From the Field
A Q&A with David Donaldson
By Team Torace published on Mar 16, 2023
min read
David Donaldson speaking to an audience about Grow Your Own (GYO) programs.

David Donaldson is the Founder & Managing Partner of the National Center for Grow Your Own. David was the lead author on the approved application by the U.S. Department of Labor to federally recognize the “K-12 teacher” occupation as eligible for registered apprenticeship. Previously, David served as the Chief of Human Capital at the Tennessee Department of Education. He has been a teacher in Baltimore, a principal in Detroit, and an administrator in New York City. His goal is to create a world where an aspiring educator can become a teacher for free and get paid to do so. We are grateful to have David share his knowledge of the current Grow Your Own (GYO) landscape with us.

Q: What are the most popular GYO models you are seeing being developed?

A: The most popular GYO models that we are seeing are the ones that remove financial barriers to become a teacher. This removal of out-of-pocket costs for the candidate combined with a teacher residency is really exciting to see spread across the country. We are seeing more and more states take advantage of the registered apprenticeship model for teaching (that we pioneered in Tennessee) to help ensure the financial sustainability of their GYO programs.

Q: How do you see GYO programs impacting the future landscape of the teaching profession?

A: Well at the National Center for Grow Your Own, our mission is to create a world where an aspiring educator can become a teacher for free and get paid to do so. If we are able to accomplish this, and we are in select states already, then we will likely see increases in educator diversity and retention. Ultimately, the end goal is to ensure every child has not only the teacher they need, but deserve. Imagine that….no teacher vacancies!

Q: For a school system just starting its GYO journey, what practical advice would you give to get them started off on the right foot?

A: Two initial pieces of advice:

  1. You have more power than you realize. Institutes of higher education need candidates just like you need teachers. Therefore, you can negotiate costs with them to enroll your staff or community members into their programs.

  2. Now a district may be asking itself, how can we pay for this? Well I always say start with any funding set aside for tuition reimbursement and reallocate it for tuition investment. Use those funds proactively. Also, if you even have one teacher vacancy, use that budgeted salary and fringe benefits to pay tuition for folks you select. Don’t just let the money sit there. Even if you have a long-term substitute in there, you have money you are saving that can be invested into your people.

Q: The more traditional pathways into the teaching profession provide opportunities for future teachers to experience different classroom settings (e.g. practicum, student teacher placements, etc.) How important do you think it is for GYO programs to build intentional experiences like that into their programs for their participants?

A: I love this question as I actually think GYO programs are a chance to double down on the student teacher / clinical internship experience. First off, it’s never made sense that you pay tuition to a university to provide free labor to a school district in the traditional student teaching model. Our model ensures aspiring educators are paid during their student teaching experience, and that they are getting more time under a mentor teacher.

We’ve had programs that start getting you into the K-12 classroom in your freshman year. As we see more and more high school GYO programs, it won’t make sense in the long-term that students then go onto college and don’t return to a K-12 classroom until their final semester. We need to increase the length of the student teaching experience so that you are combining hands-on experience along with what you are learning in your college coursework.

Q: Over the years, it seems like the most successful program implementations include thoughtful stakeholder engagement. Do you see this as well with successful GYO implementations? If so, what are some tips or examples of stakeholder engagement done well in the GYO setting?

A: Yes, absolutely. I really believe the most important stakeholder is the aspiring educator. We need to design multiple GYO pathways into the profession. There should be 1-, 2-, and 4-year pathways for aspiring educators to finish their degree and earn their license to become a teacher. We need to offer flexible opportunities for when and where they complete their college coursework recognizing that they have a whole life outside of the school community.

There are many other stakeholders involved in successful programs, but for brevity the other one I will highlight is using GYO models to build partnerships between school districts and their educator preparation providers. It is important for them to communicate and collaborate to design programs that meet the needs of each respective community. We can’t operate in silos if we want different results.

The National Center for Grow Your Own has grown its network to 16 states and just started a new National Registered Apprenticeship in Teaching District Network with 16 districts participating. For more information, please visit

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