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Promising Practices: Educators Matter - Littleton's Teacher Cadet Program
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Littleton Public Schools
Seventeen-year-old Abby Neuwirth has heard the warnings from her friends, cautioning her from following her dream to become an elementary school teacher.
They tell her the career won’t pay well, that it will be boring and she won’t be challenged. But after a semester in Littleton Public School’s Teacher Cadet program, Abby knows she is on the right track.
The year-long career technical education course gives high school seniors and juniors a preview of what being a teacher could be like. Half of the course includes in-class experience, in which the students partner with a teacher.
“Now I know I want to teach,” said Abby, who is a senior at Heritage High School in Littleton. “It’s a job about passion and love. If I have that passion, anything can work. If I love this career so much, why would I skip out on it? I plan to go to the University of Northern Colorado to major in elementary education and hopefully from there become a teacher and continue the passion.”
The state would like to see more young people like Abby take another look at teaching.
Colorado, like the rest of the country, is experiencing a teacher shortage. Every year, between 3,000 and 5,000 educator openings pop up throughout Colorado. Most of those positions are filled with long-term subs or by moving folks around. But many positions go unfilled.
The supply of teacher candidates simply isn’t keeping up with the demand. Fewer college students are becoming teachers, more teachers are nearing retirement and many new teachers are exiting the profession within their first five years.
The effects of the teacher shortage are being felt most ominously in rural communities that are struggling to find teachers to fill the ever-declining ranks. It is also happening in hard-to-teach subject areas like math, science and special education.
State officials are looking at ways to try to resolve the teaching shortage. Legislation has created grants to incentivize cooperation between school districts and teacher prep programs, stipends for teachers in rural districts and money for districts to develop their own innovative ways to retain teachers.
Littleton’s Teacher Cadet program has been in place for about 15 years. An estimated 75 percent of the students who have been enrolled in the program have gone on to become teachers or take educator preparation classes in college.
In Littleton, the class is offered out of Littleton’s Ames Facility and is part of the Arapahoe/Douglas Career and Technical School. It gives students a behind-the-desk view of teaching, instructing students on how to draw up lesson plans, manage classrooms and understand the issues facing educators. In the second half of the semester, students get to work beside a teacher in the classrooms for hands-on field experience.
“Many of our students have come back to teach at Littleton Public Schools,” said Mimi Leonard, CTE coordinator who oversees the Teacher Cadet Program. “This is an awesome way for districts to grow their own teachers and be able to help us as current educators to improve the stigma and perception of teachers.”
Students see that it is fun, rewarding and enriching, she said.
“This combats the negative stereotypes and stigmas about teaching,” Leonard said. “It gives these students a totally different perspective. They are seeing the opportunities that abound. They are excited and passionate and very enthusiastic. Attendance is never an issue. The students love to be here.”
In the second half of the year, students go into a classroom for field experience.
“They essentially become part of the class,” she said. “The students have a wonderful time. The teachers love them. They get showered with gifts at the end of the year. The students become very attached to our students. That is when the rubber meets the road.”
Erika Litson, one of Abby’s friends in the program, is 18 and a senior at Arapahoe High School. She plans to become a high school chemistry teacher.
“I’m always hearing that being a teacher is way too hard, and it is a remedial job,” she said. “I have heard that I am just not going to have any money. But what you don’t hear is how you are going to change people’s lives. If you can teach kids to love learning, no matter what, that is a gift you can’t pay for.”
Laura Alsdorf teaches the Teacher Cadet program and said her students find teaching is a challenging, exciting field. The program also gives them skills they can use in college, such as time management, public speaking and how to do college-level work. Currently, 11 students from Littleton and Sheridan are enrolled in her class that meets every morning Monday through Friday for two hours.
“They are getting career and college ready from this program, which actually does a great job of preparing any student for college,” she said. “Students report back to me that they were surprised by how much this course prepared them. They learn time management, college level work and over the course of a year they get skills that they haven’t received from other high school classes.”
The Teacher Cadet program is in 22 school districts across the state and is a viable option for any district, she said. Course curricula comes from South Carolina’s Teacher Cadet program that was started in the mid-1980s and is offered as a CTE course. Alsdorf said an effort is underway to develop a Colorado-based curriculum.
“Our goal is to get it into every school district in the state,” she said.
For 17-year-old Abby, who has wanted to be a teacher since she was a young child, the course is a perfect for her career choice.
“I love teaching because it helps people and inspires people,” she said. “I want to be someone who helps a child learn to love school. There is nothing to hate about learning. I care so much about it.”