Tacey Miller’s dream of becoming a North Carolina Teaching Fellow took hold early in her high school career, when her best friend, who was two years older than Miller, got into to the program.
“I was there when she got her acceptance letter, and I got see how the program worked through her,” said Miller, who kept in touch with her teaching fellow friend while she finished her studies at Northeast Guilford High School, just north of Greensboro. “I said, you know, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher since I can remember. This seems like such a great program for me, too.”
Miller considered lots of colleges as she neared graduation, but she always kept her eye on the prize — a prestigious four-year scholarship to a North Carolina university that would enable her to work as a teacher in her beloved home state.
Hard work in high school paid off, and in 2011 Miller began her degree in elementary education as a teaching fellow after successfully navigating the rigorous selection process. Much to her surprise, she graduated just last week as one of the very last students to complete the program, because lawmakers began taking steps to dismantle it back in 2011.
Abolished by lawmakers for reasons still unclear, the teaching fellows program has been praised for producing highly trained education graduates that go into teaching in North Carolina classrooms, many of whom stay to teach in the state for the long haul.
As members of the final cohort of teaching fellows say goodbye to their student teaching assignments and settle into the task of looking for jobs this summer, NC Policy Watch sat down with Miller to learn more about how the program equipped her with teaching and leadership skills that to set her apart from the rest of the pack.
More than just a scholarship
While reflecting on the past four years, Miller sat in the shade on NC State’s campus on Monday as she worked through her memories and a mix of emotions—excitement at the prospect of joining a profession “where I get to have fun every day,” and also sadness for never having the chance to guide future teaching fellows who could have come after her.
“The idea that [lawmakers] would even think about [getting rid of the Teaching Fellows program] never even crossed my mind because it seemed like such a positive program—not only for graduates of high school who want to go into teaching, but for the entire state of North Carolina,” said Miller.
The teaching fellows program was created back in 1986 to confront a perfect storm: teacher retirements were up along with student enrollments, and fewer college students were graduating with teaching credentials—and those who did go into teaching tended not to stay in the profession beyond five years.
Since its inception, the program has graduated in the neighborhood of 9,000 teaching fellows. Participants of the program must teach in North Carolina for a minimum of four years or else repay the four-year tuition scholarship, worth a total of $26,000. Sixty-four percent of fellows stay in North Carolina beyond six years, often teaching many more beyond that.
But what’s evident when talking with a teaching fellow — and as is the case with Miller — is the fact that the teaching fellows program offers a lot more than a chance to graduate from college debt-free.
“I loved my elementary education program and it was fantastic,” said Miller of the regular teacher training she received through NC State. “But thanks to the teaching fellows program, I don’t believe that I’ll have as steep a learning curve as my other education school peers in order to get to that master teacher level,” she said.
That’s because the programmatic elements of the teaching fellows program that accompany the tuition scholarships are many and diverse. Fellows learn a lot of innovative teaching methods earlier than their peers, said Miller. And because she got to experience the classroom environment much sooner thanks to field experience requirements that are required of fellows beginning with the freshman year, she could put some of those teaching methods to the test right away.
“Every year I was in the classroom in some way,” said Miller, which is especially important because critics of teacher preparation programs usually point to the fact that in traditional schools of education, students often don’t get to teach in a classroom until their senior year—a point in time when students find out too late that teaching may not be for them.
Instead of the typical model in which students only student teach in the final stages of their undergraduate career, national experts say that school-based experiences should be closely linked with academic preparation and coursework . The teaching fellows program provided this kind of clinically based approach.
Miller, who was an elementary education major with a STEM focus, had many opportunities to develop STEM lessons and put them into practice in the classroom throughout her studies.
The fellows program also provided its participants with the chance to see the teaching profession through a bigger lens. Each year students participated in something called “discovery,” where all fellows were bused around the state to get a better understanding of the inner workings of North Carolina’s 115 school districts.
“All 500 of us would travel from ECU all the way to Western Carolina,” said Miller, “and we went to all of these different schools systems and talk to community members, principals, superintendents, teachers…and then afterward we came back to a central meeting location and have big debriefing sessions.”
Miller said the discovery tours were incredibly useful for seeing the different kinds of challenges that each local school district faces.
“It was a great way to learn either firsthand or through my peers’ eyes what schools and communities are dealing with,” said Miller.
Moving talent to where it’s needed the most
While the teaching fellows program is coming to an end, House lawmakers passed a bill this session that would create another tuition scholarship program aimed at getting high achieving students committed to teaching in North Carolina into hard to staff schools and subject areas.
Like the teaching fellows, HB 661  would also provide four year tuition scholarships to students and require a four-year commitment to teach in North Carolina upon graduation.
The legislation differs from teaching fellows, however, in that it provides an avenue for mid-career professionals interested in getting into teaching to obtain the scholarships. And there is an emphasis placed on making sure scholarship recipients only teach in subject areas that are understaffed —typically science, technology, and math — and in rural areas, which have a harder time attracting high quality teachers.
The starkest difference between the teaching fellows program and the proposed scholarship program is that there’s nothing to replicate all of the programmatic elements that make teaching fellows stand apart from their peers.
“Teaching Fellows was created in North Carolina and used as a national model for other programs looking to do something similar,” said Miller, who questioned why there is a will to undo a program that has worked so well.
Scholars at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the teaching fellows program  and found positive results, including a) graduates teach in schools and classrooms with greater concentrations of higher performing and lower poverty students; b) graduates produce larger increases in student test scores in all high school exams and in 3rd-8th grade mathematics exams; and c) teaching fellows remain in North Carolina public schools longer than other teachers.
Because Miller studied at NC State in Raleigh, her student teaching experience has largely taken place in Wake County schools. But thanks to a teaching fellow experience called “senior orientation,” Miller said she had the chance to take an entire week to visit Onslow County Schools — and she fell in love with that school district, which serves a highly transient student population thanks to nearby military installation Camp Lejeune.
“I was beyond impressed with Onslow County,” said Miller, who described the school district as being very supportive of its teachers and very technology-focused.
Their efforts around a 1:1 technology initiative, which means that their goal is to ensure every student has their own access to some type of digital learning device, played into Miller’s decision to consider a teaching career there instead of staying in Wake County, which pays more, or returning to her native Guilford County.
Miller, having just graduated with a STEM-focused elementary education degree, is moving to the coast next week with the hope of using the connections she made through the teaching fellows program to land a teaching job in Onslow County.
The implications of scrapping a high quality teacher recruitment tool
Retaining high quality teachers in North Carolina is at the top of state education leaders’ minds today. North Carolina’s public university system saw a steep enrollment decline in the last four years in undergraduate and graduate teaching programs , amounting to a 27 percent drop from 2010 to 2014.
Miller thinks the upcoming teacher hiring season will prove interesting.
“Not only because of teaching fellows going away, but with all of the other policies that have come through, like teacher pay and other changes,” said Miller. “I know of a lot of teachers that are leaving the state just for those reasons. I think we’re gonna be scrambling for teachers, personally.”
And Miller says there are no longer enough incentives to get into teaching.
“We don’t get paid very well and there’s no longer a scholarship program to not only support you in becoming a teacher, but to become a well-prepared teacher.”
Lawmakers have used a near equivalent sum of money that was designated for teaching fellows to put toward expanding the state’s presence of Teach for America (TFA) recruits.
The TFA model allows college grads without undergraduate education training to get into classrooms after a five week preparation period. Miller says she feels for those who come into teaching through TFA.
“I know that if I had even half the training I’ve had, I would be struggling,” said Miller. “So after five weeks? Wow. There’s a lot of hidden parts of teaching that people don’t realize. Yes, you have to stand up there and teach, but there’s a lot more to it than that,” said Miller, who described how quickly she can tell the difference in teachers with only subject area expertise versus those that have that expertise coupled with proper pedagogical training.
“I just feel for TFA kids because I know they are going in very unprepared,” said Miller.
Another recent study  conducted by UNC found that less than a third of TFA teachers stayed in classrooms for three years and only 10 percent stayed for five years—figures that are well under the return on investment that the teaching fellows program provides.
Sponsors of the teaching fellows have been careful to point out that their program could benefit from improvements  too, especially in terms of funneling more high quality teachers into rural areas of the state and translating its top-notch programming into the broader landscape of North Carolina’s teacher preparation programs.
But from Miller’s perspective, the loss of the program far outweighs any of its shortcomings.
“It has been so disheartening for me to tell my younger friends ‘yeah, I got a teaching fellowship–but you can’t get one, sorry.’”
As Miller heads into the teaching profession, she’s trying to remain positive.
“There might not be any teaching fellows coming after me, but at least there’s this whole legacy ahead of me. So when I go into a school system…I have someone. I have a teaching fellow to look up to.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected] .