More than 500 high school students from across the state, packed Reynolds Performance Hall at the University of Central Arkansas on Friday for the 2019 Impacting Tomorrow Summit.

This is the third year for the conference to be held, the second on UCA’s campus.

“Three years ago, I wanted to have a conference to showcase education for students around the state to be able to interact [...] give them an idea of what their options are to becoming educators,” Jeff Dyer, the teacher recruitment and retention program advisor for the Arkansas Department of Education’s (ADE) Office of Educator Effectiveness, said.

Dyer mentioned the Arkansas Teacher Cadets — nationally recognized teacher-recruitment program aimed toward attracting high school students to the profession. He said they have 75 teacher-cadet schools across the state, totaling around 800 kids exposed to that curriculum.

The conference on Friday, he said, was a continuation of that vision … to provide students with a more in-depth opportunity to explore the teaching profession.

ADE Commissioner Johnny Key told participants from behind the mic, that in the last several years, reports have stated that the profession is on the decline and the number of students choosing teaching is decreasing.

“Today, I have a better story for you,” he told guests. “This year, for the first time in over five years, Arkansas has seen [the] number of people enrolling in educator preparation programs, increase.”

According to data obtained by the ADE, for the 2018-19 academic year, Arkansas had: 1,046 k-12 public schools; 238 school districts; 478,318 k-12 students enrolled; and 33,394 certified teachers.

Key told the student-packed room that as teachers, their impact would span further than their community.

“I want you to think, maybe for just a few seconds, that if you pursue this career, what impact might you have on some student, that, right now, is maybe just an infant,” he said. “That’s what we’re talking about today. Impacting tomorrow.”

Key said his commitment as commissioner is to work everyday to make sure, if they decide to become teachers, that that path won’t be regretted.

“We will be there with you, we want to help you,” he said. “The state of Arkansas is stepping up, looking to increase teacher salaries, looking to provide better professional development opportunities, looking to grow our partnerships with our higher-education partners around the state to strengthen our ability to make you the best possible teacher that you can be.”

Conway’s Randi House, the 2018 Arkansas State Teacher of the Year, was also in attendance during the summit. She said events like the conference are crucial to exposing students to the career field, which may have a negative stereotype in their mind.

“This is important because we want to show kids that being a teacher really is awesome,” she said. “We’re hoping to kind of show them what education looks like now and give them any kind of support if they want to become a teacher.”

House said educators have been in the spotlight lately due to the many strikes and other situations and because of that often negative aspect, it’s important to remember that there’s always a story behind the circumstance.

“I do want to say, those teachers who are striking, they’re doing that for their students,” she said. “I want to believe that every decision a teacher makes is at the benefit of the student.”

House said she thinks it’s the right time now in today’s society, which has so much division and angst, for teachers to realize the important job they have to teach students about thinking through decisions and deciding what their beliefs are, always doing best for others.

For those there for the event on Friday, the educator said she hopes they see how much they are supported.

“That we want them to become teachers, that being a teacher really is an awesome opportunity for them to make a difference and maybe get some information about ways to become a teacher because, sometimes, we don’t understand that process,” House said.

For that to be achieved, Dyer said, it comes down to being able to convey their stories as educators and getting across that, yes, there are issues in the profession and serious aspects that need to be looked at, but it’s also time to address the magnitude of “phenomenal” people across the state, the ones who are doing “amazing things everyday.”

Programs like the Impacting Tomorrow Summit, he said, gives them the ability to dive a little deeper into the field and help students get a look at the profession as a whole, including the possible specialties they might want to consider.

“The earlier we can expose them to what’s out there, then the better off … not only are they able to find their niche but also … you may have a girl who’s always wanted to become a kindergarten teacher,” Dyer said. “So, she does some observing in the kindergarten class and goes, ‘oh that’s not for me, I really love sixth grade.’”

The elementary teacher said he didn’t have that when he was in college.

“I want them to come out of this at least they’re going to consider,” Dyer said. “Every one of those kids today, it will go through their head, of, ‘I might want to be a teacher.’ I want them to get a much better picture of what it means to be an educator. I don’t care whether they decide today or not if they want to be educators [but] if they say, ‘hey, I want to be a teacher,’ that’s awesome.”

In the years past, Dyer said, he’s gotten great feedback from students, teachers and others there for the conference, including the 17 out of 19 educator-preparation colleges across the state.

“It’s just a really fun day,” he said. “It’s a fun day where it’s not pack full of sitting down and listening and getting a bunch of material and, ‘you gotta do this,’ [but] it’s getting a chance to hear from college education majors.”

UCA’s Provost Patricia Poulter also made it out for the event.

"Hosting the Impacting Tomorrow Summit on UCA's campus is an honor and reflects our deep and abiding dedication to teacher education in Arkansas,” she said. "The [summit] affords hundreds of Arkansas high school students interested in teaching, several opportunities to interact with master teachers and facilitators. We are grateful to the [ADE] and our partner universities for their support in this important endeavor: preparing the next generation of teachers."