A teacher works with three students all seated at a table

UVA’s "Grow Your Own" Teacher Programs Provide Valuable Pathways into the Classroom

Programs that allow teaching assistants and other paraprofessionals to earn a degree and licensure while continuing to work are helping address the teacher shortage and diversify the teaching workforce.

Laura Hoxworth

The summer after college, while hunting for something permanent, Alex Weinard landed a temporary job as an after-school program leader. He had never considered working with children before, so he was surprised to find out how much he enjoyed it. “I realized it was just really rewarding work,” he said.  

For several years, he worked full-time at Alexandria City Public Schools as a kindergarten teaching assistant, helping the lead teacher with instruction and classroom management. But without formal teacher training or a license, Weinard’s options for career growth were limited.

Then his principal recommended he apply to the division’s Grow-a-Teacher program.  

A partnership with the UVA School of Education and Human Development, ACPS’s Grow-a-Teacher program allows teaching assistants and other paraprofessionals to earn both a teaching license and a master’s degree at the same time – while continuing to work. They remain employed while they take online courses and move into a teaching position while they’re in the program.

“It would not have been at all realistic or feasible for me to pursue an educational degree on my own on a paraprofessional salary,” Weinard said. “So everything about it was just extremely convenient and put me on a track to succeed.”

Since the ACPS program began six years ago, 19 people have completed it, with 23 more currently enrolled. At first, it started with special education. It now includes an option for English as a second language education as well.

Similar “grow your own” teaching programs are expanding in Virginia and throughout the country. For people like Weinard, and for school divisions looking to grow and diversify their teaching staff, it’s an increasingly attractive option.

Addressing the teacher shortage

Data show continuing declines in the number of teachers in Virginia’s K-12 system. The severity of the problem varies across the state, but school divisions reported more than 4,000 vacant teaching positions at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year.

One clear benefit of these programs is that they remove some of the most frequently cited barriers of earning a license – including the cost, the need to take time off from work, and the logistical challenges of transitioning from a provisional license to a full license.

Most importantly, the program is affordable. By offering a competitive tuition rate – further reduced for preK-12 educators in Virginia, plus an additional discount made possible through partnership with the school division – UVA enrolls students who might not otherwise be able to afford the program.

Sarah Lynn, the program manager for organizational development and learning for Albemarle County Public Schools, partnered with UVA last summer to design and launch a “grow your own” program for Albemarle County Public Schools after examining data around teacher retention and speaking with teachers in her division. It currently has 15 enrolled students working toward their degree and licensure in special education, with three more set to begin this summer.

Lynn said the asynchronous online format is key to the program’s accessibility. "These are working adults, and having the flexibility to get their work done and learn in a way that best suits them is great,” she said.

So far, the division has recruited paraprofessionals, office associates, instructional aides, and student success coaches, among others. Lynn, who previously worked as a teacher in public schools for more than a decade, described them as people who are embedded and invested in the community – and who enter the program having built valuable teaching skills already. “Folks who've been in the building, even though they have less formal education, they have more of the hands-on skills,” she said.

The programs also address another ongoing issue in the teacher workforce: diversity. Paraprofessionals tend to be a more diverse group than teaching staff, and removing barriers helps them access higher education. According to UVA program leaders, the cohorts are typically more diverse – in age, race, and ethnicity – compared to the traditional online program.  

“We are trying to get our teachers to more accurately reflect what our students look like,” Lynn said. “From a diversity, equity and inclusion standpoint, being able to work to bring our teaching assistants into those teacher roles is huge.”

In the meantime, it lifts the burden on teachers, helping prevent burnout by providing valuable training for their support staff.

“Finding ways to get these classified staff members into teaching roles is just a dream come true for a lot of people in a lot of ways,” Lynn said.  

Building partnerships and community

Weinard said the program was his first time taking online courses. He thought it might feel detached or distant. Instead, he said he found a supportive community. “It was much more tight knit than I was expecting,” he said. “Everything felt very approachable.”

Courtney Sullivan, an academic program officer at UVA who coordinates and advises all online licensure opportunities, said an intentional focus on student support – including high-touch, quality advising – sets UVA programs apart from others. Students benefit from individualized plans of study, frequent check-ins, and knowledgeable staff communicating with their division and helping navigate the licensure process, which can be complex, particularly for special education.  

Each student is also part of a dedicated cohort, which helps build community among peers. Lynn recalled two students she knows who met through the program, then made decisions on where to take their provisional license jobs so that they could work in the same school. “There is something special about having a cohort,” she said.

Several other layers of support are built into the program as well. Each student is assigned an instructional coach, a special education-endorsed mentor in their building, and a special education coordinator at the division level. Albemarle recently added 18 after-school open work sessions for students to give participants extra support with end-of-year workloads. UVA also received an Inclusive Excellence grant from the UVA Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to hire coaches that provide students in the program with extra support from someone who is independent from both their employer and their graduate program, so they can be more vulnerable.

Sullivan said the focus on relationships begins with a close partnership between UVA and its division partners. “What we’re trying to do is build partnerships that are sustainable and scalable," she said. “We believe in getting quality teachers into classrooms in whatever way is the best fit for them – whether that’s a traditional program, online, or alternate routes to licensure like this program.”

For Lynn, the partnership with UVA has been invaluable. “Every single time I think they have reached a max, they do something else wonderful and amazing at UVA,” she said. “I don’t even know how to say how much I appreciate them.”  

She hopes to expand the program in the future, anticipating that a clear path to a teaching role would help recruit more high-quality teaching assistants, building a stronger pipeline of special educators.

Weinard, who enrolled in the summer of 2020, graduated in spring of 2022. He is now a fourth-grade English language teacher in the same school, where he was able to transition into a teaching role already knowing the school, administration, and his fellow teachers. Many of the kindergarten students he had taught as a teaching assistant became his fourth-grade students. “It was about as easy of a transition as I could have had,” he said.  

Weinard already had a passion for education and valuable classroom experience. He said his coursework gave him the critical background knowledge of understanding how students learn – what is going on developmentally in a kid’s brain – to help plan lessons that will connect with students.  

“I know I would not be a teacher right now without [the Grow-a-Teacher program],” he said. “I definitely know I would not be as high quality of a teacher as I currently am. I wouldn’t have had that foundation to be successful and to be flexible if it weren’t for the education I received.”

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Laura Hoxworth