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Virginia Journal of Education

Looking Ahead

Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow shows that the teachers of the future are in your classroom today.

by John M. Merritt 

“Which do you love more, teaching or English?” I will never forget the graduate student who stopped by to interview everyone in the English department at the urban Baltimore high school where I worked. She made this same inquiry of all 12 of us. Eleven answers were English; I was the lone teaching response.

 Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the world of English. I’ve been a ninth-grade language arts teacher for 19 years straight now. I’m enamored with the traditional freshman characters of Romeo, Juliet, Odysseus, Penelope, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, and Doodle. I delight in teaching my kids the craft of writing—how to reach and wow their audience. Composition books with journal entries and computers with blogs are a part of my daily life, and I can’t imagine an existence without them. But they aren’t my love. 

 I love teaching. It’s a love affair I’ve had since I was a teenager when I began driving a school bus at age 16. In North Carolina in the 1980s, students who were 16½ and had the proper license could drive buses, and I signed up. I relished interacting with my kids, helping them with their homework, and taping their hand-drawn masterpieces on the empty walls of yellow bus number 2. I decided then and there that I had to be surrounded by young people, so I went to college, majored in English, and began my currently 20-year career in education. 

I started my journey in rural central Virginia, where there were more cows and tobacco fields than people. There, I was given nothing but a textbook and a list of SOLs, so I learned quickly how to develop my own creative and engaging teaching materials. After that, I dodged weapons teaching in urban Baltimore, where I also learned how to reach students who had no intention of being reached. 

 In Virginia Beach, however, I found my suburban teaching niche, and I’ve been there ever since. My first year at Kellam High School was spent roaming the halls with a cart and teaching in six different classrooms. No one understood why this low man on the totem pole was smiling every day and enjoying his work so much. The next year I graduated to a portable trailer, and the year after that, I got my very own classroom inside the building. I’m still there.

Back then, life was good in room 211—the place where I could be myself, have fun, impart knowledge, and change the world bit by bit, student by student. No matter what kind of politics or paradoxes went on outside the closed door of my Kellam classroom, I knew that my own little world of English education inside was a symbiotic utopia of teacher and students. It couldn’t get any better.

But I was wrong. It could get better. When I heard about this new program called Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow (VTfT)—a high school course designed to introduce juniors and seniors to the rewarding field of education—I knew I had to be a part of it. I snagged a spot in the training during the summer of 2006, and there, in a tacky conference room in a Richmond hotel, I fell in love with a curriculum designed to do its own kind of snagging. 

And what a curriculum it is! I must admit that I’m pretty snobby when it comes to using the teaching materials of others. I usually prefer to devise my own creative methods, but this course of study seems flawless, impeccable, truly designed to give interested students a realistic peek into the world of teaching—the good and the bad. 

My kids respond by working like the busy, productive, effective teachers they study. They create crafty creatures for their own puppet shows on the topic of self-esteem. The genteel gestures of guest speakers give real-life knowledge galore. We meander miles down the hallways of Kellam and our feeder schools to learn the ropes of education from the point of view of all educational stakeholders. My students plan lessons, create classroom management plans, and even volunteer in the community. As a culminating activity for the course, they complete an eight-week internship with a cooperating teacher at an elementary or middle school.

“It’s a really fun class that lets me experience what I’ve always wanted to do with my life—teach!” says Rachel, one of my students. “I can’t imagine my high school career without VTfT!”

Over the past five years, our VTfT program in Virginia Beach has changed and morphed to meet the needs of our students. We started slow, in 2007, piloting the class in four of our high schools. After a year of success, we expanded to all 11 high schools, and there we remain today. 

One of the most exciting aspects of this class is the fact that our human resources department sees it as a way to “grow our own.” Always trying to attract the best teachers to our school division, we instituted the Virginia Beach Future Teacher Award—where one or two students in each school receive a contract to teach in our division upon successful graduation with proper credentials from an accredited college or university. We have awarded these contracts every year since the beginning, and at the end of last school year, we actually had our first winners come back seeking employment. One candidate even received three placement offers. Now my students are interning next door to a brand new teacher who went through our VTfT program. Full circle. Human Resources and principals definitely see the great benefits and results of our VTfT program.

In 2010 we began partnering with a university to offer our students dual enrollment credits. Not only do they receive one high school elective credit, now they also can earn four college credits for their studies. My kids often come back after graduation for a visit and tell me that everything they’re learning in their education classes is exactly what they learned in our VTfT course. It’s nice now that that they can actually cash in on that through dual enrollment.

Many of the juniors who took the VTfT course begged for a second year of it. Once they caught the teaching bug they wanted more and more, so in 2010, we launched Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow II—a project-oriented, internship-intensive course for seniors. When I presented the idea to our superintendent, he told me to go with it, but with the warning “it better not be more of the same.” I took this to heart and began writing a curriculum I felt enhanced and increased the skills and knowledge they acquired in VTfT I while also showing them more of the career they loved.

Students in VTfT II spend approximately 75 of the 93 instructional days in their internship classrooms working with their cooperating teachers and students. They get to see their kids learn, grow and change from September to June. They develop and teach lessons, design projects that help the community, write research papers on educational issues, compose their philosophies of teaching, and create electronic portfolios of their entire, yearlong teaching experiences. They even blog weekly about their internships: Talk about rigor, relevance and relationships!

And if that weren’t enough, our students can even get stamped and verified through our industry certification program. At the end of their first year of VTfT I, my students take the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences Education Fundamentals test. If they meet the standards, they leave with an official certificate endorsing them as pre-professionals in the education world.

I’ve watched many students grow tremendously since the inception of this worthwhile program, but as I sit and reflect, I think I have changed even more. I make decisions more carefully now because I know my students will ask why I did what I did. I sometimes allow others to teach my kids because I simply can’t be an expert on everything. And in the deepest, darkest depths of my high school English teacher psyche, I’d have to admit that I’ve grown a little more fond of the elementary students my kids work with.

Before VTfT, I was a teacher who loved to shut the doors of my classroom to the outside world and enjoy the camaraderie and learning going on inside. My Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow classes have taught me that good stuff goes on beyond the four walls of room 211, and my kids can benefit from it. Heck, so can I!

Yes, I’m an English teacher, and I’m proud of it. I’ll always adore my English classes. I mean, really, what literature teacher worth his salt doesn’t think Shakespeare is dreamy and wants to share it with the world? But it’s teaching that I adore. Every day I teach these future educators, I know I’m training them for a world I love, a world they’ll love, a world that needs all of us to love them.

Merritt is a member of the Virginia Beach Education Association and teaches at Kellam High School.


Teachers for Tomorrow In Your School

If you’d like to learn more about the Virginia Teachers for Tomorrow (VTfT) program and how you might make it happen for your students, visit the Virginia Department of Education website’s VTfT page at There, you’ll find comprehensive information about the program, including a video and a rundown of the curriculum.


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