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Rhodes College joins teacher training pipeline for Memphis schools

Caroline Bauman

After almost 100 years of educating college students in the heart of Memphis, Rhodes College is about to become the city’s newest official teacher of future teachers.

The 2,000-student private liberal arts college received its certification this month from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to launch its training program for licensed teachers in the fall. It’s also entering into a partnership with Shelby County Schools in conjunction with its new teacher track.

With the launch, Rhodes joins an active teacher preparation pipeline in Memphis, including the University of Memphis, Christian Brothers University and a handful of alternative training programs. But it’s also a welcome addition due to the high teacher turnover rate in the city, where local stakeholders have sought to bring new talent to Memphis through a “Teach901” campaign.

“The district hires 800 new teachers every year; that’s a huge amount of turnover,” said Natalie Person, chairwoman of educational studies at Rhodes. “Our students will already be well integrated in Shelby County Schools, and that’s what it’s going to take for folks to stay. We want our students to be the teachers that stay.”

Statewide, Rhodes joins around 40 teacher prep programs at a time when the Tennessee Department of Education and State Board of Education are re-evaluating how educator programs need to change to improve student achievement.

Leaders at Rhodes College, formerly known as Southwestern at Memphis, say the school’s program will be unique due to the college’s liberal arts roots, its focus on social justice, and its commitment to addressing teacher turnover in Shelby County Schools.

In partnership with Tennessee’s largest school district, Rhodes education students will spend 140 hours in classrooms around Memphis before their semester of student teaching. Student teaching will focus on high-needs, high-poverty schools within a school system of some 140 schools and 45 charter schools.

“The message is clear that there is a teacher shortage in general and of teachers who have understanding of historically marginalized people,” Person said. “It’d be really great to have teachers in the district who have firm grounding in social justice. We thought that we were well suited to do that.”

Many Rhodes alumni already have demonstrated a desire to become educators. Even without the teacher training program, between 10 and 14 percent of the school’s graduates go into the teaching field. Most go on to get a master’s degree in education or to choose an alternative program such as Memphis Teacher Residency, which recently added a new training program, or Teach For America.

Rhodes will begin its new program small and expects to have anywhere from 7-12 students in secondary classrooms this fall, said Zachary Casey, assistant professor of educational studies. The goal is to double that number in three to four years.

“This is a natural, and perhaps overdue, step for us,” Casey said. “With all of the pressures of urban education in Memphis, we had to ask, ‘why is Rhodes on the sidelines?’”

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