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Signing Ceremonies Honor Students Who Want to Be Teachers

In schools across the country this spring, high school seniors are being celebrated as they ceremoniously sign declarations of intent. They’re not student-athletes announcing which school they are committing to—they’re future teachers.

Future teacher signing days have become an increasingly popular tactic by school and district leaders to strengthen the teacher pipeline. They’re a chance to position teaching as a career that deserves recognition and applause, and honor the teenagers who are interested in entering the field.

“We think this is as big of a deal as announcing that you’re going to play women’s basketball at [the University of] Iowa, or men’s basketball at the University of North Carolina,” said James Lane, the CEO of PDK International, whose signature program is Educators Rising, which works to create pathways for students who want to be teachers. “It’s just as big of a deal when kids announce that they … want to become a teacher and give a life of service to children.”

District leaders should be targeting their K-12 students to ensure a sustainable supply of teachers long term, Lane said. After all, past research has found that more than 60 percent of teachers work within 20 miles of where they went to high school.

“School districts spend a lot of money on HR and recruiting,” Lane said. “But their best recruiting tool is actually with the kids in their community and convincing them that education is a great life, and you can make a difference.”

It can be a hard sell. Teaching has a reputation as a low-paid, overworked, and disrespected profession. Research has shown that college undergraduates who are interested in teaching say that they’ve received discouraging messages about the field from people they respect, such as family members, friends, and former teachers, as well as from the media.

But signing days are a chance to flip that narrative. In those ceremonies, students who are interested in teaching are celebrated and encouraged.

“We want people to know that the moment that you make that decision to become a teacher, you’re making a decision to make people’s lives better and our world a better place,” Lane said. “We believe we have a responsibility to let people celebrate the folks that are making those decisions to raise the next generation of students, side by side with parents in our communities.”

For the past several years, Educators Rising has hosted a signing day at its national conference, which brings more than 3,300 students to Washington in the summer. And during Teacher Appreciation Week, which takes place the first full week of May, local chapters host their own signing days with support from the national organization, which provides a toolkit of resources.

This year, the national signing day for Educators Rising chapters is on May 7, although other schools hold their own signing ceremonies at other points throughout the spring.

A positive school affair

Earlier this month, four seniors at Baldwin County High School in Bay Minette, Ala., signed a pledge demonstrating their commitment to be a teacher. It was the school’s second time hosting a signing day event, and everyone was excited.

The art teacher created the students’ nameplates for the ceremony. The media teacher created posters with the future teachers’ names and colleges. The business teacher made the certificates the students signed. The science teacher designed invitations to send to district and state officials.

“It was a school effort,” said Vicki Locke, an English teacher at the school and the lead adviser for the school’s chapter of Future Teachers of Alabama. “We wanted it to look just right.”

Locke encouraged the students to contact the admissions department at their future colleges to get some paraphernalia, like pennants and pompoms, to decorate the signing tables, and to wear their college T-shirts to the ceremony. The future teachers were allowed to invite their close school friends to the ceremony, in addition to their family members.

All those little touches made for a special ceremony for the future teachers, Locke said. They also drew the interest of other students who aren’t in the Future Teachers of Alabama club.

“Some students see this and how we talk it up and how dignified it is and how nice it is—they like that,” Locke said, adding that some have asked how they can join the club next year.

During the ceremony, Locke asked each student the same question: Why do you want to be a teacher?

This year, one student said she feels that she could help some of the students in the area because she relates to some of the challenges they might be facing.

“She just wants to give back to our community in a positive way,” Locke said. “She said, ‘I want to come back to Baldwin County and be a teacher.’ That’s kind of what we hope—that they’ll come back.”

Added Locke, a 28-year teaching veteran: “I need someone to come back and take my place who’s in it for the right reasons.”

‘We want alumni back’

Some districts have added incentives for students to come back and teach in their signing day programs.

At Colquitt County High School in Norman Park, Ga., any senior participating in the signing day is guaranteed a position in the district if they graduate from college with a teaching certificate.

“We are really working hard to grow our own teachers,” said Daniel Chappuis, the school’s principal. “We want alumni back and engaged in the community that they grew up in.”

Last year, 10 students signed pledges to pursue teaching, and Chappuis expects a few more to do so in this year’s ceremony, which will be held next month.

Meanwhile, at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind., students are guaranteed a first-round interview at the district once they graduate college and earn their teaching license. While earning their degrees, they’ve got a spot as a student-teacher in the district.

Building up homegrown talent is one way the district is working to combat the decline in applications for teaching positions, said Krista Nelson, the director of human resources and student services. The high school offers opportunities for students to earn college credit in education courses, as well as a cadet teaching program that lets students work in elementary or middle school classrooms throughout the school year.

Last year, 20 high school seniors committed to the field of education during the school’s inaugural teacher signing day, which drew a crowd of more than 100 people. This year, the district is expecting 30 signees, Nelson said.

“We did it to put a spotlight on those students who have that passion to support others,” she said. “Not only was it kids feeling proud because there was a large group of people cheering them on, … there were a lot of joyful tears from parents.”

Nelson plans to keep in touch with every student who signs a commitment by sending them letters twice a year to see if there’s anything the district can do to support them. So far, she hasn’t heard that anyone has changed their minds.

Celebrating current teachers, too

School and district leaders say there’s another benefit to future teacher signing day: showing appreciation to the current teachers who inspired students to follow in their footsteps.

For example, the Mansfield, Mass., school district held its first signing event for prospective teachers last year, using resources provided by the state education department. One special touch: The students who were honored at the event invited an educator who inspired them to become a teacher to watch them sign their declaration of intent.

“It’s a win-win: It’s honoring the students who are looking to be teachers, [and] it’s honoring the teachers” who inspired them,” Superintendent Teresa Murphy said. This year’s ceremony will be held next month.

Lane, the CEO of Educators Rising, said he often sees students at signing ceremonies talking about their own teachers and thanking them for inspiring them. It’s a huge source of pride for teachers, he said.

“The signing day isn’t just about the student going into the field,” Lane said. “It’s about everyone who had a role in helping the student get to that point in that decision having that moment of celebration. …

“It’s a celebration of the community—that we are a place that grows educators. And what better story can we tell from our school environment, that we are convincing our kids that the work we do with them every day is important [enough] that they can make it a part of their lives?”

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