When I applied for the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program in 2008, it offered more than just an opportunity to fulfill my passion – helping people through education. It was also a life raft during a time of uncertainty and instability for my family. The Teaching Fellows enabled me to attend college without crippling debt, and introduced me to a new family of teachers that stretched across the state. This family is part of what built such a powerful alumni base for the original program, and made the feelings of betrayal much deeper when the General Assembly cut the program in 2011.
Between 2011 and 2016, I continued to be in the education ecosystem of North Carolina as a Teaching Fellow, and later, a Teach For America corps member in Charlotte. During this time, North Carolina and other states across the country saw shrinking enrollment into education programs. My own alma mater, Appalachian State, once the largest producer of quality teachers in the state, saw numbers spiral down. While this decline was happening, we as a state decided to create a new future for North Carolina; one that will be built around economic opportunity through education. The rebirth of the new North Carolina Teaching Fellows program is a reflection of this commitment and a first step to reviving the reputation of North Carolina as an education leader in the South.
The new North Carolina Teaching Fellows program is taking its first round of applications now, and will start enrolling its first cohort next year.
The original Teaching Fellows program was one of the oldest friends to North Carolina education. But North Carolina has changed as a state since the original program, and this new Teaching Fellows program is different too. This new, more targeted teacher recruitment program will allow the widening of the educator pipeline in North Carolina, allowing candidates from more pathways than the old program did. Passionate scholars who are inspired to teach midway through their education – or even mid-way through their career – can join elite high school prospects in what promises to be a model teaching program. This will allow for a more effective method of developing top teaching talent.
Even amidst these improvements, though, the new program may lack some of the elements that we alumni most loved about the original. For example, we must never compromise on what made the original Teaching Fellows program special: family. Policymakers might get bogged down in the weeds of scholarship amounts, qualifications, and application process; however, we as educators know that the capacity for people to build community is what makes a place special. It is true in the classroom and it remains true for programs tasked with preparing our next leaders in education. Teaching, without the sincere fellowship of other teachers, is hollow. This new program has to be more than just a program to increase teachers, it must include the opportunity to become part of a family of outstanding teachers across the state.
The new program also has the opportunity to improve the diversity of the teaching corps across North Carolina. Over the past 20 years, North Carolina has seen dynamic growth and diversification as a state. The Triangle is continuously touted as one of the best cities for employment, families, and overall quality of life. Charlotte is developing and becoming the premier world city in the New South. With this growth comes added ethnic and national diversity. No longer is North Carolina defined by the old Black and White color lines. Instead, people of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Southwest Asian heritage are migrating and adding their customs and stories to help redefine what it means to be a Southerner. The new Teaching Fellows program can help to ensure that our future teacher workforce mirrors this diversity, and that newly-prepared teachers are accustomed to the changing diversity of the students they will teach.
The original Fellows alumni, who experienced the elimination of the original program, can be the ones helping shape and mold this new program into what is best for North Carolina. Both the original Teaching Fellows program and Teach for America have shown that with intentional recruitment and strategic preparation, we can attract our best and brightest to serve in high-need schools across the state. North Carolina’s education community has the opportunity now to help ensure that our new Teaching Fellows program helps to revitalize the morale of the profession in the state, just as it attempts to revitalize the name Teaching Fellows.