By Hayley Milon Bour and Patrick Szabo
Loudoun County Public Schools signed on 80 new teacher cadets this year, through a program that recruits students to pursue education degrees and ultimately return to Loudoun at the head of classrooms.
A group of new cadets signed their letters of intent in a ceremony last week at Loudoun County High school. Edgar Hatrick, the school system superintendent from 1991 to 2014 and a former classroom teacher at the school, addressed the students during the ceremony, welcoming them to an “amazing career” that “will never get old.”
Hatrick told the cadets to focus on the educators that taught them from kindergarten through their senior years in high school and to remember what they did, not what they said.
“They will be a good touchstone for you as you deal with the realities of teaching,” he said.
High school seniors who complete two courses, Student Cadet 1 and Student Cadet 2, are offered a letter of intent which represents a future teaching job upon completing their college degrees. The courses are dual enrollment, so students earn college credit while still in high school.
“Education is very important, and over the years there has been an emphasis on recognizing that teaching is a difficult job,” said Lynn Caldwell, the division’s Student Cadet Teacher recruiter.
Cadets begin their junior year learning about education theory and different learning styles. Then, they go into the classrooms and act as teacher assistants.
The program is nationwide, and arrived in Loudoun County just last year. The first crop of cadets is just finishing up their freshmen year in college, so Caldwell said it is tough to gauge how successful the program will be in bringing participants back as teachers. Teacher Cadets offers scholarship opportunities across the country to further the allure of a career in education.
Robert Brown, a senior at Dominion High School, said he was inspired by his own teachers in Loudoun to pursue an education career. One teacher in particular, Damian Knecht, of Lowes Island Elementary School, left a big impression on him.
“You could tell he genuinely cared. He would ask what we were interested in,” Brown said.
Brown and his fifth-grade pals had an interest in space and aliens. To make humanities courses more tolerable for his science-loving students, Knecht tailored his lesson plans with readings about outer space. Knecht’s care and thoughtfulness for his students resonated with Brown, who began to picture himself teaching one day. He said the classroom experience he got as a cadet was invaluable.
“That experience is just really helpful, like ‘is this something I want to do for the rest of my life,’” Brown said.
Brown will go to James Madison University next year to study elementary education. The Teacher Cadet program will connect him to a recruiter and mentor during his sophomore year to guide him through the job search process. Two lifelong friends he made in Knecht’s fifth-grade class were also inspired teachers themselves.
Cadets have six years between signing their letters of intent and completing their degrees. The district will try to accommodate new teachers with jobs at their schools of choice.
Virginia is facing a massive teacher shortage. The state Department of Education’s most recent data from 2019 shows more than 1,000 teaching vacancies. VDOE reports that the most in-demand areas are special education, elementary school, and middle school. The pandemic has only worsened the problem, as many teachers took time away from classrooms and decided to change careers or retire.
The program aims to build a strong pipeline for candidates to fill vacancies across the district.
“What we’re looking to do is grow our own. The number of teachers that are retiring and the number of students that are in college—the numbers aren’t adding up,” Caldwell said.
The hope is that the program will heighten interest in the education field. Last year, 100 students signed letters of intent to return as teachers; This year’s crop of cadets saw a 20 percent drop off, which is unsurprising with students out of classrooms because of hybrid and distance learning.
Kira Lao, a senior cadet at John Champe High School, said the idea of returning to teach in her own community has appeal.
“It is so special getting to teach people from this area,” Lao said. “I can relate to them more and make more connections and build a stronger bond.”
Lao, who also volunteers with Best Buddies Loudoun Chapter, said helping people has always been her calling. She is headed to University of Louisville next fall to get a degree in early childhood education, the same discipline in which she hopes to one day teach. She believes her generation of teachers will bring something special to the classroom.
“We’re more open-minded with people and more accepting than any other generation. We’re more confident with who we are and we’re not afraid of judgment,” she said.
Caldwell thinks the program will make an impact in Northern Virginia, producing more teachers and increasing interest in the field of education.
“I’m so looking forward to seeing where the program takes us, and hopefully it encourages others in the Washington, DC area to create the same opportunities,” she said.