Photo: UNCC School of Education, Daija Peeler/QCity Metro

Susy Toth never expected to become a teacher. She went to school as a journalist.

She left the field 12 years ago, in search of her next career path. It wasn’t until she began volunteering at her kid’s school that she had a serious interest in getting into the classroom.

“Five years ago, I found a job in school as an interpreter,” she said. “I started getting more in contact with the kids and the parents so I decided that I wanted to be in a classroom.”

Toth wasn’t sure where to start, but in 2019, a new program at UNC Charlotte called Teacher Quality Partnership program allowed her to get her teacher license and degree for free. 

The program helps graduate students – pursuing their master’s degree in education –   receive a living wage stipend of $35,000 in getting their licenses if they commit to teaching three years in a district.

The program started in 2019 with Cabarrus County Schools and Kannapolis City Schools.Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) will join the program in July to help solve the district’s teacher shortage.

UNCC hopes the partnership – free for each district – provides a long-term solution locally to the teacher recruitment and retention efforts. 

“Our hope is that once the program comes to an end in each district, that efforts will be launched to sustain the program even once the federal funding has run out,” program director Scott Kissau told QCity Metro.

Since the pandemic, CMS, like schools nationwide, is suffering from teacher shortages because of recruitment and retention struggles.

As of Thursday, Jan.19, the district has more than  200 teacher vacancies, with nearly 40 more expected by the end of the school year.

The beginning of TGP at UNC Charlotte

In 2019, UNC Charlotte, among other universities nationwide, applied for a federal teacher aid grant to kickstart the Teacher Quality Partnership program to support local teacher recruitment and retention efforts.

Kissau said the program provides participants a  balance to pursue their degree and continue teaching in the classroom without sacrificing their paycheck.

The coursework takes about a year and a half to complete for participants to get their teacher license and master’s degree, Kissau said.

The last three years, they are teaching in a classroom.

The 2019  grant was used in partnership with Cabarrus County Schools and Kannapolis City Schools to fund three cohorts of 12 teachers each during the program’s five-year duration.

UNCC applied and was awarded a second grant in 2022. The grant will be used to fund the first cohort of CMS teachers.

To be selected, participants must have an undergraduate degree from an accredited institution and meet admission GPA criteria of 2.75 or higher.

Participants must also have content knowledge in a field relative to key subjects taught in school. Praxis tests are also available for entry into the program.

“The grant really prioritizes high need fields like math, science, English language arts, career in technical education, and Spanish,” Kissau said. “To be eligible for this grant opportunity, [applicants] have to be seeking licensure in one of those high needs areas.”

They are also required to complete UNCC’s graduate certificate program to get their teaching license within the first three years of the program.

While they are studying for their degree, participants work in a classroom setting with a clinical educator, who provides them one-on-one support, Kissau said. 

Participants get placed in their own classroom by their third year.

Kissau said participants can decide if they want to change schools and aren’t obligated to continue on with the profession after the program ends. 

“That’s totally up to them, but they have to commit to three years,” he said.

The grant also aims to increase the pipeline of Black teachers.

 “Teachers of color are underrepresented in our schools, so we have set a goal that at least 50% of the candidates that are admitted would be candidates of color,” Kissau said.

The program also offers participants dual certification to  help with English language learners. 

Filling a need

CMS is currently in the process of selecting candidates for the program, but diversifying its teacher population is a key priority,  according to Rob Ellyson, Executive Director of talent acquisition at CMS

CMS’ student demographic is predominantly Black and Hispanic. Ellyson said the district wants candidates to mirror its students.

“It is an opportunity to select candidates that have a diverse background,” he said. ”We do recognize that students that have an opportunity to learn from teachers that are like them, build a strong positive experience.”

The district especially wants to target multilingual candidates to help with English language learners , Ellyson said.

“A strong consideration in joining this program was to be able to provide teachers with resources that also can support students in our schools,” he said.

Rob Ellyson said the partnership helps the district amid a pipeline shortage. CMS has hired teachers through lateral entry programs, but many aren’t prepared to teach in the classroom and have to learn on the job.

The district expects the program to fix this issue.

“They’re supported by the university. They graduate with a master’s, and they come out very well prepared,”Ellyson said.

How it’s worked so far

When Cabarrus County Schools joined the program in 2019, the district was taking a precautionary approach towards staffing.

The district’s human resource director Michael Williams said the move was in preparation for a surplus of teacher retirements and lack of college students studying in the profession.

Like CMS, Cabarrus suffered from a number of inexperienced teachers. Williams said having teachers who aren’t prepared doesn’t help the students.

“They don’t have the pedagogical knowledge to be able to do the instruction,” he said. “They’re going into the school system, but they’re learning it while teaching kids at the same time.”   

The program allows them to monitor and train their teachers and provides a sense of stability for the students, Williams said. 

Cabarrus County Schools isn’t able to apply for a second-term in the program, but are better equipped in hiring for the future, Williams said.

A new career move

In 2019, a friend told Susan Toth about the debuting program. She applied, but didn’t expect to be selected because of her age, applying when she was 53 years old.

“I consider myself as a smart person, but I’m just a little bit older than other people when they start this career,” she said. 

She got accepted into the first cohort. Toth said she didn’t have any trouble adjusting to her new profession. She said the program helped her balance earning her degree and onsite training.

Now, she’s in her own classroom where she teaches Spanish at Harold E. Winkler Middle School in Cabarrus County.

“It is never too late to pursue your dreams, and there’s people out there that will help you achieve them,” she said.

Adjusting to a new culture

When Tereso Salas, a Peruvian native, decided she wanted to teach in the United States, she was nervous.

Though she had been teaching in her home country for nearly 20 years, she was uneasy about how she would adjust to the culture and language barrier.

“I had fears that my english wasn’t gonna be good enough and that I wasn’t going to adjust to a different way of teaching,” she told QCity Metro.

Salas said once she got into the Teacher Quality Partnership program, she had the confidence that she’d be fine.

“The teachers were very supportive and understanding, she said. “It was almost like they took my hand and they led me through all of this time.”

After a year of training at Kannapolis Schools, Salas became a full-time Spanish teacher at West Cabarrus High School in the fall of 2022.

She enjoys the staff and students and doesn’t have plans of leaving after her three years are up.

“The longer, the better,” she said.

Jalon is a general assignment reporter for QCity Metro. He is a graduate of North Carolina Central University and an avid sports fan. (

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