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What If We Paid Educators for Their Training Instead of Charging Them?

The National Center for Grow Your Own helps states ensure cost won’t be a barrier for aspiring teachers and school leaders
May 29, 2024 6 Min Read

Great educators can come from anywhere. And when they work in the communities where they’re from, they can have an even bigger impact on students.

Research shows that students can have better outcomes with teachers who share the same and/or similar racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic identifiers as they do. Teachers from the same communities as their students are more likely to share the same identifiers and also bring knowledge of local context and culture to the classroom.

But some aspiring teachers and school leaders from those communities run into barriers when it comes to paying for preparation programs to get licensed or credentialed. Additionally they may lose income if they are participating in a program instead of working full time.


The long-term vision is that we will not stop until every child has not only the teacher they need, but deserve.

But what if aspiring teachers could earn their credentials while teaching in their local school district at no cost?

That’s the concept behind the “grow your own” programs that the National Center for Grow Your Own helps cultivate. These programs reduce barriers to entering the teaching field by providing free pathways to paid internships and apprenticeships while aspiring educators work toward licensure.

“The long-term vision is that we will not stop until every child has not only the teacher they need, but deserve,” says David Donaldson, founder and managing partner of the National Center for Grow Your Own (NCGYO).

The organization works with state agencies and school districts to develop programs that prepare aspiring educations in partnership with local education programs. States and districts often use the programs as a strategy to address teacher shortages and diversify the teacher workforce.

Before starting NCGYO, Donaldson, who was the chief of human capital of the Tennessee Department of Education, established a successful statewide grow your own program. From there, he led the development of the first-ever registered apprenticeship for K-12 teachers in the nation.

Once he knew the program could work in Tennessee, Donaldson sought to expand to other states by founding a national center. NCGYO now has 40 states in its National Registered Apprenticeship in Teaching Network—and has plans to engage the remaining states.

“I think we are most proud of proving the idea of becoming a teacher for free while being paid to do so is possible in so many different states,” says Donaldson. “Yet our work is not one size fits all. It always ensures it reflects the respective state’s values and priorities.”

Donaldson and his team knew that if one of their goals was to positively affect teacher retention, their efforts needed to focus on other roles too. After all, research shows that effective principals are more likely to retain high-quality teachers.

Pathways to Leadership

Donaldson’s past work in Tennessee included the establishment of an Aspiring Assistant Principals Network and a Diverse Leaders Network, which have engaged more than 100 districts in helping over 400 participants earn their master’s degree in school leadership for free. These initiatives were the basis for NCGYO’s work with North Dakota’s Department of Public Instruction to help develop the first ever registered principal apprenticeship program.

North Dakota had already established a teacher apprenticeship program in 2022 to address its teacher shortage. Under the leadership of State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler and Assistant State Superintendent Laurie Matzke, North Dakota won a SAEF grant from the U.S. Department of Labor for its registered teacher apprenticeship program. While the state did not have a principal shortage, the department wanted to get ahead of predictions of a mass exodus of school leaders following the pandemic. It launched its registered principal apprenticeship program in July 2023. The program began with 11 apprentices and is already looking forward to many more cohorts to come.

When asked for advice for other states who might be thinking about developing a similar apprenticeship programs, Matzke offered three pointers:

  • Engage partners. “Partners have been so important to this work,” Matzke says. The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction’s application for the principal apprenticeship program was co-sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers along with NCGYO. They also received support from the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders and North Dakota United.
  • Tap into Labor department funding. Matzke acknowledged that American Rescue Plan funding is coming to an end and federal funding for education may be limited in the near future. The $4 million SAEF grant the department received for the teacher apprenticeship program tapped into the wide pool of federal workforce funding available and she urges other states to look into U.S. Labor Department opportunities for this work.
  • Get buy-in from the state legislature. Importantly, the department had developed champions for this work in their teachers and principals who helped advocate for the grow your own program. This helped the department secure $3 million in state funding for a state GYO program.

There are too many folks who thought their dream of earning a degree and becoming a teacher was out of reach due to various life circumstances that have occurred along the way.

Matzke and Donaldson are both eager to help states interested in apprenticeship programs learn from states who have done it successfully and avoid reinventing the wheel. North Dakota’s application and other informational materials about registering a leadership apprenticeship program are available on the center’s website.

Looking ahead, Donaldson says the center plans to work with many of their state partners to expand their programs to include high school youth apprenticeship pathways and more registered principal apprenticeships.

“There are too many folks who thought their dream of earning a degree and becoming a teacher was out of reach due to various life circumstances that have occurred along the way,” says Donaldson. “They are now getting their shot.”

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