After a Decade Working in Mental Health, This Future Teacher Is Headed...

Teaching and Learning

After a Decade Working in Mental Health, This Future Teacher Is Headed for the Classroom

He believes the key to success as a teacher is in building connections with students.

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Jul 5, 2023

After a Decade Working in Mental Health, This Future Teacher Is Headed for the Classroom

The teaching profession is in turmoil. In our Future Teachers series, we explore who is choosing this career path anyway — and why.

Joshua Davenport feels like he really knows how to talk to people.

After a stint as a restaurant server, eight years working as a community crisis liaison, and the last three years as a restorative interventionist in a public high school, he’s learned how to read people, how to build their trust, and how to form meaningful connections with them.

Those are all skills that he expects will serve him well when he becomes a classroom teacher in the not-too-distant future.

More than a decade after earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology, Davenport is a student once again, pursuing his license to become a high school special education teacher. In January, he enrolled in the Grow Your Own program through the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, a teacher preparation program that allows him to earn his teaching license and master’s degree while remaining employed by the school where he currently works. It’s a “learn while you earn” model that maximizes affordability and flexibility — Davenport’s classes are all online — for those who are already working in the education field.

He can take his Praxis exam as soon as this summer and begin looking for a full-time teaching position in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he grew up and currently lives with his wife and six children.

In our Future Teacher series, we feature students enrolled in teacher preparation programs to find out what set them on this career path and why they stayed on it, despite the complex challenges facing the education workforce. This month, we are featuring Davenport.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Josh Davenport Future Teacher

Name: Joshua Davenport

Age: 36

Current town: Knoxville, Tennessee

College: University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Area of study: High school special ed

Hometown: Knoxville, Tennessee

EdSurge: When did you realize you wanted to become a teacher? Is there a specific memory or story associated with it?

Josh Davenport: When I was younger and trying to figure out my life, my mom always said, ‘You would be great at teaching.’ Back then, I was like, no, no, no. But I feel like she always knew that's what I would end up doing. It might sound cliché, but I just saw her actually, and she was like, ‘Yeah, I knew it. I knew you would end up being a teacher because you've always kind of been that person. Even with your friend group, you were always trying to teach them things.’

I guess she was right.

But that wasn’t clear to you for some time. Tell me about the years in between.

When I graduated high school and I was trying to decide what I was going to do for college, I went in as a marketing major and then switched to journalism and eventually settled on psychology. I still didn't really know what I wanted to do, but psychology definitely grabbed my attention. (And I think it'll be really good having that background going into teaching.)

Then, after graduating with my bachelor's degree 11 or 12 years ago, I worked as a community crisis liaison in Knoxville for a [nonprofit provider of mental health, substance use and social and victim services]. They provided me with a vehicle, and when someone was in a crisis situation, my main job was essentially to go meet them and bring them back to our facility. It was an inpatient facility, so patients would stay there for a few days. I got to see them when they got there, before they left, but also during the in-between time when they were getting treatment — like going to group therapy, talking to prescribers about medication, things like that. I did that for eight-ish years.

Then the pandemic happened, and I was kind of burned out. I'm not gonna say I went in feeling like I was gonna change the world, but you can get stuck in a rut working in mental health [and substance abuse treatment].

They call it a ‘revolving door.’ It's a lot of the same people coming in and out of the facility. You can give them all this advice, and they can go to all the groups and everything, but it's defeating when they still just end up doing the same thing. My hope and my thought was that kids — like high school students — are still young and impressionable, and maybe they'll listen. Some of them do.

So the pandemic began. You got burned out in your job. How did that end up turning you on to teaching?

I started looking for other jobs, and I found the one that I currently have, working as a restorative interventionist for Knox County Schools. I started there in October 2020. And then I just got a random email one day about the Grow Your Own program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. They were reaching out to people who had bachelor's degrees who were employed by Knox County Schools, about furthering their educations and possibly becoming teachers.

I didn’t finish the application the first year. But then they sent me the email again in the fall of 2022. That time, I applied. I got in and then enrolled in January. I just finished my first semester of classes, and now I’m in my summer classes.

What was motivating you, at the time, to enroll in this program to get your teaching license?

So when we first met, my now-wife started working at a school nearby. She was starting her career in education, and she was kind of the one pushing me toward teaching. She was like, ‘Hey, you don't like your job. You could be good at this.’ (It’s not that I didn’t like my job. I was just burned out. I had stayed a lot longer than most of the friends I’d made working there.) So she kind of pushed me to go for the job at a school as a restorative interventionist, and I loved it. I still love it, almost three years later. I get to work with different kids all the time.

That’s great. But if you love it, why change what you’re doing to become a teacher?

Well, there’s the great motivator of money. I would make more money if I was a teacher.

You don't hear that every day.

Ha, I’m just being honest. I love doing what I do, but also it'd be nice to make more money and move up the chain, so to speak.

But it’s more than that. I would love to have a classroom. In the role I'm in now, I get to know almost all the students in our school. I get to see a lot of them every day. But it would be nice to have a class that I teach.

It’s also really important to me and my wife that our family’s schedules sync up. We have a busy home life; we have six children. It's a blended family. We have six kids combined, from prior marriages.

Josh Davenport Family
Josh Davenport, center, with his wife and their six children. Photo courtesy of Davenport.

One of our kids attends the school that I work at. Three of them are at an elementary school nearby. One is at a middle school that we're zoned for, and the other one is at an alternative school. So we have four different schools currently. One of the kids rides with me. A couple of them take the bus. We've got it all figured out. It's just sometimes mass chaos in the mornings until about 8 o'clock.

When do you expect to get your teaching license?

I will be eligible to take the Praxis this summer, and I could start as early as the fall of this year. I haven't really been actively applying to places for a teaching position yet, but sometime within the next year I will hopefully have my license. But I’m going for my master’s degree. I’m trying to take as many classes as I can handle. It’s all online, and as I’ve gotten older, it’s a lot easier to manage online coursework.

I want to find a teaching position in a school that’s a good fit. Since I’m happy in my current role, I’m not in a super big rush to take the first thing I find.

Why do you want to become a teacher?

Going back to the mental health work I did before, it just felt like I was getting nowhere with people. My job was talking to people, and I’ve always been good at talking to people. But it’s just kind of disheartening when you make a connection with someone and you're trying to help them out and then they just fall back on the same thing they were doing. It's hard to break old habits.

But with young people, working with high school kids, they're still at that stage where they'll listen to what you have to say, and a lot of times — not always, but a lot of times — they'll take your advice and actually apply it. I’m still trying to make that impact I was before, but as a teacher, I’ll be able to reach people earlier.

Josh Davenport Graduation
Josh Davenport, right, with students at their high school graduation. Photo courtesy of Davenport.

My first year here, we had a kid give us — me and two of the principals — a shoutout on Instagram after he graduated. He was like, ‘I wouldn't have made it without y'all.’ It was my first year at the school, and I had just really connected with him. We started by talking about music, and then I got him to start turning in his work.

It was one of those things where I just had to find something to connect with him on. And if you build that relationship with students first, then they're more willing to listen to what you have to say. You can be like, ‘Hey, let's talk about this,’ or ‘Let’s get some of this work turned in, OK?’

There are some students who are not going to listen to you if they don't trust you or they don't feel like they know you. It's cool to watch them grow and mature. I think I’m really good at building relationships with my students and trying to figure out what makes them tick.

What gives you hope about your future career as a teacher?

The teachers in my school will come to me sometimes and be like, ‘Hey, I know you know this kid. Can you come talk to them for me?’ There were some tough ones this past year. There was one case where the teachers were like, ‘Yeah, this kid won't talk at all. He just uses hand gestures.’ And I was like, ‘Oh? Because I took him out for a walk, and he talked to me the whole time. No hand gestures, all words.’ And they were wondering how? I told them I just found out what he likes. I asked him what he was into and then we connected over it.

I've always been good at that. My last job really prepared me for it because I would pick up strangers, essentially, and have to be in a car with them. I would try to make it not awkward. I'd try to talk to them, like starting out with small talk. It was just one of those things where you kind of have to gauge the person. I worked in restaurants before I got out of college, and I think that really prepares you for gauging people. When you're waiting tables, sometimes people don't want to hear anything you have to say, they just wanna order their food and eat and be left alone. And other people want the full show, song and dance. They want you to talk to them and tell them your life story. You have to learn to do both.

So what gives me hope is all the opportunities I’ll have to make connections with students, the chance to be that teacher that kids remember. I want to be able to run into my students in five years and for them to be like, ‘Hey, thanks for always being someone I could talk to in school,’ or ‘Thanks for helping me through that difficult period.’

What gives you pause or worries you about becoming a teacher?

The thing that comes to mind first is just trying to stay current as I get older. Now, I try to understand their weird memes and their sense of humor and stuff, to be able to connect better with them. Sometimes I get it. Sometimes I don't. I just want to be able to still make those connections with kids when I get older and not be a cranky old teacher. I want them to be like, ‘The guy is old, but he gets us.’ You know?

I just don’t want to lose my touch with them.

Why does the field need you right now?

I can give you two answers. One of them is kind of in jest: Knox County Schools just needs teachers in general right now. They’re short-staffed. That’s probably true for the whole country too.

The other goes back to what I’ve been saying: The golden thread of all of it is making connections. Every class I've taken, every training I've done, reinforces the idea that your students are not going to trust you if you don't form some kind of connection with them. I literally will talk to every kid and try to get to know every kid because it's the job. That’s the job.

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