Teacher” is one job you won’t find on any doomsday list of current occupations that won’t exist in 10 years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics sees as many as 1.9 million openings for teachers by 2024. Given recent reports of teacher shortages, everyone who cares about student achievement is right to be concerned.
Some of the challenges facing the profession are obvious: salaries that make it hard to afford housing; high attrition rates and dwindling enrollment in degree-granting programs; a lack of respect, resources and, sometimes, hope in urban school systems; political trends and choice initiatives that spell widespread disruption and a need for systemic change in education.
We know that classrooms are microcosms of the economic disparity and social problems that vex our community, state and nation, and that the factors affecting student achievement are complex. They include family and environmental influences, and the unique experience of the child. But among school-related factors weighing on a student’s ability to succeed, a trove of research suggests that teachers matter most.
So while we seek longer-term solutions to strengthening the profession — better compensation, rational evaluation methods, stronger career pathways and retention strategies — we must not lose sight of the urgent need to develop the next generation of inspired and culturally diverse teachers.
At Breakthrough Miami, we have 110 reasons to be optimistic about the educational leadership of the future. We call them Teaching Fellows, and they are the source of the special vibe at our Summer Institute of academic enrichment (and fun) for almost 1,000 motivated public school students.
This paid internship is nationally recognized for the quality of the experience and those who participate in it. Fellows come from colleges around the country — Princeton, Baylor, and Cornell, among others, and from the University of Miami and other local institutions. Some are seniors at public high schools, from Miami Central to Coral Reef, and at the independent schools that donate facilities to Breakthrough: Miami Country Day, Ransom Everglades, Carrollton, Gulliver and Palmer Trinity. As a group they are highly diverse — ethnically, racially, socio-economically and in their intended or current college majors — mirroring the students in the program.
Fellows attend an intensive boot camp, learning to mentor, teach basic principles associated with Common Core Standards, and cultivate a love of learning. They are trained, coached, and supervised by a group of dedicated, credentialed educators from local schools who use this summer gig to experiment and develop their own professional skills.
We are now in our 26th year and, summer after summer, 75 percent of Fellows say they are either likely or definitely intending to pursue careers in education. Here are a few reasons why:
Edgar Otero, a Posse Scholar, a sophomore at Hamilton College, says his Fellow experience “inspired me to be more confident. I came from the same place as many of our students. These kids need to see there’s more out there, that they can reach their potential and there are people who believe in them.”
Jamie Sanchez just graduated from Young Women’s Prep and is headed to FIU Honors, majoring in engineering and minoring in education. She calls the fellowship “a growing experience. It’s a place for testing out who you want to be, learning patience and altruism.”
Kathia Parris attends SUNY-Cortland and finds the realistic classroom setting at Breakthrough adds an important dimension to studies in urban education. One of her students slept through a summer class after a night spent looking after two siblings, no parents at home. “It was eye-opening. It showed me how I needed to understand how a student’s background affects the classroom. So many have hard lives at such a young age.”
Starr Walden, a graduate of Miami Northwestern, is a rising senior at Duke. “People are constantly telling students like us we can’t do great things. I’m showing them: I had the same struggles. I know you can push yourself and do better.”
Kalani Duran’s summer will be bookended by MAST Academy and Harvey Mudd College: “I grew so much as a Breakthrough Scholar, I feel like it’s a responsibility to give my students what Breakthrough gave to me.” He hopes to teach applied math at a university level.
Teaching Fellows are leaders. They form life-long bonds with the students they mentor, inspiring college choices, providing long-distance advice on term papers, attending high-school graduations and more. So do great teachers.
The most important lesson Teaching Fellows teach us? You can’t be it if you can’t see it.
Let’s ensure we’re keeping the teacher pipeline filled with our best and brightest.
Elissa Vanaver has been an officer of Breakthrough Miami for 10 years.