This piece by Leah Luke originally appeared on Education Post. While Leah’s experiences take place in Wisconsin, my hope is that Kentucky’s rural schools and districts will find value and relevancy in her work as well.
Teacher shortages in Wisconsin, and across the country, have a stranglehold on the profession. Enrollment in educator prep programs in Wisconsin is down 30 percent. Teachers are retiring in droves. Filling positions in our rural town is becoming a greater and greater challenge.
At Mauston High School, we have created opportunities for students to explore careers in education in a supportive and caring environment long before they enter a teacher prep program.
Nationally more than 60 percent of teachers work within 20 miles of where they went to high school. Realizing the potential of a grow-your-own program, administration and teacher leadership at Mauston High School developed a future teachers program—Teach to INSPIRE to Teach. This program is comprised of dual-credit, advanced placement and distance learning courses, practicum teaching experiences and career relevant volunteer opportunities. There is also a vibrant Educators Rising club to help support our future teachers as they explore the career.
While the rest of Mauston’s 450 students will start their academic day at 8:35 a.m., students enrolled in the dual credit, zero-hour course arrive at 7:25 a.m. and engage in robust discussions about topics such as equity, diversity and social justice. Students complete Educators Rising micro-credentials which are scored by outside evaluators. Working to earn these micro-credentials, students push into classrooms where they observe and reflect on classroom culture, anti-bias instruction, student engagement and deliver lessons. They create community outreach projects like a display in the cafeteria featuring Wisconsin’s tribal nations during Native American Heritage Month.
The recently released NNSTOY and Kellogg Foundation report, Rebuilding the Ladder of Educational Opportunity, notes that schools, like Mauston, which address opportunity gaps are “…explicitly linking classroom activities and experiences to actual training…[showing students] that there are rewards for those who overcome the gap and master the skills.” Graduates who have participated in our INSPIRE program leave high school armed with professional vocabulary and experiential learning.
We are absolutely committed to providing opportunities to help students develop skills needed for them to become future educators—regardless if they plan to return home to roost or fill teaching vacancies elsewhere. One of the most rewarding components of the program is getting our students on college campuses for the first time. These field trips are also paired with visits of schools unlike their own.
Picture this…On a crisp fall morning, the high school principal checks off the names of INSPIRE students as they board a school bus bound for Madison, Wisconsin. Ninety minutes later, the students and principal arrive at Sauk Trail Elementary, a dual-immersion school with a high concentration of English language learners (ELL). First on the day’s agenda is touring the suburban school, talking with teachers and observing classes. Later, back on the bus, students talk excitedly about the school and the language switching ability of the children. As predicted, the experience broadens the students’ understanding of teaching in a setting unlike their own.
The next stop is a tour of Edgewood, a small liberal arts college, one of the elementary school’s teacher prep partners located in the heart of the state’s capital. Here they are introduced to faculty and programming. By the end of the day, two students announce that they have found their calling as ELL teachers. In the spring, the group will have the opportunity to tour Marquette University in Milwaukee and a large urban high school. Our hope is others will find their calling as well.
Through exposure to opportunities outside the classroom, we are working to close the opportunity gap for our rural students and at the same time inspire the next generation of teachers.
Leah Luke, 2010 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, is currently employed as a high school Spanish language teacher in Mauston, Wisconsin. Dual certified in English and Spanish, she has guided K-12 and adult learners in both subjects since 1992.
In addition to teaching, Luke completed a fellowship with the US Department of Education, pioneered and facilitated a Teachers of the Year Advisory Council at Wisconsin DPI, and has served as a teacher leader for numerous projects, committees, and boards at the state and national levels. Her current passion is supporting high schoolers as they consider choosing a career in education. Her 2016 Baltimore Teach to Lead project, Building a High School to Teacher Prep Program Pipeline, was recently awarded a Standing Up for Rural Wisconsin Award.