rowan.”

Applicants accepted into the program work for two years to receive alternative certification through UofL while they teach full-time at a local public school. Since Teach Kentucky began, it has helped more than 230 educators launch their careers, and although it primarily recruits for JCPS, it has worked with 14 Louisville-area districts overall. Some of the program’s participants have gone on to become not only teachers but also principals and assistant principals.

A teacher council meeting at Teach Kentucky’s annual retreat. Courtesy photo.

A teacher council meeting at Teach Kentucky’s annual retreat. Courtesy photo.

Creating Community and Providing Support

Teach Kentucky promotes the Louisville area by pointing out that it’s much more than just a home to baseball bats and bourbon. The program’s staff also notes such accolades as Louisville’s rank as the eighth Most Affordable City in the U.S. (by Forbes), as one of the top Creative Cities for 20-Somethings (by policymic.com) and as one of the Top 10 Cities for Being a Homeowner (by nerdwallet.com).

Teach Kentucky introduces recruits to everything the city has to offer – from restaurants to festivals to community service opportunities. “We do a lot of social things to keep them feeling like they’re part of the community,” Mays says, and she points out that “they bond as a cohort” because they all stay in Bellarmine University dorms during Teach Kentucky’s Summer Institute.

“The greatest benefit that Teach Kentucky has provided me with is the community of educators from which I can draw support and build friendships,” says Zhou, who adds that because she grew up and went to college in large cities, she “never expected to move to Kentucky after graduation. Yet here I am in a city I’m growing to love with roommates I enjoy, and [I’m] a member of an organization that functions sometimes as a networking hub and other times as a family.”

Teach Kentucky’s Summer Institute focuses on such topics as setting up a classroom, instructional techniques, navigating the school system and, especially, classroom management. “We know the recruits have content knowledge,” Mays explains, “but we have to make sure they learn how to get control of their classroom.”

Teach Kentucky also provides guidance from university and school district staff members as well as Retired Teacher Advocates. This support system is especially important to the new teachers’ classroom success because most of them serve in priority schools, which are schools that have received low scores on state assessments, and their classrooms can be challenging learning environments.

“They can be stressful,” Mays says, “especially if you were a high-achieving student who has never personally experienced poverty or some of the other problems in the priority schools.”

Claire Humes, who was recruited by Teach Kentucky in 2011 and is now a Valley High chemistry teacher, points out that “the program does not sugarcoat the intense life of teaching,” but she also notes that Teach Kentucky provides an “incredible teacher community that has supported and celebrated me through my almost six years of teaching.”

Humes has served in several leadership roles at her school, including Science Department chair. She first attended Grinnell College in Iowa and looked into Teach for America, a rival program, but she says Teach Kentucky was a better fit because it “does not relent in its support” and because of its “smaller, more community-based approach.”

For next year’s cohort, Teach Kentucky has worked with a local psychologist to develop a new program that will help teachers handle classroom stress through the therapeutic technique known as mindfulness. The educators then will be able to teach mindfulness techniques to their own students, which will align with the health and wellness curriculum taught through the JCPS Compassionate Schools Project.

Pursuing STEM Teachers

On October 13, Teach Kentucky announced its recruitment initiatives for next year, which are designed to help meet local demand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) educators.

Clair Humes. Photo by Steven Anselm.

Clair Humes. Photo by Steven Anselm.

“This is the most critical staffing need in our region,” Claypool says, “and it also holds the most potential to improving educational attainment.”

The announcement was made at Louisville Water Tower Park because the park symbolizes a series of local partnerships designed specifically to recruit STEM teachers. Louisville Water Company, for instance, partners with Teach Kentucky through an agreement in which the company’s in-house educators work directly with Teach Kentucky’s science teachers to share STEM curriculum resources. In addition, Louisville Water Foundation helps fund STEM educator recruitment activities.

Teach Kentucky plans to go from 28 new teachers to 40 in the next cohort. “It’s a big jump for us,” Mays says, “and the goal is that half of them will be STEM teachers.” For all recruits, the organization will continue to provide “the support, tools and community they need,” she adds. “We set them up for success.”

Zhou says she’s experiencing that success now, and she’s glad to have a “chance to dive headlong into the world of teaching with a whole team of people cheering me on.” VT

For more information, visit the Teach Kentucky website at teachkentucky.com.