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Field Trip: Grow Your Own Teachers


When leaders at Verona Area School District near Madison, Wisconsin, wanted a teacher workforce that reflected the diversity of its student body, the answer was right in front of them: a grow your own teachers program.

Jason Olson, Director of Human Resources, shares why they’re looking to their own students and non-certified staff to help fill their teacher hiring pipeline. It’s more than just a way to combat the teacher shortage (though it is that!) — it’s a way to make a positive impact on students of color.

  • How they do it (hint: they found a way to cover college tuition for those in the program)
  • Why it’s worth the cost
  • The results they’re seeing — after just one year

Field Guide: Recruiting Millennial Teachers

Men and women in their 20’s and 30’s are making up an ever-increasing portion of the workforce. Are you fully prepared to attract them to your school or district? In this field guide, you’ll learn how to effectively market your job openings to prospective teachers, and strategies for enriching your applicant pool through online recruiting. Download it today!

Full Transcript  

If you’re having a hard time finding teachers to work in your school or district, you aren’t alone.

JASON OLSON: When we start talking about some of our harder to fill positions, math or science or special education, we might be lucky to get only four or five applicants for a position. And that’s across the board. Then when we start talking about, “Well, what about applicants who diversify our workforce for race or ethnicity, gender, first-time college attendees?” things like that, it makes those pools even smaller.

It’s a problem that’s prevalent in many, many places all over the country. Today, we’re speaking with one school district that’s looking inward to find aspiring teachers.

JASON OLSON: We’ve been working with our current high school teaching staff to identify potential students with some of the characteristics that we’d like to see in a quality teacher.

Specifically, they’re trying to make sure their teachers match the diversity of their student body. And you know what? It’s working.

JASON OLSON: One of the things we found is that, even the first year when we kicked this program off, our diversity hiring went through the roof in terms of results, and we hadn’t yet graduated anyone through either of our programs. And I really attribute that to that word of mouth out in the community, that, “Wow, something’s different here this year, and I don’t know what it is, but I like it.”

From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

Today we’re speaking with Jason Olsen, Director of Human Resources at Verona Area School District. Jason, it’s good to talk to you.

JASON OLSON: Hey, it’s good to talk to you.

Verona Area School District is just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. They have about 5,600 students… 30% are students of color, and 20% speak Spanish as their first language. I asked Jason to talk about their reasons for wanting a teacher workforce that reflects the makeup of their student body.

JASON OLSON: Well, I think a couple reasons. One is the research tends to point towards better outcomes for children of color when there are more role models that look like them, sound like them, talk like them in the classroom. And it’s really, also, something that we hear from students themselves when we do perception surveys and focus groups and things like that, our students of color wish they had more teachers who look like them.

Even though students are coming from a variety of different backgrounds and socioeconomic circles, Jason said that it’s easy to overlook some of the issues that minority students face.

JASON OLSON: Just from a base level, there are just so many things that majority students and majority adult staff members can oftentimes take for granted that when we talk to our students of color, they point some of those things out. You know, I mean obviously the language barrier is the first and foremost one for a good chunk of our students. And we’ve heard stories of our students who are incredibly bright and knowledgeable being put into the remedial classes because they know English as well as they should. And so that’s just an example of where some of the systems that we’ve built in the past have been a letting some of our students down and I guess we kind of got sick of just admiring the problem, if you will, and looking at the data each year, whatever the measure is, and saying, “Oh yeah, there’s a gap, there’s a problem.” And we just committed to trying to do something different to move the needle and to make a positive impact on those students.

Would you say that historically your workforce has or has not matched your student population then?

JASON OLSON: Yeah, I mean, it really hasn’t matched our population. It may have matched our population 30 years ago. We’re about five miles out of the city limits, the former city limits of Madison, Wisconsin. So back in the day we were a farming community, and then it slowly became a more suburban and affluent community. And then, also, part of our district is hooked into some of the neighborhoods that are probably some of the lowest socioeconomic neighborhoods in our county. And so as different demographics have risen and fallen in our school district, we’ve seen some of those different changes.

I have a statistic here in front of me that I believe you gave me saying that while your student body might be 30+ percent students of color, perhaps only around four percent of your teachers would fit the same description. Does that sound right?

JASON OLSON: Yes, and that was even just up to a few years ago. Absolutely.

Well, let’s talk about the realities that school districts are facing when it comes to finding teachers. As we talk about recruiting teachers and building up the workforce at Verona, what other factors are making it challenging for you?

JASON OLSON: I think there’s a couple at play here, one is just on a nationwide level. Some demographic numbers are biting a lot of employers in a challenging way as more and more baby boomers exit the workforce, the generations that are succeeding them just don’t have the numbers, in sheer numbers, that that generation had. Certainly in a good, some would say exceptional economy, people have their pick of job opportunities and unfortunately sometimes that means that the teaching drops down on the list. And then one thing that’s a bit more local to Wisconsin has been some changes at the state level in terms of laws and collective bargaining rights and privileges and things like that, that also may have contributed to declines in teacher preparation programs throughout the state.

Are you saying that there is not enough of a pipeline to fill the positions that you’re going to need to fill? Is that right?

JASON OLSON: Yeah, absolutely. Where we once had two or three hundred applicants for every elementary teacher opening, now it’s more like 50 or 60. And that’s still a good number, but just from a comparative basis, that number is significantly less. And then when we start talking about some of our harder to fill positions, math or science or special education, we might be lucky to get only four or five applicants for a position. And that’s across the board. Then when we start talking about, “Well, what about applicants who diversify our workforce for race or ethnicity, gender, first-time college attendees?” things like that, it makes those pools even smaller.

So you have begun something pretty interesting here. I know you have begun a grow your own teachers program. Whose idea was that?

JASON OLSON: Well, it was something that we came together on as an administrative team. I had done some research on the topic and it seemed like there was some interest in this across the United States, and the more I researched about it, the fact of the matter is that a vast majority of teachers who are employed by a school public school system, went to their own high school within an hour’s drive of where they work now. So, focusing in on that local, immediate, personal kind of recruitment base just really made a lot of sense for us.

Tell me about what the program looks like when we say “grow your own,” what does that mean? What are you doing in order to build up a pipeline of people who may want to teach at Verona Area School District?

JASON OLSON: We really have it set up as a two track, a two prong approach. The first prong that we looked at is trying to identify support staff who do not yet have a teaching certification but might otherwise be qualified for the role. A lot of times we would find support staff who maybe already have a four year degree, either in education and didn’t get certified or even in another discipline, but they found out after working with kids for a while that they really have a heart for it. And so that was what we considered the low hanging fruit, where we were able to put out a recruitment effort to our internal staff, go through a selection process, and then with that group of support staff, again, primarily who already had a bachelor’s degree, it was just a matter of getting them in an alternative teacher certification program, nights and weekends and things like that in 18 months, and we had a good group of teachers ready to go.

The other prong of our approach was a little bit more long-term, but probably one that we hope will have deeper and longer lasting traction, and that’s with our own students. So we’ve been working with our current high school teaching staff to identify potential students with some of the characteristics that we’d like to see in a quality teacher, and then actively soliciting them as part of a recruitment process in addition to just doing a blanket mass mailing to all of our juniors and seniors to identify this opportunity.

As we think about these high school students that you’re looking at and saying, “You may be a great fit for teaching in this school district,” what are the kinds of things that you offer to them, who are interested in the program? And then what do you get in return?

JASON OLSON: Yeah, you bet. I think that really goes to the heart of the opportunity and the value proposition. You know, what we offer, we’ve been fortunate enough to partner with a local college that, you know, has a pretty pricey yearly tuition as a private institution, but they have been seeking to diversify their student body. And through a partnership, they reduced their tuition by about a third, and their financial aid would cover about a third of the student’s tuition and grants and internal scholarships, and then we pick up the other third, so we could talk to students about an opportunity for them to have a fully paid a bachelor’s degree from a tuition standpoint at a pretty quality institution and walk away with a teacher certification. And then in exchange for that, we ask that they come back and teach with us for four years afterwards, kind of a year for year kind of exchange. And then we’d forgive the money that we paid towards their tuition.

How many people do you have in the program? I’m listening to you describe this and I’m thinking that it sounds fairly costly.

JASON OLSON: Well, you know, it’s not cheap, but there’s also a cost to turnover. There’s also a cost to students who, you know, we’re not doing as well as we can. So we’ve got typically about two students enrolled in the program for each year, so a new cohort kind of each year. Each year’s cost is around $10,000 per student, so you know, for $20,000 per year and then over time that builds up to where we’ve got maybe $80-100,000 of ongoing exposure. We’ve got anywhere from two to eight students in the pipeline.

Tell me about what the selection process looks like as you look at your student body in and try to identify people who might be a good fit. Do you have a higher number of students competing for these slots? How do you identify the ones that you think, “Hey, we really want to invest in you through this program?”

JASON OLSON: The interest in the program has grown slowly but surely, and that word of mouth and culture, I can’t emphasize that enough as really your leading edge in terms of your recruitment efforts. We’ve been able to interview over the past several years basically all students who have applied for the program. So we haven’t had super significant turnout, maybe 10 or 15 students every year, and we’re graduating classes of around 400 or so each year or something like that, maybe 450. So again, we’re not talking about a super huge numbers, but a lot of the process that we do in terms of assessing potential students for the program looks a lot like our interview process for teachers. You know, we really work hard to make sure that we have a balanced interview team in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, people who are excited and passionate about the work as well.

And then, we actually have our students answer the same 10 or 15 screener questions that we use for our teacher candidates. And what’s nice about that is that those questions aren’t as focused on lesson planning and grade books and curriculum, you know, set up and things like that. We figure we can teach people about that. What we can’t teach them about is some of the things that are born and early formed in terms of conflict resolution, conflict de-escalation race relations, advocacy for students, standing up to bullying, things like that, that we find that anyone can have some of those experiences growing up if they’ve had that particular alignment of their interests and beliefs all along.

What are the key attributes of both students and support staff that you look for as you try to identify who to bring into this program?

JASON OLSON: Yeah, absolutely. And again, we really try and be intentional about what we’re looking for to allow people to self-select for the program, because the last thing we want, either for this program or for other vacancies that we have in our school district, is to not have a good fit. And so some of the things that we talk pretty openly about that we’re looking for are people who are flexible. They’re adaptable, they’re committed, they’ve got that grit about them. They can operate in turbulent and ambiguous situations. They keep going when the going gets tough, in other words, they’ve got a positive attitude. They’re problem solvers. They’ve got a growth mindset. They see the positives in every child and they really believe that they are the biggest determinant in that child’s success. Instead of, “Well, if the parents were this,” or “If the kids were this,” or whatever.

It’s like, no, what can I do as an educator to help this child learn and grow? They focus a lot on equity. They understand that one person’s lens through life may not be another person’s. And we really try and emphasize that in both our recruiting and hiring, but also in our practice. And then we really want people who are learner centered, really believe in building relationships versus compliance and want to help kids in a very personalized way to learn and grow.

So after you did the research, before you got this program up and running — how did you get it up and running? What steps did you have to take? Whether it was with board policy, with budget, with getting people on board, how did you just get this ball rolling?

JASON OLSON: Yeah. Great, great question. You know, a lot of it, anytime you’ve got a change or an initiative, things that you’re trying to put in place in an organization, it starts at the top. And we were very fortunate all along to have the support both of our superintendent — my superintendent, my boss — and then also, the school board, the board of education. And by that support, I mean things like modifying some of our policies to provide for this program, but also even beyond that to create some more flexibility in our recruitment and hiring practices that give us the authority that if we see a really exceptional candidate and we want to try and hire that person, we don’t have to jump through the hoops of doing a posting, posting a position, going through this big screening and interview process. If they’ve got some good credentials and is someone we want to bring on board, we have more authority now to make those things happen than we did in the past.

The other big change and startup thing was just setting the money aside for this, taking money out of our operating budget. Like I said, about $100,000 a year to say that, “We’re going to make this money available for our Grow Our Own program.” And a lot of times people say, “Well, where would we find the money? I mean, that’s a great idea, but where would we find the money?” And it’s like, well, we’ve got to remember that budgeting is all about priorities. And so we really looked at this as a priority, and that’s why we basically found money and either didn’t fund other things or took money away from other things to make this happen.

On a scale of one to 10, how difficult was it to sell that priority?

JASON OLSON: It was not that difficult, you know. Again, we’re really fortunate to live in an area that really understands the value of diversity and equity and supports that. So, four. Most of the challenges just were my own in terms of finding time on the calendar and trying to figure out a path that I hadn’t been down before.

So once you have it up and running, of course, now you have to get the word out. How did you do that? How did you make this known to the people that you wanted to get it in front of?

JASON OLSON: Again, we really focused in on that local, immediate, personal connection. Obviously, we know our employees, we know their home address. We can send a letter to their house; we know our students, we can send them a letter to their house. But more importantly, we really tried to look at multiple modes of communication and connection by linking up with key communicators in our Latino community, in our African American community, in our Hmong community and trying to put ourselves in a meetings and events and situations where we’re talking to individuals in our community, either as employees or students or parents who have that affinity for some of those things that we’re looking for. And we start telling our story. One of the things we found is that, even the first year when we kicked this program off, our diversity hiring went through the roof in terms of results, and we hadn’t yet graduated anyone through either of our programs. And I really attribute that to that word of mouth out in the community, that, “Wow, something’s different here this year, and I don’t know what it is, but I like it.” And so, that to me was like that curb cut effect where if you do something good for one particular group of people, what do you know, it ends up being a good thing for everybody.

You’re saying that people heard you were doing a grow your own teacher program in order to intentionally raise the level of diversity in your teacher workforce, and as a result, you were able to hire more diverse teachers that didn’t come through that program, is that what you’re saying?

JASON OLSON: Yes, absolutely. One hundred and 10 percent. You know, I think, like I said, when we kicked this program off the first couple of years, we darn near doubled the diversity of our workforce, our teacher workforce, and our program hadn’t even been kicking out graduates yet, but it was all because of that word of mouth and that communication that, “Wow, something is different here.”

Did you hear anyone say anything to you in particular about that? What kinds of things did people say when you spoke with them about it?

JASON OLSON: What I heard was that people appreciated the honesty of saying that what we’ve been doing in the past, for our students of color in particular, hasn’t been working very well, and owning up to that. And being humble enough to put that out there, I think, resonated with a lot of people. And also acknowledging the fact that there is an important connection between students of color and teachers of color and making that a priority, I think, elevated that with a lot of our applicants — kind of elevated their thought of us as a district, and also as an employer.

Let’s say I’m in high school and I’m interested in this program, what does the process entail? If I were in one of your classrooms and I was saying, “You know, I’d really like to be involved in this grow your own teacher program. I might like to come back here to Verona to teach at some point.” What would it look like from my perspective?

JASON OLSON: We tried to put in as few barriers in the process as possible. And we tried to keep it really simple. Things like, “Hey, send us your name and address and what year in school you are, and what’s your GPA nowadays, and what appeals to you about the program?” You know what I mean, just a few short questions, question and answer kind of things. A few quick questions about, “What are some things you’ve done in the past to reduce race relations?” So just a couple or three questions, and send that to our attention. And we would convene a panel of people to interview people who applied.

And right now you have, you said, roughly eight to 10 people working through the program. Is that right?

JASON OLSON: Yeah, well that’s the capacity of our program at any one time. As you know, not everyone who starts off in college ends up graduating from college. So we learned a few things along the way and actually restructured some of the financial pieces of it, so that there was more onus on the college to help students have a successful freshman year. So right now, to answer your question, I think we’ve got five students in the program who are former high school graduates of our system, and the first one will be graduating in December of next year in special education.

And that person will then take a role at your school district in a special education role?

JASON OLSON: Correct. Yup.

That’s great. So let’s talk a little bit about what you’ve learned as you’ve started this all. As you look back on the past several years since you first began, what have you learned? What are the things that you would change or do the same?

JASON OLSON: Some of the things that we’ve learned along the way are the importance of really understanding what’s required for different colleges from an admission standpoint, and trying to involve the colleges that we’ve partnered with sooner rather than later. One of the things that our primary college learned along the way is they’ve restructured their student advising program so that they have one advisor that our grow your own students work with from the time they’re juniors or seniors in high school all the way on through until when they graduate with their education degree. We’ve learned a lot about some of the different barriers that come along the way. As I mentioned before, it was fairly easy to get this program up and going. What has not been so easy is working through a lot of different crosscurrents and perceptions along the way, from current staff, from some in the community, in terms of questions, and we talked about a term in terms of opportunity hoarding that, “Well, gosh, if some students get this opportunity, how will that affect my child, you know?” We know that that’s an issue in some, it’s just human nature to think about one’s own child. So those are things that we’ve learned along the way.

It’s a lot of work, too, that’s the other side of the coin. We put this new program in place without any additional staff and it takes a lot of time. A lot of this turns into kind of a one off, one by one situation because each kid’s story is so much different. Each staff member’s story is different in terms of their background and where they’re trying to go career wise.

Would you do it again?

JASON OLSON: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it goes back to the old saying, if you do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get what you always got, and that’s exactly where we were. I feel like we’ve been taking some positive steps again where we don’t have all the answers, but we’re working down that equity path. And it was really rewarding for me just on a personal level. My own children attend our school district here, and it was neat when our first cohort of grow your own staff members entered the workforce. That first year, one of them was my daughter’s sixth grade teacher. And so that to me was, again, a manifestation of that local, immediate and personal connection that we’re all about.

Well, we have been speaking with Jason Olson, Director of Human Resources at Verona Area School District outside of Madison, Wisconsin, and he’s been talking to us about a grow your own teacher program that they’re doing. Jason, thank you for sharing your work here with us today.

JASON OLSON: Oh, thank you.

Does your school system have trouble filling all of its vacancies for teaching positions? If so, take a moment and check out our field guide to recruiting millennial teachers. You’ll read about key characteristics of this generation, how to effectively market your school district to prospective teachers, and strategies for enriching your applicant pool through online recruiting. It’s on our website — visit and click on the Resource Center.

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Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, home of Frontline Recruiting & Hiring — a software solution designed to help you proactively recruit more applicants, and quickly identify the best candidates and get them up to speed.

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.