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Changing the Narrative about Teaching through Stories of Transformation

Teacher Stories (written in cursive)I spent most of my career as a teacher educator and nothing has been more disheartening than the precipitous decline in the number of people across the country wanting to enter the teaching profession. In California, where I worked for the California State University (CSU), applications for credential programs dropped by 50% over a recent five-year period beginning about 2008. While application numbers are beginning to increase, we have a long way to go as the dwindling supply of new teachers has been a key contributor to severe teacher shortages adversely affecting students in most states.

What does this say about a democratic nation that cannot ensure that every student has access to a well-prepared teacher?

A big part of the problem, of course, is the pernicious narrative about the profession itself that causes many excellent would-be candidates to choose other career paths. In 2016, I helped found EduCorps, a systemwide teacher recruitment initiative designed to tell a more accurate and compelling story about the teaching profession. Since its inception, credential program staff at many of CSU’s 23 campuses have asked university and community college professors to nominate students they consider promising candidates for the teaching profession. These nominees have shown up in great numbers at celebration of teaching events where they hear about the rewards and the challenges of teaching from former credential students working in local schools.

Many of the nominees—including ones who had never imagined careers as educators—decide to apply for teacher credential programs.

Before retiring from the CSU last spring, I founded Teacher Stories, a website and podcast that celebrates the profound impact teachers have on our lives and communities. My hope was that this platform would, like EduCorps, help contribute to the positive narrative that my CSU colleagues and teacher educators across the county could tap into to recruit more students into their programs.

Since then, more than 50 teacher story episodes have been produced and have actively promoted them through digital media outlets and to many of the undergraduates who have subscribed to CSU’s EduCorps programs.

The stories of impact and inspiration focus on teachers at all grade levels and on a broad range of themes. In a recent podcast episode, for instance, Don Dumas recalls how his Black high school English teacher, Ms. Suber, introduced him to books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Manchild in the Promised Land, and urged him to use his experience, “for your own elevation and your own self-realization for who you are and who you want to be.”

Now, as I high school teacher himself, Dumas was recently recognized as one of five teachers of the year among 40,000 educators in San Diego County in California. He tries to emulate what he learned from Ms. Suber by making history relevant to all of his students and by believing, unconditionally, in each one of them. “She never gave up on us,” Dumas, said, despite frequent suspensions, expulsions, and run-ins with the law. “She never let us believe we couldn’t achieve more than what our circumstances dictated.” This episode is part of a theme we’ve focused on related to teaching about racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and why teachers of color matter.

In one of several episodes focusing on the challenges (and silver linings) of teaching during the pandemic, Tom Courtney and his student teacher, Rachel Petrivelli, who is earning her credential at San Diego State University, describe the creative ways they’ve connected with students and their families in their homes. The benefits of family connections, especially when all instruction for the past year has been online, are invaluable, Courtney says. As a result, “we get strong support from parents because they, like their students, implicitly know that their teachers care about them.”

I hope you enjoy listening Teacher Stories and that these narratives help attract promising candidates to AACTE credential programs. For more information about CSU’s EduCorps teacher recruitment program, please contact program director, Kelly Estrada, at Sonoma State University.

Ken Futernick, Ph.D., is  professor emeritus, California State University, Sacramento.