Summer school students at Wayzata Oakwood Elementary School raise their hands to guess a number for a math game. Their teacher, Isa Brekke, is training through the Teach Minnesota alternative preparation program. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

Parul Goyat stood in front of her class of recent kindergarten graduates at Wayzata Oakwood Elementary School. It was the last week of July, and her summer school class had just read The Feelings Book. Now Goyat was coaching them on how to talk about, and draw, their own feelings.

“Sometimes we feel like crying, and we have to show that emotion,” Goyat said. “When do we feel like crying?”

“I don’t want to cry,” a child informed her.

Goyat circled through her students’ tables, looking at the crayon pictures they had made. “I love how you are showing your emotions through your drawing,” she said. “I love that.”

Goyat obtained a bachelor’s degree in education in India. She had just started teaching when her husband’s work required the family to move to the United States. Frustrated by the disruption to her own career, she decided to take some time to learn the culture of American schooling. She became a special education paraprofessional in Mounds View Public Schools. Then she started researching how to get her teaching license and discovered Teach Minnesota. 

Goyat’s training with Teach Minnesota started in June. In the mornings, she teaches her rising first graders, observed by coaches who can help her improve. In the afternoons, she attends training sessions focused on topics like literacy, classroom culture, and culturally responsive teaching. And in September, less than three months after starting her training, she’ll be teaching at Pike Lake Kindergarten Center in the same district where she was a paraprofessional. 

After a year of teaching and online coursework, she’ll be fully licensed in elementary education. If she continues for a second year, she’ll also gain a license in special education.

“I feel like no other program can be better than this program,” Goyat said. “In this program, whatever you learn, you are able to apply that right away in the classroom. There are many coaches who can correct you every single day, and they can always help you to be better. So I have learned a lot in the last month. And I feel pretty confident that I can continue that in the fall.”

As Minnesota grapples with an ongoing teacher shortage, especially in special education, districts have increasingly turned to college graduates with no formal teacher training. The federal government recently warned Minnesota it could ultimately lose $219 million in annual federal funding if it continues to staff special education positions this way. Some advocates hope that programs like these can help close the gap. 

As it does for Goyat, Teach Minnesota offers the opportunity for dual licenses in elementary and special education. The program boasts of its relative affordability. Participants studying elementary education pay $7,000 in tuition; those studying special education pay an extra $1,500 for a second year. More than half its participants are people of color. And the program provides hands-on experience, accompanied by real-time coaching and coursework that fits into people’s busy lives.

Tuition makes up a relatively small portion of the program’s funding. Its primary funding source is philanthropic grants; partner schools also pay a placement fee for each participant they hire.  Teach Minnesota is hoping to secure funding from the Legislature to bring its program to scale, and train teachers in subject areas of high need.

“We think we’re onto something,” said James Barnett, the director of Teach Minnesota. “We think we’re doing good work, but we can do even more work with more resources and foundational support.”

A slow path to quick teacher licenses

Historically, Minnesota teachers have received their licenses via university bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. But in 2011, anticipating a future teacher shortage, the Legislature authorized the development of alternatives. Because of confusing legislative language and conflicting requirements, the first alternative program wasn’t approved until 2018.

One of the alternative preparation programs that advocates hoped to attract with the 2011 legislation was The New Teacher Project, which now is just called by its initials: TNTP.  Through its Teaching Fellows program, TNTP has trained 37,000 teachers—60 percent of whom are people of color—in 25 states and Washington, D.C. In Minnesota, the Teaching Fellows program is also called Teach Minnesota. 

“This is not just about filling the teacher shortage,” Barnett said. “Who do we need coming into our communities and having a meaningful impact?”

Parul Goyat comes to her rising first-graders’ eye level to discuss their drawings. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

In June 2022, the program launched in Minnesota with 32 fellows. This summer’s cohort had 56 fellows at the beginning of the summer, with locations in Plymouth and St. Cloud. Of those, 45 are on track to complete their training, half in special education and half in elementary education. Next year, the program hopes to train 100 teachers. 

After six weeks of summer training, teachers start in the fall on a short-term Tier 2 license. After completing their first year of teaching and required coursework, they become eligible for a Tier 3 professional license. 

Josh Crosson, the executive director of education advocacy group EdAllies, praised Teach Minnesota’s program as a way to build new teachers’ skills while keeping them in the classroom. This approach, he said, “is what we need to be going toward.”

The alternative preparation programs were once controversial. In 2011, Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union, opposed the law change to allow the programs.

But in a Friday statement to Sahan Journal, Education Minnesota praised the Teach Minnesota training program.

“Education Minnesota supports the current version of the TNTP teacher preparation program because it embeds all of Minnesota’s standards of effective practice and is structured to meet the needs of candidates who our students desperately need,” said Chris Williams, press secretary for Education Minnesota. The union is impressed with the equity work included in the program and accessibility to candidates of color, he added.

Some alternative preparation programs around the country take “unacceptable shortcuts,” Williams said, but Teach Minnesota follows standards that the union has endorsed. 

“Our union continues to advocate for high standards in teacher preparation and training and will resist any efforts to lower them,” Williams said.

Fourteen school districts and charter schools have signed up as partners for Teach Minnesota, meaning they will hire and provide support to the program’s teachers. Teach Minnesota vets school partners, too, to make sure that their fellows are set up for a successful experience.

Barnett described the program’s first year as its “prove-it year.”

With a year of experience under their belts, it’s easier to pitch the program to potential partners, he said: “We know that this is going to go well, and we promise that it really works.”

‘It’s exactly what I wanted to do’

Program fellows praised the program’s camaraderie, hands-on experience, real-time feedback, affordability, and relatively quick completion time.

Maya West graduated from the University of Minnesota this spring with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. But the university does not offer a path to a teaching license to undergraduate students unless they spend a fifth year pursuing a master’s degree, which West could not afford. Teach Minnesota was a more affordable alternative. West will be teaching at Sojourner Truth Academy, a north Minneapolis charter school, in the fall.

“Teaching has always been my passion,” she said. “And it’s exactly what I wanted to do. This program has just emphasized that to me.”

Compared to her undergraduate education, West said, Teach Minnesota focuses more on equity,classroom management, and hands-on skill-building.

“It’s not just like a visual or kinesthetic or any auditory learning style,” she said. “You’re learning about education in all three learning styles.”

Ben Ojika planned to become a social worker before discovering a passion for education. He’ll be a special education teacher at Edgewood Middle School in Mounds View in the fall; he previously worked as a behavior manager in the same school district. Ojika said he appreciated hearing coaches’ personal stories from their own teaching experiences, as well as their feedback.

“We get that feedback and you think it’s gonna kick your butt,” he said. “But it’s feedback that kicks your butt in a positive way.”

Another selling point for many fellows: the emphasis on equity.

“They attach equity to every single piece of everything we do,” Ojika said. “We’re all going to come up really knowledgeable and well-taught fellows who know how to make sure equity is in the classrooms and the spaces that we’re in.”

A path to state funding

One perennial barrier to training teachers from underrepresented communities: Going back to school often means not earning an income. The teaching fellows will earn salaries once their school jobs start in the fall. But during the summer, they are participating in an unpaid training program—and paying tuition for it.

Though Teach Minnesota offers some stipends to fellows through partner organizations, this funding is not available to all participants. Four fellows have left the program this summer because of financial strain. 

The leaders of Teach Minnesota say that legislative funding would help provide stipends to participants. They would also use those funds to provide better coaching, expand statewide partnerships, and expand to other high-need licensure areas.

Representative Mary Frances Clardy (DFL–Inver Grove Heights), visited the Teach Minnesota cohort with EdAllies during their first week of teaching in June. By late July, she was amazed at their growth. As a longtime teacher, Clardy could see how their classroom management skills had grown. And she noticed how engaged the students seemed.

Clardy, the vice chair of the House Education Finance Committee, sponsored a bill last session that would have provided grant funding to alternative teacher preparation programs like Teach Minnesota. But it did not receive a hearing—which Clardy attributed to timing. She plans to introduce the bill again next session.

Clardy worked as a housing advocate and civil rights commissioner before deciding to go into education. She enrolled in a teaching program designed to train professionals who had been successful in other fields. Now, she has taught in St. Paul Public Schools for 27 years. And as a legislator, she’s passionate about creating alternative pathways for people to become teachers.

“After going through an alternative program myself, I know the value of it,” Clardy said. These programs attract more mid-career professionals and non-traditional students, she said.

“Part of it is we need to get more teachers that can reflect the kids,” she said, pointing to Teach Minnesota’s diversity. 

With programs like Teach Minnesota, Clardy hopes, more diverse teachers can have the same opportunities she had.

This story has been updated with comments from Education Minnesota.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...