Savannah O’Connor, a junior in Rowan University’s College of Education, doesn’t have much free time. She balances her regular classwork with weekly classroom observations, all while studying for the challenging Praxis Subject Tests, which she must pass to become a certified teacher.
“The due dates, the money you have to pay [to take the tests] and the studying … that’s been kind of on my chest for a while,” she said.
But a new tradition launched by the New Jersey university to honor and acknowledge future educators recently helped lift her spirits and boost her confidence in her chosen profession. For the first time, Rowan conducted an Induction and Pinning Ceremony to welcome education majors who had passed the program’s halfway point on their path to becoming a teacher.
At first, O’Connor questioned the importance of the pinning ceremony.
“I wasn’t sure if this was something … I should miss my class for,” said O’Connor, who had an evening course that conflicted with the event. “[But] when I was there, it was such empowerment from Rowan itself to keep going in your program and to know that you’re halfway there and you got over a major hump already.”
The event was akin to pinning ceremonies that have long been the norm for newly graduated nurses, which are said to date back to the badges awarded to Nightingale School of Nursing graduates at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London in the 1880s.
At the Rowan ceremony, students, cheered by friends and family, walked across the stage to receive pins from the College of Education’s dean, Gaëtane Jean-Marie. Then they put on the pins and together recited an affirmation of the teaching profession’s code of ethics, akin to the Florence Nightingale Pledge that nursing students sometimes recite.
“Today I begin the process of becoming an educator,” read the affirmation. “I take the first step into this profession, laying a foundation for succeeding generations to build their lives. I dedicate myself to the advancement of learning, giving our successors both the vision and power to build well. I dedicate myself to the cultivation of character, providing the opportunity to flourish with courage, compassion, honesty and trust. I commit myself to the advancement of my own learning, and to cultivate my own character, for I know I must model in my own life what I promote to others. In the presence of this gathering, I dedicate and commit myself.”
“It’s a very visible way of celebrating our students and inviting others to celebrate with us,” said Jean-Marie. “The teaching profession is under scrutiny, and it is a way for us to invite our partners, to invite the community, to celebrate and recognize the teaching profession.”
The U.S. is currently in the midst of a massive K-12 teacher shortage, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers are leaving the profession due to poor pay, strenuous working conditions and persistent political villainization; in addition, fewer new teachers are entering the field, with the number of students in traditional education programs dropping by more than a third from 2008 to 2019, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
Experts are skeptical that public celebrations of the profession will make a serious dent in the teacher shortage.
“I think pinning ceremonies are nice gestures, but I doubt their ability to substantively impact teacher retention. For one, if I’m not mistaken, I believe most of these occur [within] colleges of education or universities, whereas turnover occurs in the schools and/or districts,” Henry Tran, co-author of How Did We Get Here? The Decay of the Teaching Profession (Information Age Publishing, 2022) and a professor at the University of South Carolina, told Inside Higher Ed in an email. “Secondly, working conditions are the strongest predictor of teacher turnover or retention and the pinning ceremony does not substantively affect that.”
Leaders in the College of Education at Rowan, as at many institutions throughout the country, are trying to develop longer-term solutions to the shortage. The college has several programs dedicated to recruiting future teachers, including the new Men of Color Hope Achievers—or MOCHA for short—initiative, a state-funded effort to help men of color earn their teaching certificates.
Rowan isn’t the only university to apply the pinning ceremony tradition to teachers in training. The University of Maryland, College Park, held an inaugural pinning ceremony for its education majors in early October, honoring students in their final year of the program.
Ebony Terrell Shockley, executive director of educator preparation at College Park, said the event was well received not only by the students but also by faculty, staff, family members and alumni of the program.
“Teachers in the crowd who were both practicing and retired expressed their sincere gratitude at the opportunity to really elevate this profession, especially during this time,” she said.
Some institutions have been conducting such ceremonies for years. The University of Central Arkansas, a midsize university in the Little Rock suburb of Conway, held its first pinning ceremony for educator candidates back in 2007.
“It’s always been kind of an opportunity to impress upon our students their special place as educators, not just as a profession but as a call, a call to service,” said Michael S. Mills, associate dean of UCA’s college of education.
Mills said the ceremony is also used as a chance to reiterate, one final time, some of the lessons the students have learned in the program, such as a teacher’s responsibility to treat all students fairly and equally.
Such events aren’t enough to solve the teacher crisis alone.
“Ceremonies like these can create positive experiences and treasured moments for those completing the program,” Tran said. “But to substantively address teacher turnover, the problem of a lack of respect for teacher professionals (as reflected in low compensation and classroom autonomy) must be reversed.”
But for individual students, pinning ceremonies can make a world of difference. O’Connor said the event made her more certain of her decision to become an educator and gave her the “boost of confidence that I needed” to push through her upcoming exams.
“It really was clear to see how much the university cares about sending ed majors out into the real world one day,” she said.