“I’ve watched my mom sit with a student who is having trouble figuring out how to work a problem,” Grace said. “She works with them, helping them, until they get it. That’s how I see it with little kids. I want to help them learn.”
Grace has taken an important first step in her pursuit of education as a career choice, even though she is just a freshman in high school. She is among the first students at Henry County High School enrolled in The Learning Community.
The Learning Community is a new education career pathway offered at HCHS that provides students an additional pathway choice and supports the recruitment of a diverse and effective educator workforce in Kentucky.
The pathway is designed to provide a balance of scholarly and clinical experiences and emphasize reflective practice, create authentic experiences that engage students in effective educator practices, develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions of effective educators and engage rising educators as participants in the statewide community of educators, particularly through the group Educators Rising, formerly known as Future Teachers of America and Future Educators of America.
In its first year, The Learning Community has 29 students enrolled in the first of three required courses. To complete the dual credit course offered through a partnership with Kentucky State University, students will also complete one elective course, earn classroom observation hours, then receive a qualifying score on one of the three assessment options including the Praxis exam, a series of tests that measure the academic skills and subject-specific content knowledge needed for teaching. Praxis exams are taken by individuals entering the teaching profession as part of the certification process required by many states and professional licensing organizations.
“It’s been an initiative for several years and one the Educators Rising group has been pushing for,” said HCHS teacher Toby Smith, who is the instructor for The Learning Community. “There are several states across the country that have signed on board with this, but Kentucky is the only state signed on to the pathway as a dual credit path for students.”
The focus of the program includes: general theory and best practices of learning and teaching; basic principles of educational psychology; the art of teaching; planning and administration of educational activities; school safety and health issues; and social foundations of education. The initial course focused on elements of self-awareness for teachers, like different mindsets, biases and stereotypes. The next unit delves into different learning styles and techniques.
“The first class focuses more on ideologies of education, while next year’s class will help students put that information into practice,” Smith said. “We even cover grant writing and how to arrange a classroom, but a lot of the class is not so much a how-to, but it’s more on how to be an unbiased educator and developing teachers as leaders.”
Smith’s own pathway into teaching was not a straight shot. Smith earned a college degree in art, but found himself working as a manager at a local Kroger. When he considered the retail giant’s management program, his own boss gave him a bit of advice.
“He asked me if I was really going to be happy doing that,” Smith said. “He said you already work with kids, you have a degree, why don’t you look into something else.” Influenced by friends enrolled in teaching programs, Smith took that route.
“And I absolutely love it. I love interacting with kids. I love this age group, and I love teaching,” Smith said.
Smith, who holds two master’s degrees, one in teacher leadership, was a logical choice to teach The Learning Community. But not all students in this pathway want to become teachers. Smith said some students believe the skills teachers possess will benefit other career options.
“A lot of students in the class want to be teachers, but there are a lot of them who think it will help them be a social worker or psychologist or psychiatrist,” Smith said. “One student said she hopes to improve her organizational skills, another wants to work with people better, or work with children, or they want to be able to communicate better. One wants to be able to present in front of people, teachers do that daily, so she’s hoping to refine those skills with this class.”
For students who do want to pursue education as a career, Smith supports and encourages their planned career pathway despite some of the concern surrounding the field, including the state’s pension crisis and ever-evolving discussions about salaries and benefits for teachers.
“I emphasize with them that if you’re going into this profession, it needs to be something that you really need to want to do. You don’t go into it to make money,” Smith said. “Of course, you want to make a good living and be happy, but this is not the kind of profession that will make you rich. It’s not about the money and you cannot base your decision on money. If that’s your goal, you need to look into other professions.”
For Grace, however, there is no other option but to teach.
“This is just what I want to do, and I’m so grateful for this class so I can get started on my career now,” Grace said. “I see how much of an impact my mom has made on so many kids. Adults with kids of their own will come up and hug her in the grocery store and say how much they loved her as a teacher.
“I know that teaching kids will make an impact on their lives, and they in turn will make an impact on this world,” Grace said. “I know it sounds kind of corny, but it is the gift that keeps on giving. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?”