Teaching Profession In Their Own Words

From Hospice Work to 1st Grade: One Teacher’s Career-Changing Journey

By Madeline Will — November 03, 2022 6 min read
Cheerful young ethnic, elementary school teacher gives a high five to a student before class.
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Teacher apprenticeship models have been touted by experts in the field and the federal government as a promising solution to teacher shortages. With these types of programs, prospective teachers work in the classroom and earn a paycheck while completing their preparation to become a licensed teacher.

Tennessee became the first state to be approved by the U.S. Department of Labor to establish a registered apprenticeship program for teachers. The state now has approved seven teacher-preparation providers to run apprenticeship programs, including Lipscomb University, a private college that runs a master’s degree program targeted toward career-changers in partnership with the Clarksville-Montgomery County district.

Rhonda Davis is one of the teachers trained under this approach, at Lipscomb and Clarksville-Montgomery. Davis, who worked in hospice for most of her career and now teaches 1st grade at Hazelwood Elementary School, spoke to Education Week about her journey into the classroom and the joys and frustrations of teaching so far.

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Silhouette of a woman with her arms crossed and looming over a classroom watching the teacher instruct her classroom
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I loved hospice, and often what I noticed was that I sat at people’s beds at [their] end of life, and a lot of them lived their life feeling unloved or not valued—that they didn’t matter. Especially during COVID-19, that was difficult because in the early stages, families were often isolated from their loved ones, and they were dying in facilities alone. I became the person that was at their bedside who watched and helped them go through all that.

The breaking point for me was when I had 30 patients die in two weeks. I just was like, I can’t emotionally do this anymore. I thought maybe if I can turn the paradigm and start loving these children earlier in life so that maybe when they get to that point at their end of life, they can say, “Hey, my teacher loved me. She believed in me.” I just wanted to start earlier and see if I can make a difference that way.

Rhonda Davis

I [heard about] the master’s program, and I thought, this is a good time to make a change and try something new. So I entered that program two years ago. I started out as a teacher resident going back to school, getting my master’s level classes at Lipscomb. Last year, I taught 1st grade on a job-embedded license, [which allows candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree to work as a teacher while working toward full licensure]. Now that I graduated in the spring and got my degree and my licensure, I’m teaching independently.

[The program] covered my classes, it covered books. I was able to get some pay because I was a teacher resident. It was almost like a paid internship, as an assistant.

Honestly, [the cost] had been why I had not made a change earlier. I love hospice, but it’s a lot of burnout watching that many folks pass. I’d always wanted to go back [to school], but I just thought at my age, I don’t have that many years in the career, and I don’t want student debt going into retirement. It was a big game changer for me not having to pay all those expenses.

Getting adjusted to the classroom

I have to say, I’m on a learning curve. You’ve got to realize I’m 58. When I was in school there wasn’t Canvas [course management software]—I mean, honestly, we didn’t really have computers. So I had a big learning curve, probably, compared to my much younger cohort and colleagues. They were in their 20s, so I had to work extra hard.

It was almost like they took me in as their mother or grandmother, but they were helping me navigate Canvas, helping me with some of those technology obstacles that I faced. I was also working as a hospice PRN [an as-needed nurse] at night—the TA salary was helpful, but it did not sustain what I needed it to. So I had a lot of irons in the fire.

Just to give you a picture, last year on an embedded license, I had a mentor that I had to Swivl live. [Swivl cameras track teachers as they move across the classroom, and an instructional coach can watch remotely.] Now, think of all the technical aspects of this. I had to Swivl live with a mentor while I was teaching 25 students, set all that up, which mostly occurred on my lunch hour, [and] be observed by them.

I had four formal observations from administrative staff. I also had observations from [reading interventionists] because we were in a pilot project that’s trying to do added reading interventions for struggling students. So I had those people dropping in my classroom on the daily. I had two to three drop-ins from principals every day. I’m telling you, I’ve not seen so much supervision in a nuclear power plant. I mean, it’s constant.

I think you are getting good feedback, and you’re getting critical feedback. I think that’s important to grow. But sometimes it’s feedback overload, and I think that can be hard on a new teacher. If I wasn’t so old and stubborn and felt like that this is where God wanted me, that might’ve made me give up.

You’ve got young people coming into this profession. Not only do you need to mentor and give critical feedback, but you also need to nurture. You need to let them know they count. You need to show them that they’re valuable, and that what they’re doing matters. I think until they get that recipe right, there’s going to be a struggle. I really do. Because I think teachers are not feeling that love. That, “I’m glad you’re here. We know you’re making a difference.”

They get it from the kids. I get most of my love and affirmation from being here from the children. But you’re not getting as much from the parents. You’re getting a lot of supervision from admin, but you need that, “You matter.” You need somebody giving you that rah-rah: “Come on, you matter, you’re making a difference.”

My heart is running on hugs right now, and that’s from little ones. If I didn’t have those, I think I could be easily discouraged because there’s just a lot of accountability. I knew that there would be, but not to the extent that I’ve had.

Sometimes it’s feedback overload, and I think that can be hard on a new teacher.

[Administrators] come in with checklists: “Did you do this correctly? Did you do the learning target correctly? Did you set your timer?” I’m talking accountability with measurable outcomes. You’re managing behaviors, you’re managing classroom expectations, you’re managing standards. Are you meeting the standards? Are you hitting the targets? Are you teaching? Is your pacing good? I mean, it’s very intensive.

Coping with the challenges of teaching

My mom [who is a retired teacher] begged me not to make this move. She said, “You don’t know what you’re getting into. You’re crazy.” I do see why there is a negative spin. There are lots of demands. The students are not the part that deters me at all. But the lack of parental support is difficult.

The first school I was in, the parents didn’t come to conferences, they didn’t respond to phone calls. You felt like you were trying to help this student without a lot of support, and that can be really frustrating because it takes everybody for that child to succeed. You feel like you’re doing all the heavy lifting.

The class that I have this year, I do have some really involved and supportive parents, and it makes so much difference knowing that we’re working together for the best of that child. That’s where you see the growth. That also kind of reignites a teacher.

I do love it. I know that the days are long. I’m used to health care, but at least I got paid by the hour. I’m working long, long hours [now], and the pay’s not there after hours. I’ll be here late tonight. I worked ‘til 11 o’clock last night [doing] lesson plans. When people say, “You get summers off,” I’m ready to defend: “You’ve long put in those summers! You’ve earned it during the year.” I work on the weekends. It’s not something that I can just walk away from and check out and clock out and say, I’m done.

There’s a lot of multitasking in teaching. I thought I understood, but until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you don’t fully know what all a teacher juggles. I dealt with emergent trauma, all of that, but it never prepared me for me against 25 little friends and trying to multitask all their needs.

They definitely keep me on my toes, but I do love the students. I love their energy. I love their desire to learn. I love their personalities and their spirit. It’s been a blessing to see this end of life.

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as From Hospice Work to 1st Grade: One Teacher’s Career-Changing Journey


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