NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — For decades, teachers have been paid less than college graduates in other professions, and recently that gap has grown wider than ever. But one Tennessee program wants to take away at least one financial stress teachers are facing – student loans.

When he was a teenager, Malachi Johnson considered going to a four-year college.

“I was still in high school. I wasn’t sure yet, or what path I wanted to take,” said Johnson.

He was in JROTC and thought a military career sounded good. He could go to a state school and take out student loans. That was the plan, until his stepmom told him about a new program in Tennessee.

“When I heard about the program, and I saw that there would be no student debt at all, now I thought that was amazing. And it sounded too good to be true.”

It’s called Grow Your Own, and it is an alternative to a four-year teaching degree and having to take out massive student loans; you get hands-on experience training in a real classroom during the day, while taking night classes; you get paid for the classroom time; and can finish in three years with a bachelor’s degree in education; and a huge selling point: it’s tuition free.

“I was relieved at the fact that I knew what I had to pay anything at the end.”

TN Grow Your Own program
Malachi Johnson takes part in TN Grow Your Own program (Courtesy of Malachi Johnson)

Dr. Prentice Chandler, dean at Eriksson College of Education at Austin Peay State University, runs the teacher program in his district.

“There’s a narrative that people don’t want to be teachers, and what we have found is that that is simply not true. People do want to be teachers. What we need to do as universities and school districts is find a way to make it more affordable and more accessible,” said Dr. Chandler.

When teacher pay isn’t keeping up with the times, tackling student loan debt is another path to help teachers financially.

In Tennessee, according to the Economic Policy Institute, average teacher salaries are 23.8% lower than other college-educated professionals. That puts our state in the bottom half, 33rd in the country.

Tennessee is the first to create a program that eliminates tuition for teachers.

“I do think this is a model that the nation should adopt.”

Johnson is one of the first to graduate from Grow Your Own, and sees its financial help as life-changing for teachers.

“I feel like it would encourage a lot more people to go for that dream of being a teacher, if that’s what they desire,” said Johnson.

Tennessee is the first state to have federal approval to make this a permanent program.

Organizers said that opens the door for other states to replicate Grow Your Own and save their teachers from student loan debt.