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There has been a lot of debate recently about the best path forward for the education system in Texas. As the nation celebrates Teacher Appreciation Week, May 6-10, I think we can all agree that every student in our state deserves to be in classrooms led by well-prepared teachers, and that aspiring teachers deserve the training and support needed to fulfill the dream of becoming world-class educators.

As in the rest of the state, schools in the Rio Grande Valley sometimes struggle to find enough qualified teachers. The need for more teachers in Texas inspired Gov. Greg Abbott to launch a Teacher Vacancy Task Force, which released its findings last year. One of its main recommendations is to expand the pipeline of future educators.

I believe the future teachers we need are right here in Texas. In fact, they’re sitting in our K-12 classrooms right now – as students. And the students of today will become the educators of tomorrow.

First, though, we have to inspire them to pursue teaching and give them the support and training they need to become amazing educators. That’s a big focus for us at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and it is definitely paying off: UTRGV graduated 202 teacher candidates during the December 2023 commencement alone, and for our Spring 2024 commencement, we are expecting 289: 237 clinical teachers and 52 residents.

Investing in students who dream of becoming teachers is a key way to build our future education workforce. Instead of looking outside the state or region for talent, we can create a circular pipeline, where aspiring teachers are prepared in our local K-12 schools with basic skills, go on to receive training at UTRGV and other rigorous teacher-preparation programs, then return to the community and those same K-12 schools as student teachers and eventually as full-fledged educators.

While there are many pathways into the classroom, traditional, university-based teacher preparation programs like the one we offer at UTRGV are among the best at equipping future teachers for long-term success.

Research shows that university-certified teachers stay in the profession longer, and their students have better learning outcomes. But these programs work best when aspiring teachers come in having completed the necessary prerequisites and are ready to dive into rigorous training.

For example, we have a major shortage of bilingual educators in Texas. Yet many young people in the region already have both Spanish- and English-language skills. If we can build on this foundation by providing interested students with bilingual instruction during their primary and secondary education, they will come to college with the necessary language proficiency to start their preparation to become bilingual educators.

The key to creating a circular pipeline of future educators is collaboration between university-based teacher preparation programs and local K-12 schools. Those partnerships encourage and prepare students of any age to imagine a future in teaching. To address teacher shortages, many districts have started “grow your own” programs that identify talent in the local community. However, these initiatives often focus on training adult professionals who want to change careers and move into teaching.

We also need to cultivate a robust pipeline of K-12 students who will go on to teacher preparation programs at local colleges and universities. The UTRGV Harlingen Collegiate High School has developed an innovative, aspiring-teachers pathway that can serve as a model. Students participate in a four-year program of coursework and experiences that help set them up for future careers in education. Harlingen Collegiate’s unique model also allows students to take courses at UTRGV and graduate high school with up to two years of college credit.

In the coming decades, the Texas education system will continue to transform and face new challenges. The talented people who will shape the future of education currently are students in our classrooms. And that’s why university education programs and local K-12 schools must continue to work together, to inspire and support them on their path to becoming educators.

Dr. Alma D. Rodriguez is dean of UTRGV’s College of Education and P-16 Integration, where she leads the college’s efforts to prepare future Texas teachers.

Dr. Alma D. Rodriguez