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First Lady Jill Biden standing at a podium with arms outstretched in a room full of people.

First Lady Visits UT to Celebrate ‘Grow Your Own’ Program

“Teaching isn’t what we do, it’s who we are.” — Jill Biden, First Lady of the United States

First Lady Jill Biden poses for a selfie during a pep rally with leaders, participants, and supporters of the Grow Your Own program.

First Lady Jill Biden poses for a selfie during a pep rally with leaders, participants, and supporters of the Grow Your Own program.

Tennessee’s Grow Your Own teacher pipeline program received high praise Monday from First Lady Jill Biden and US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who called the initiative “an incredible model” during a visit to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“What you are doing in Tennessee is a big deal,” Cardona said. “You are the first state to launch a registered teaching apprenticeship in the country. We know our paraeducators—our teacher’s assistants—they’re there because they want to help children. Let’s support them to become our next teachers.”

During their trip to Knoxville, Biden and Cardona visited a classroom at Sarah Moore Greene Magnet Academy before arriving at the Student Union on the UT campus for a pep rally with leaders, participants, and supporters of the Grow Your Own program.

 First Lady Jill Biden and US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

First Lady Jill Biden and US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

“Teaching isn’t just what we do—it’s who we are,” Biden, who has a doctorate in education and has been both a public school teacher and community college professor, told the crowd.

“For all of us who have answered this calling, there is someone who didn’t,” she said. “Or someone who felt like maybe they had to walk away. Why is that? It’s not because they don’t want to teach; it’s because so many obstacles have stood in their way.”

The university was an early participant in the program, joining in 2020 and receiving additional support from the state in 2021. Earlier this year, the Tennessee Department of Education and the UT System announced the launch of the Tennessee Grow Your Own Center, a $20 million investment to scale the program across the state as a means of strengthening Tennessee’s educator pipeline at a time when the country is facing a teacher shortage.

David Cihak, associate dean of Professional Licensure for the UT College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences (CEHHS) and director of the David T. Bailey Graduate School of Education, and his team have been instrumental in positioning CEHHS as an early participant in the program to not only address the teacher shortage, but to help remove barriers for those wanting to enter the profession.

“The Tennessee Grow Your Own model ensures access to high-quality, flexible, and barrier-free programs for anyone, anywhere, at every stage of life who aspires to become a professional Tennessee teacher or leader and impact their community,” said Cihak.

“Ensuring every student has access to a high-quality teacher is one of our most important callings, and the Tennessee Grow Your Own Center is serving as a national model for strengthening the educator pipeline,” UT System President Randy Boyd said.

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn also pointed to the program as an example for other states.

“We know that teachers change lives and they build communities,” Schwinn said. “Grow Your Own is one of those ideas—it’s a big, bold action step that we can do not just in the state of Tennessee but as a country.”

The investment in the program speaks to its early success and the impact universities can have when they work directly with communities to meet their needs, said UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman.

“For the first lady to be here today to recognize and celebrate the innovative and impactful Grow Your Own Center is incredibly meaningful,” Plowman said. “It speaks to the quality of this program and the leadership in our state.”

Before the rally with the First Lady and education secretary, the audience heard from a panel of current students seeking to become teachers and graduates of the Grow Your Own program. Members of the panel discussed why they felt called to teach and the support they’ve received to help them on their path to becoming an educator.

“What an honor it is to have Dr. Biden and secretary Cardona here to celebrate this important work. They recognize the need for highly prepared teachers and the solution for recruiting those teachers. Tennessee’s innovative Grow Your Own program is exactly what we need at this time to recruit candidates into teaching who may never have been able to do this work otherwise,” said Ellen McIntyre, CEHHS dean.

Through its eight departments and 12 centers, the UT Knoxville College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences enhances the quality of life for all through research, outreach, and practice. Find out more at

Find Out More About the Grow Your Own Program

“Grow Your Own” programs are one way of becoming a licensed educator. “Grow Your Own” programs allow students to work in schools (and get paid) as Apprentice Teachers while completing requirements for teacher licensure. UTK’s current Grow Your Own programs are available to candidates with a bachelor’s degree and a desire to become a licensed educator. CEHHS will be holding an information session on September 21st from 5:30-6:30 PM regarding our Grow Your Own programs. This session will be vis Zoom and will be recorded if you are unavailable to attend “live.” If you would like to receive further information regarding Grow Your Own and our information session on the 21st, please fill out this form: Grow Your Own Program Interest Form