Helping school districts grow their own teachers is at the heart of the mission of the Center for Future Educators, which is housed at The College of New Jersey in Ewing.

The center was founded in 2009 with grant money from the state. When that money ran out, the New Jersey Education Association stepped up to continue funding its work. 

Dr. Jeanne DelColle, who was honored as New Jersey’s State Teacher of the Year in 2012, and who taught social studies and history at the high school level for many years, joined the center as executive director in October 2020, while the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force.

Asked about the relationship with NJEA, she explained, “It’s a grant-funded organization. NJEA pays the bills but doesn’t tell me what to do.”

Looking back at her career, she wishes there had been an organization like the one she now leads to help her find her way to teaching earlier on.

“I grew up thinking I wanted to be a lawyer or diplomat,” she said, noting that when a high school teacher told her she would be a great teacher, she didn’t pay much attention.

She went on to earn a degree in political science and worked at a law firm before discovering that wasn’t the field for her.

After moving back home, she tried substitute teaching at a middle school. Even though the kids “were hanging off the walls” and eager to test “a fresh sub,” she recalled that she had “the absolute best day ever.” She felt alive and knew she had found her calling.

“I remember going home after that first day of substitute teaching and I flopped on the couch and I kind of had that glazed over look … and my mom comes in and said, ‘Oh my God, what did they do to you?’”

Her response: “I don’t know, but I’m going back tomorrow.” 

The lesson she took away from the ordeal was this: “I should have listened to my teacher who told me at age 16 this is what I should do.” She went back to college, earned her teacher certification and ended up teaching at the same district she attended as a student – Willingboro Public Schools.

Although she did not initially listen to the teacher who suggested it as a profession, she believes that offering that input early on can help boost the teacher pipeline. “Upper elementary school is a great time to get them thinking about being future educators,” she said. “I sometimes think that high school is too late. By that time, they have already heard a lot of negative things in the press and perhaps from family members about education. We want to catch them earlier.”

That’s why the center is developing an eight to 10-week curriculum for fourth to sixth graders that will give students “a glimpse behind the curtain” of what it means to be a teacher. It will be ready by September, DelColle said. 

To get students thinking about the teaching profession, she said we should stop asking them “what they want to be” and instead ask “what problems do you want to solve?” She explained, “That’s a better way of getting at what teachers do in the classroom.”

The New Jersey Future Educators Association While the Center for Future Educators encourages school staff to do what DelColle’s teacher did all those years ago – tap someone on the shoulder and say, “You’d make a great teacher” – it allows for much more than that through its two main initiatives – the New Jersey Future Educators Association, a membership group for middle and high school students; and Tomorrow’s Teachers, a curriculum available to districts that helps eleventh- and twelfth-grade students explore and learn about the teaching profession.

When a school starts a chapter of the New Jersey Future Educators Association, students receive membership cards, a handbook and the chance to attend conferences. As of June 1, 2023, there were 75 chapters — and over 750 students were registered as members. There may be additional chapters that have not registered with the organization, DelColle said.

By registering, NJFEA members get access to the center’s events, which it holds throughout the year.

“Our conferences are pretty awesome events,” she said, noting they are held regionally to ensure that no matter which part of the state members live in, they can attend.

This year, the NJFEA will hold four conferences: one at Kean University, one at The College of New Jersey, one at Stockton University and one at Montclair University. They draw hundreds of students.

Often, a former New Jersey State Teacher of the Year speaks at a conference, which DelColle noted is “kind of  like a family.” These teachers set a great example and have an uncanny ability to inspire future educators, she said.

Students attend breakout sessions on a variety of topics, which are led by faculty, adjuncts and special guests, including County and State Teachers of the Year. 

Students also meet other young adults interested in teaching. “A big part of it is the networking aspect,” DelColle said. “If a student is in a small district with five or six members in the chapter, they might hear some negativity about the profession, but when you come into a room and find 250 or 300 students who all want to be educators and the room is diverse … that can reinforce what you want to do. You understand you are not alone in the journey to the path to education – and that it is OK to be a teacher.”

Each student that belongs to a chapter pays $10 – although NJEA affiliated districts can access Pride funds to pay student membership fees. “And if there is no Pride money left, we don’t want students on free or reduced lunch programs to pay out of pocket, so if we need to, we waive the cost for them,” DelColle said. “It is more important to get kids interested – $10 is a small amount, but it helps us defray the cost.”

The diversity of the chapters reflects the diversity of the student population, with 48% being white, 11% of members being Black, 5% Asian, 24% Hispanic and 12% being “other,” which is defined as two more races. The majority of members, 82.5%, are female – although the organization is working to increase interest among males and is seeing a growing number of nonbinary students among its ranks, DelColle said.

Each chapter must have an adviser, who receives a stipend that is locally negotiated as part of the district’s contract, DelColle said.

Tomorrow’s Teachers Districts pay $525 for the Tomorrow’s Teachers curriculum, which is usually offered as an elective for juniors and seniors in high school, DelColle said.

Some districts offer additional courses leading up to the Tomorrow’s Teachers curriculum, and the center is looking at designing another course that would serve as a prelude to the offering. It may eventually offer a three-year curriculum, which could open up funding opportunities if the center qualifies as a Career and Technical Service Organization, DelColle said.

For now, however, Tomorrow’s Teachers is a one-year curriculum, with training provided through the center by certified trainers with The Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention & Advancement.

When a teacher receives the training, if they leave the district, the training goes with them – so as long as their new district buys or has bought the Tomorrow’s Teachers curriculum, that teacher can still teach the course. “You can’t hand off the teaching to someone else,” DelColle explained. 

As a result, it’s harder to track how many schools are offering the Tomorrow’s Teachers program compared with how many have NJFEA chapters, she said. 

Typically, the curriculum is updated every five years or so to ensure it is current. The center is also working on a Spanish language version and Braille version. “We want to be able to offer this to students who speak Spanish who are still developing their English language skills,” she explained.

The program offers students the chance to earn dual credit at four universities: Fairleigh Dickinson, Kean, Rider and Stockton. “A teacher needs to have gone through our training, and in most cases, they need a master’s degree to be considered being on an adjunct level, so students can earn college credits,” DelColle said. 

This summer, 35 teachers will be joining the Center for Future Educators to take the Tomorrow’s Teachers training, the highest number since 2018. “We also have three schools who will be offering a bilingual Tomorrow’s Teachers for their high school juniors and seniors,” DelColle said.

Future Educators Academy While the Center for Future Educators’ two main initiatives are the New Jersey Future Educators Association and Tomorrow’s Teachers, a third offering is gaining traction and increasingly becoming part of its core offerings: the Future Educators Academy.

The academy has its roots in the center’s Urban Teacher Academy, which it launched some years ago and which focused on STEM. While it was a great program, it was a day camp and students struggled to get a ride back and forth.

“The thought was that this was a bit of a barrier for students who wanted to come from other parts of the state and also to those who didn’t have the money for daily transportation,” DelColle said.

So, the center turned the two-week urban academy into a residential camp and expanded the focus beyond STEM as the teaching shortage extends to other areas. It was rebranded as the Future Educators Academy and launched in 2021 as a virtual academy.

With the easing of the pandemic, the academy offered a live format in the summer of 2022, welcoming 10 students from throughout the state with an emphasis on embracing a diverse student body. “Anyone can apply, but we are very clear we are looking to attract students who are underrepresented in the teacher population,” DelColle said.

At a recent academy, students heard from multiple former State Teachers of the Year as well as various school staff and administrators. College professors also spoke. “I told them they would be eating, sleeping and breathing education,” DelColle said. “And that if you don’t know if you want to be an educator when you get there, that is OK. But by the end of the week, we want you to know. Because either way, we are doing our job.”

DelColle expects about 25 students from 13 high schools to attend the academy this summer, which is offered to selected students free of charge and will be July 8-15. They must apply to go to the camp. An application committee will review applications and determine who is invited to come, DelColle said.

Asked what role school board members can play in encouraging students to explore becoming teachers, DelColle said they have important work to do. “If you don’t have an NJFEA chapter, get one started,” she said, noting that the main hurdle is simply approving a stipend for a chapter adviser. “You can also participate in Teacher Appreciation Week. Help teachers behind the scenes.”

For schools that have a Tomorrow’s Teachers course in place, she recommends board members invite students to a board meeting, so they see what goes on and the role a board of education plays in school district operations. 

Board members know as well as anyone that having a great teacher in every classroom is one of the most important building blocks of a strong public education system. The resources and services of organizations like the Center for Future Educators can help accomplish that. 

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.