Last fall, Mercer University’s College of Education was awarded the largest federal grant in its history: $9.6 million from the U.S. Department of Education for a three-year project. A year later, the College is supporting the career advancement of more than 100 future or current educators while also making a dent in its overall goals of strengthening the teacher pipeline and diversifying the teaching workforce.
The “Georgia Educators Networking to Revolutionize and Transform Education” — or GENERATE — teacher residency program provides a pathway for working adults to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) or a Bachelor of Science in Education in Early Learning and Development. It supports people who are already in classrooms in positions like paraprofessional as well as career-changers in obtaining the credentials they need to become certified teachers in Georgia schools.
Residents progress through the program as a cohort, taking a combination of synchronous and asynchronous online classes and in-person classes. They are provided with professional development opportunities, receive mentoring from other educators, and are trained in the high-need areas of computer science and cybersecurity. They receive tuition support as well as a stipend.
Residents must be employed by or complete their residency by teaching in a partner district, which currently are Baldwin, Bibb, Clayton, Dooly, Dougherty, Gwinnett, Newton, Pike and Twiggs counties and Dublin City Schools. Dalton State College, also a partner on the grant project, is working with Mercer on a Cultural Exchange Internship.
GENERATE also provides support to educators in partner districts who are interested in school leadership opportunities through its Tier I and Tier II programs. Tier I students earn a master’s degree in educational leadership that allows them to pursue assistant principal and district-level coordinator positions, and Tier II students earn a specialist degree in educational leadership that prepares them for positions from principal to superintendent, said Dr. Navella Jean Walker, assistant professor of clinical practice in the College of Education.
Currently, 106 students are enrolled in the M.A.T. program, 45 in Tier I and 14 in Tier II as a result of the grant program, said Theo Anderson, assistant vice president of enrollment management for Mercer’s Atlanta campus and Regional Academic Centers.
Tier II student Kenneth Williams has been in the field of education for 10 years, all of them at Callaway Elementary in Jonesboro. He has taught second grade, fourth grade and gifted, and this is his third year as assistant principal. He also teaches a district-level endorsement class for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.
“This will open up more opportunities to work at the district level,” said Williams, who earned his Tier I leadership degree at Mercer in 2020, prior to GENERATE. “I like what I’m doing now as an assistant principal, and I like the work of it. I would love to be able to support teachers districtwide.”
In addition to taking courses, the Tier I and II candidates receive training, so they can serve as mentors to M.A.T. students in the program. Dr. Walker said it’s been a “dream coming true” to bring together the teacher side and educational leadership side through GENERATE.
Teachers and educational leaders often don’t intermingle, but this program is working to bridge that gap, said Dr. Loleta Sartin, College of Education associate dean for academic affairs. Through the mentor-mentee relationship, candidates are able to practice their interactions in a low-risk setting, which prepares them for future dialogue.
“Now, while they are under guidance, they’re learning how to give that feedback that helps to make a difference in instructional practice,” Dr. Sartin said. “We’re developing this relationship. We start understanding how to engage in those conversations. I really think it’s innovative on our part.”
Being a new teacher can be isolating, Dr. Walker said. Many novice teachers leave the field because they don’t have enough support, and the mentorship aspect of GENERATE aims to prevent that. The mentors are more than just “buddies” who stop by periodically to check on the new teachers. They are there to help and guide them in every way they can, including by going over lesson plans, helping with classroom management, discussing important routines and structure, and facilitating connections with school colleagues.
“Research told us that if teachers had mentors, it would help keep their joy, excitement and passion,” Dr. Walker said. “Knowing that there’s a teacher shortage, we wanted to do something to encourage people to come into the field as well as to provide the support that they needed.”
Williams said one of the best parts of GENERATE is the support he receives, from both Mercer and his cohort. His peers are in similar roles as educators and can relate to one another.
“We celebrate our wins. We rally around each other when we need it,” he said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity. This has been an amazing ride so far. I’m looking forward to finishing this ride.”
Linley Bryan, a Tier I student, is looking forward to mentoring other educators as part of GENERATE. She has been a special education teacher in Gwinnett County for 25 years, the last 10 at Level Creek Elementary. Her longtime goal has been to earn a doctorate, and with her kids now grown, she decided it was the right time to go back to school. A master’s degree in educational leadership is the next step on her pathway to a Doctor of Education.
She has been a teacher-leader and mentor, but this master’s degree will open up opportunities for more formal leadership positions, such as coordinator or assistant principal.
“These types of opportunities would allow me to have a great impact on the success of the student,” she said. “That is my heart: impacting the next generation and creating a future for them with unlimited potential.”
Anderson said he and his enrollment management team have been “on the front line of spreading the word about GENERATE.” They facilitate new partnerships with school districts, meet with prospective students, and guide candidates through the admission process.
School districts have been struggling to not only find teachers but ones who look like their student population, and Mercer is attracting passionate individuals to the field through GENERATE, he said.
“We believe we’re doing our part in addressing the teacher shortage,” he said. “We’re making a small dent in that talent gap. (The program) really is targeted at beginning to help build and diversify the workforce in Georgia.
“It’s important to make sure we have excellent educators in our classrooms but to also be representative of what our students look like today. It will make a tremendous impact in those communities that they’re serving. We love that we’re not only doing hard work but heart work.”
Anderson’s team hosts many informational events at schools, out in the community and virtually. He said the first sessions were attended by about 40 people, but those numbers have grown to around 200. Many of the individuals have a love and passion for teaching but don’t have the necessary credentials. They are excited when they learn that their school district and Mercer believe in them and are willing to invest in their education.
“The GENERATE grant is really targeted to adult learners and mothers/fathers who work full time and have other priorities in life that have prevented them from getting that certification,” Anderson said. “In some cases, it can be really intimidating. We come in, and we provide them a way. We say, ‘You can do it all.’”
Jory Newman said GENERATE came into his life exactly when he needed it. He’s worked with children throughout his career, including in jobs with Head Start and pre-K programs, intensive family intervention services for at-risk youth, and the foster care system.
After seven years in the latter and no opportunities for advancement, he knew it was time for a change. His wife often told him that he should become a teacher. In thinking about that more, he felt he could really make a difference in a classroom, especially as a male in a female-dominated field. When he found out about GENERATE, he jumped on the opportunity.
In fall 2022, Newman began the M.A.T. program and also started teaching middle school social studies and sciences at SOAR Academy in Macon through provisional certification that GENERATE provides.
“I love it all,” Newman said of being in the program. “I know there are many people like me who just can’t afford to go back to school. With an opportunity like this, it gives people hope. I can breathe a little bit (better) because I know … I have a team of people that’s going to support me throughout my journey. Nobody is going to let us fail. Everybody needs to know that stuff like this is out there, and it happens to regular people.”
GENERATE emphasizes educator wellness, mental health and self-care, and the College of Education has hosted activities like yoga sessions and plans to offer more this year, Dr. Sartin said. After graduation, students will continue to receive three years of support.
“We understand that it’s hard to pour from an empty cup,” Dr. Sartin said. “Educator wellness is so important. We want to ensure that we are holistically developing and supporting these educators.”
Grant funding for the project will last until fall 2025, and then the College of Education will have the opportunity to apply for a two-year renewal. Dr. Walker foresees the grant’s impact lasting for many years to come.
“The grant is eventually going to go away,” Dr. Walker said. “We have an opportunity to impact a teacher shortage need and a leader shortage need, and also to make sure (students) have high-quality teachers in the classroom and that high-quality teachers have high-quality leaders to support them along the way. We will have Mercer, Tift College and GENERATE alumni making an impact in schools every day. We’ll have Bears everywhere telling their story and encouraging others to come to Mercer and learn and lead from the Mercer way.”