Changes to TEACH Grants bring hope for new teachers, but educators say more is still needed

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Changes to federal grants for aspiring teachers could help new teachers hold onto the money as they start their new careers. Grants that were supposed to help ease college costs, left many with thousands in student debt. Despite the changes, education leaders say more needs to be done to support new teachers.

The U.S Department of Education loosened paperwork restrictions around the grant program. Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education or TEACH Grant was created in 2007 to address teaching shortages. The grants are intended for teaching students who plan to teach high-demand subjects in low-income areas. High demand subjects being STEM and Special Education.

Students were eligible for up to $4,000 a year for school. After receiving grants, they had to teach for at least 4 years within 8 years of graduating. If they did not meet that requirement or failed to turn in the necessary paperwork on time, their grants became loans that had to be paid in full with interest.

“Previously when a teacher accepted the TEACH Grant, they moved into a teaching position, there were deadlines and paperwork were required that then teachers sometimes didn’t respond to immediately and unfortunately what happened is that those grants turned into loans and those loans came in increases in what they would pay,” said Dr. Cynthia Chambers Associate Dean for Teacher Education at ETSU

The changes that began July 1, 2021, loosen paperwork restrictions for new teachers who accepted the grants as students. Recent graduates no longer have to submit a form indicating they have started or plan to start teaching within 120 days. When it comes to annual forms proving their status, failing to turn those in on time will not automatically turn the grants into loans. A change Chambers says will help with both recruitment and retention.

“The changes to the TEACH Grant have really enabled the grant to be more accessible to students, so on the recruitment side it’s a grant students are going to want to tap into because it’s going to help them fulfill their goals of becoming a teacher in a high needs school and in high need area. On the backend of it, the government has made it such that the program allows for better retention of teachers. So as they move through the process of fulfilling their service obligation, they can do that with ease,” said Chambers.

She also pointed to easing the teacher’s workload so they can focus on their position.

“The grant itself is going to allow teachers to not worry about some of their personal barriers that sometimes get in the way of fulfilling the service obligation, so they can attend to both their personal and professional goals of being teachers in these school districts,” said Chambers. “

Since its creation, more than 200,000 students have received grants through the program. The changes were made last year by Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. They came after a federal watchdog agency found in 2015 that thousands of the grants had become loans. According to an Education Department report, as of 2019, almost half the grants had become loans, and most simply because recipients failed to turn in annual paperwork proving their teaching status. Leaving many saddled with thousands in debt.

Last week, Education Department officials explained the only way the grants can become loans now is if students fail to complete four years of teaching within the eight-year deadline or request it.

The appeals process was also expanded to allow students to request consideration if their grant is turned into a loan. The Department will also accept a wider range of reasons that would allow students to get a full year of teaching credit even if they work just part of the year.

Dr. Chambers says the changes will help with recruiting new teachers to the field.

“Money always helps with recruitment, so if grants are available to help teachers enter the field, that’s wonderful,” said Chambers.

However, Dr. Chambers said more needs to be done to support new teachers.

“We need to not only pull students into having an interest in, but supporting them with grants like the TEACH Grant, but also the mentorship of ‘here’s a teacher who’s been successful and had a rewarding career and how can they help you see the rewards and how you can make an impact in our region,” said Chambers.

Chambers says recruitment needs to begin as early as middle school to show students the possibilities their future could hold.

“We really need to start talking to middle school students and high school students really early to help them believe that they can become teachers and the teaching profession is not an area with low salaries or so much paperwork that you lose your reward. It’s a career path that’s full of reward,” said Dr. Chambers.

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