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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.”

On a trip to Knoxville Monday, 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
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.”

UT Knoxville 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.

“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.


Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,