By Todd Finkelmeyer
With the school year winding down and the sun shining bright on a warm, late-May morning, Dianna Schwartz admits she is looking forward to wrapping up her first year as a classroom teacher.
“Some days can be hard — really hard,” Schwartz says. “I’m really looking forward to Summer.”
Schwartz is a first-year teacher of sixth grade English and social studies at Madison’s Sherman Middle School. The first year in front of your own class is notoriously difficult, but teaching can be tough and exhausting, even for veteran educators. Coming out of the pandemic, this work is arguably more difficult now than ever — a reality that’s reflected in the teacher shortage garnering significant attention around Wisconsin and across the nation.
When asked why she wanted to become a teacher, the 2022 UW–Madison School of Education graduate says matter-of-factly, “Someone has to do this important work.”
It’s important work that Schwartz has been pursuing for years. In the summer of 2015, as a 15-year-old entering her sophomore year at Madison West High School, Schwartz started participating in a program facilitated by the UW–Madison School of Education and Madison Metropolitan School District that provides mentorship and support for students who are interested in becoming a teacher.
Even with these vital supports, pursuing her goal of becoming a teacher was never easy. The oldest of six siblings raised by a single mom, Schwartz put in long hours to get her schoolwork done, worked at an after-school program to make attending UW–Madison financially feasible, and helped at home. She was also contending with the daily challenges and symptoms of Crohn’s disease, which further sapped her energy.
But in the fall of 2020, Schwartz learned of a new and one-of-a-kind program that would be a game changer for her education and professional goals. As a junior at UW–Madison entering the Elementary Education teacher preparation program, Schwartz and her classmates were told about the launch of the UW–Madison School of Education Wisconsin Teacher Pledge.
This donor-funded program pays the equivalent of in-state tuition and fees, testing, and licensing costs for students enrolled in one of the School of Education’s 15 teacher preparation programs. In return, graduates “pledge” to teach for four years at a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade public or private school in Wisconsin. Those who teach in a high-need school or subject area fulfill the promise in three years.
“The Teacher Pledge made it possible for me to stop working in the after-school programs that would often go until 6 or 7 at night,” Schwartz says. “It allowed me to focus all my energy on becoming a teacher.
Supporting future educators, offering solutions to the teacher shortage
According to Brown University’s Annenberg Institute, there were at least 36,000 teacher vacancies across the nation last summer and, at the time, another 163,000 educators were working in positions they weren’t fully certified to teach.
In Wisconsin, the story is much the same. A report released this spring by the Wisconsin Policy Forum noted the number of emergency teaching licenses issued by the state has nearly tripled over the past decade. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction issued 3,197 emergency teacher licenses during the 2021-22 school year, up from 1,125 in 2012-13. These emergency licenses allow a school district that can’t find a properly licensed teacher to hire an unlicensed individual.
School of Education Dean Diana Hess says the Teacher Pledge is dedicated to helping provide solutions to this dire situation in Wisconsin.
“Teaching is a very difficult job, especially when you are getting started in the profession,” says Hess, who began her education career as a high school social studies teacher in Downers Grove, Illinois, in 1979. “We believe that if teachers stick with teaching for three or four years, they will gain confidence, keep with it, and better enjoy the vital work they are doing.”
At its launch in the fall of 2020, the Teacher Pledge was funded to run five academic years thanks to the support of several lead donors who contributed more than $18 million. However, generous donors have made it possible to extend the life of the Pledge. In March 2022, the program was extended by a year. And, most recently, a $5 million gift from Susan and James Patterson this past spring allowed the School of Education to make the program available through the 2026-27 academic year. The generous gift from the Pattersons also jump started the School’s efforts to make the Pledge available through 2027-28.
Susan Patterson, an alumna of the School of Education’s Art Department (BS ‘79, MFA ‘82), is a New York Times bestselling co-author of children’s books and the novel, “Things I Wish I Told My Mother.” Patterson is also a passionate advocate for reading education.
“Teachers have never been more important than they are right now in America,” says Patterson. “My mother was a professor of nursing at Wisconsin and Jim’s mom was a middle school teacher. We’re proud to help support this amazing Teacher Pledge program.”
James Patterson, the world’s bestselling author, is a fellow supporter of reading education, schools, and universities — and is a self-described “honorary Badger.”
Hess says she hopes additional donor support follows. She has set a goal of extending the program through 2029-30.
Extensions of the Teacher Pledge also allow additional research on the program’s efficacy.
The Student Success Through Applied Research (SSTAR) Lab, led by School of Education Professor Nick Hillman, is assessing whether the program can serve as a model for other higher education institutions, university systems, or states to combat teacher shortages in Wisconsin and across the country.
“Especially in rural areas, and in some particular subject areas like special education, the teacher shortage is a significant problem and there is no simple solution,” says Hess. “But we think our Teacher Pledge holds the potential to inspire more people to enter the profession and to keep them teaching longer.”
Hundreds of Pledgers working across Wisconsin
In a few short years, the Teacher Pledge has already helped hundreds of students pursue their goal of becoming a teacher.
Since the fall of 2020, 641 undergraduate and graduate students have taken the Teacher Pledge. This spring, 227 Teacher Pledge alumni were working in Wisconsin classrooms in 65 public school districts and 11 private schools.
Another 130 Teacher Pledgers graduated this spring and in August. By September 2023, more than 350 Teacher Pledge alumni will be teaching in Wisconsin public or private schools.
Here are some thoughts from a few alumni about how the Teacher Pledge helped them:
• Alejandro Núñez grew up in Miami, Florida, earned an undergraduate degree in engineering from Ohio State University in 2019, and landed a job at Epic Systems just outside Madison.
“I majored in engineering mostly because of math,” says Núñez. “I wasn’t particularly excited about an engineering career. After two years at Epic, I decided it wasn’t really for me.”
So he decided to pursue becoming a teacher.
“The School of Education was highly ranked and the Pledge offered peace of mind and showed how the university was really trying to support educators,” says Núñez. “It was very enticing.”
Núñez was accepted into the School of Education’s master’s degree program in Curriculum and Instruction, which he started in June 2021. He completed the coursework in August 2022, leading to certification in secondary math education.
Núñez taught as a bilingual math teacher at Verona Area High School just outside Madison this past academic year, and is returning in 2023-24 to teach geometry and algebra in Spanish.
“The main reason I accepted the Verona job was because I would be supporting one of the marginalized student populations, which is newcomers and multilingual learners,” says Núñez, whose mom is from Colombia and father from Venezuela.
Núñez has already been recognized as a young educator with a great deal of potential — he was one of just 29 high school mathematics and science teachers from around the country to earn a prestigious Knowles Teaching Fellowship last fall. Knowles is an intensive, five-year program that supports early career high school mathematics and science teachers and leaders.
“The Teacher Pledge helped make my decision to pursue teaching kind of a no-brainer,” says Núñez.
• Katie Swope, who graduated this spring from the Elementary Education program, has wanted to work in a classroom since she first started attending school in Stanley, Wisconsin, a rural community about 180 miles northwest of Madison.
“I remember sitting in my kindergarten class and looking at my teacher, Mrs. Anderson, reading us a story,” says Swope. “As I got older, a lot of my values aligned with teaching and wanting to live a life of serving and helping others.”
Swope says the financial assistance provided by the Teacher Pledge was incredibly helpful for someone who is supporting herself.
“As a first-generation college student, going to college can be a little overwhelming,” she says. “All of the supports provided by the School of Education, including the Teacher Pledge, have made things much easier.”
• Baustin Bowers, who earned an undergraduate degree in English education from UW–Platteville, came to UW–Madison to earn a master’s degree in special education.
“I really want to help students and enjoy the one-on-one aspect of special education,” says Bowers, who student taught this past year in the rural Argyle School District, about 40 miles southwest of Madison. “I just fell in love with special education.”
Bowers says the Teacher Pledge was instrumental in letting him pursue this new opportunity. After earning his master’s degree this summer, he will teach in Argyle again in 2023-24.
“Already working as an educator, going back to school full- time was going to be a significant financial challenge,” he says. “The Teacher Pledge is what made it possible.”
• Alyssa Rice was a department manager at a national health food chain when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. She decided a career change was in order.
The Teacher Pledge ended up being pivotal in Rice’s decision to pursue a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the School of Education.
“Without the Teacher Pledge program, I wouldn’t have gone back to school,” says Rice. “I still have loans from my undergraduate years. And with those and a family, it wasn’t really feasible to go back and take out more loans.”
Rice graduated in August, certified to teach social studies in middle and high schools. “After I found the Teacher Pledge program, that sealed the deal for me,” she says.
Why I teach: becoming a role model for future generations
Many aspiring educators are driven by deep convictions about how teachers can change the world — and the Teacher Pledge is helping them live out those ideals.
“Growing up, I didn’t see many teachers who looked like me. That’s one of the biggest reasons I went into education,” says Trixie Cataggatan, who takes pride in her cultural identity as both a Filipino and Asian American. “One of my goals is that my classroom can be a place where students can feel safe and loved, and take pride in their identity — whatever that may be.”
Cataggatan graduated this spring from the School’s Elementary Education program, with a focus on early childhood and English as a second language.
She explains that her journey to becoming a teacher is rooted in a “profound love for education in my earliest years of school.”
“As a young child, I was surrounded by very exceptional teachers who impacted my life,” she says.
However, Cataggatan, who grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Madison, says she was “ashamed” of her culture when she was young, and focused on “just fitting in” at school.
“I want to become a great teacher who can become a role model for future generations of students — and especially those who are Filipino or Asian American,” she says. “I think it’s important to create an environment where all students feel seen and valued.”
Dianna Schwartz, the sixth grade English and social studies teacher at Sherman Middle School, echoed Cataggatan.
“I did not grow up with many Black teachers,” says Schwartz. “I think it’s really important that students of color get to see teachers of color as a way that they can more easily see themselves.”
She says it is also incredibly important for white students to see Black teachers, and other teachers of color, be successful.
Why I teach: science professionals move into the classroom
• Madeline Abbatacola, who earned a double major in history and wildlife ecology from UW–Stevens Point in December 2019, worked a couple jobs after graduating. But she decided teaching was her calling after discovering how much she enjoyed teaching kids about Science.
Abbatacola enrolled at UW–Madison in June 2021 and earned an MS in curriculum and instruction in August 2022, leading to teaching certification in secondary science education. This past academic year, she taught life sciences — from biology to a new anatomy and physiology class — at Cameron High School in northwestern Wisconsin.
“I had some awesome teachers when I was younger who made me really feel empowered and like I had a stake in my own education,” says Abbatacola, who grew up in Chicago. “I recognize they’re not all going to be biologists or physicists, but I hope my students can feel empowered and strong in their own identity when they leave my classroom.”
• Abigail Laumer, who earned an undergraduate degree in genetics and genomics from UW– Madison, says her original goal was to become a genetic counselor.
However, after some job shadowing, she realized the aspect of counseling she most enjoyed was teaching people about genetics.
After earning her undergraduate degree in just three years, she immediately entered the School of Education’s MS in Curriculum and Instruction program, graduating in August 2022 with teaching certification in secondary science education.
During this past academic year, Laumer taught four classes of freshman biology and an environmental science class to upperclassmen at Appleton East High School, where she once was a student herself.
“I find science to be a good mix of structure and creativity, which fits well with the way that I think and operate,” she says.
“I had a lot of different science teachers growing up that I really enjoyed and looked up to. They played a big role in inspiring me to become a science teacher as well.” She says working at the school she graduated from has been a great experience.
“My favorite science teacher from high school is now my mentor,” she says.
‘I’m making an impact’
Even though Dianna Schwartz was counting down the days to summer break this past spring at Sherman Middle School, she was also energized and excited to witness the important impact she is already having as a teacher.
As part of an end-of-the-school-year project, students reflected on what they had learned and how they had grown. They also discussed leadership and what being a good leader looks like.
“You don’t always realize if you’re getting through or making a difference,” says Schwartz. “But during a recent lesson, the students were sharing with me how they’ve grown and it was incredible.”
Schwartz says one student told her, “Ms. Schwartz, we see you as a leader.”
Other students smiled at her, echoing their classmate’s sentiment. “It made me want to cry,” she recalls. “It’s the realization that I’m making a difference. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t know if I’m changing the world — but I’m making an impact on my students every day.”