First Lady Jill Biden visits Knoxville School, University of Tennessee

Monday morning at Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Academy started out like any other day at East Knoxville Elementary School. Morning announcements crackled over the intercom, as students heard about lunch options and birthdays.

But then Principal Robin Curry took the mic.

“We have a very special guest with us today,” Curry said.

“The President’s Wife, Dr. Jill Biden!”

Biden greeted Curry outside of school before visiting Kaitlyn Baker’s third-grade class.

It was difficult for students to pay attention after Biden, US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and reporters with cameras entered the roombut after a quick introduction, the students went back to working on their basic phonics skills.

On Monday, First Lady Jill Biden and Principal Robin Curry welcome third-grade students to the Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Academy in Knoxville.  Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and the First Lady are on a national education tour.

“They’ve never been so quiet before,” Baker joked.

The classroom was the first stop on a tour across the eastern United States organized by Cardona, highlighting how schools are supporting teachers and students after the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden’s trip focused on small moments, like helping third-grade students with their work, and big ones, like touting a national message like respect for teachers, which was the culmination of the rally. University of Tennessee that looked like a campaign stop but was really a bipartisan show of support for teachers.

Along with balloon presentations, the Pride of the Southland Band playing “Rocky Top,” and appearances by cheerleaders and Smokey, Biden encouraged UT education students to continue down the path they’re ready for. to undertake.

“Whether you are just starting your journey or are a seasoned educator, we are all here for the same reason. We heard a call and we answered it. We answered it because we are learners, never satisfied, always curious to learn about our universe and the people who live in it,” said Biden, a teacher herself.

“We are sculptors, we are able to see the beauty hidden below the surface and help bring it out of hiding. And we are explorers, gathering all the wisdom, artistry and insight that humanity has to offer. And we are optimists, believing that when we give these things to the next generation, they will make our world a better place. Teaching is not just what we do, it’s who we are.

She also spent her time in a small group with current Knox County Schools teachers to learn more about their needs.

In a small panel discussion, Dion Dykes, technology instructor, and Karol Harper and Monica Johnson, special education assistants at Farragut Intermediate School, shared their journeys in education.

First Lady Jill Biden speaks during an event at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville celebrating Tennessee's Grow Your Own initiative, a teacher-learning program.

“The first time I was in a special education class felt like this was where I should have been a long time ago,” Johnson said.

Harper, who spent 15 years in nonprofit fundraising, found herself looking for a different path when she heard about Tennessee Develop your own initiativea teacher learning program.

The program is part of Tennessee’s solution to the statewide teacher shortage that has been exasperated by the pandemic. Apprenticeship programs allow trained teachers to work toward their teaching degree and license while earning money teaching alongside professionals in a school district.

Jill Biden wishes "Happy birthday!" to third-grade student Daniel Neal, bottom right, at the Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Academy.

After the program, participants are hired into the district as fully licensed Tennessee teachers.

But part of the teacher shortage is also about respecting teachers, Cardona said, and asked Dykes, Harper and Johnson how our nation’s leaders can better uplift educators.

“For me, I think it’s about trusting my expertise and trusting the education that we’ve flooded into ourselves and pursued and, you know, just understanding that we’re not not there to force a child one way or another. We want them to follow the path that best suits them. And sometimes it’s hard for people to hear,” Johnson said.

Biden looked on warmly.

“I hope you feel the support from the Department of Education, the President and me,” Biden said.

First Lady Jill Biden hugs third grade teacher Kaitlyn Baker as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona looks on at the Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Academy.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, appointed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, shared the UT stage with Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, Cardona and Biden to happily celebrate the teacher apprenticeship program, which is starting to make waves across the country.

“Grow Your Own is one of those ideas is a big, bold step of action that we can do not just in the state of Tennessee, but as a country: something to ensure that anyone who wants to be a teacher can become a teacher for free and get paid to do it,” Schwinn said.

First Lady Jill Biden speaks during an event at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville celebrating Tennessee's Grow Your Own initiative, a teacher-learning program.

What is the Grow Your Own program?

There are several financial hurdles to becoming a teacher: not only should a prospective teacher earn a degree, but testing fees, certification costs, and unpaid clinical hours reduce potential future earnings (which are often not high).

But creating an apprenticeship program registered with the U.S. Department of Labor opens up federal funding and allows prospective teachers to earn their degree and license for free.

In January, Tennessee’s Grow Your Own model became the first lifelong learning model for teachers approved by the Department of Labor.

Jill Biden laughs while participating in a panel discussion at the Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Academy.

The tour stop in Knoxville is part of a national tour organized by Cardona to show how schools are recovering amid the coronavirus pandemic. The tour continues throughout the week with additional stops in North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In May, the University of Tennessee System and the Tennessee Department of Education launched the Grow Your Own Center, a three-year, $20 million pilot project, to support the initiative and facilitate partnerships with school districts and educator preparation providers.

With a presence in all 95 counties in Tennessee, the UT system hopes to attract more teachers from all areas of the state to address the teacher shortage.

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