Growing Her Dream

By Jason Moody

Photos by Stephanie Wilson

Jill Joyce assists a student in a pre-algebra class at West Valley Middle School.

Jill Joyce assists a student in a pre-algebra class at West Valley Middle School.

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For many years Jill Joyce (Knoxville ’97) never thought she would be where she is now: seated next to a student, helping him learn statistics.

She dreamed of standing at the front of a classroom teaching students, but as a single mother she wasn’t sure how to make it come true.

Joyce received her Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Engineering from UT Knoxville in 1997 and worked at John Deere Company and Fiat before leaving the workforce when her daughter, Julia, was born in 2010.

Seven years later, Joyce rejoined the workforce by taking a job in the cafeteria with Knox County Schools.

Jill Joyce

In 2022, when Julia started her first year at West Valley Middle School in Knox County, Joyce began a position as educational assistant in the special education department at the same school. In this department, Joyce tutored students struggling with math.

“I just fell in love with the whole math teaching profession,” Joyce says.

More than that, she felt fulfilled seeing students’ grades rise after her tutoring sessions.

“You could actually see progress with individual children,” she says.

But soon Joyce realized the educational assistant position was not financially sustainable for her situation as a single mother.

At the time, Joyce frequently worked with Marissa Butler (Knoxville, ’06, ’07) in her math interventionist classroom at West Valley Middle School. Those interactions would prove to be the turning point for Joyce’s career.

“I could see very quickly that she was born to be in education,” says Butler, who encouraged Joyce to consider the Tennessee Grow Your Own Center. She told Joyce, “It would be a big stepping stone for you and your daughter.”

“She didn’t know I already looked into it,” says Joyce. “I was a little hesitant. My daughter has always been my priority. And I thought, ‘Well, I can’t do that.’ But she said, ‘You’d be great at it.’ Her positive attitude lifted me up and gave me the confidence really to jump right in.”

Lisa Green and Jill Joyce.
Lisa Green, left, and Jill Joyce during Green’s first period 8th grade Inclusion Pre-Algebra class at West Valley Middle School. Green serves as Joyce’s mentor for the Grow Your Own program.

In the fall of 2023, through UT Knoxville, Joyce began the Grow Your Own program, which provides teacher licensure pathways for aspiring K-12 educators in all stages of life.

“It’s never too late to become a teacher,” says Erin Crisp, executive director of the Tennessee Grow Your Own Center. “The Grow Your Own program ensures that people like Jill have a barrier-free pathway into this amazing profession. Jill doesn’t have to leave her job to earn her credential, she’s equipped with the same competencies as aspiring educators in any other preparation pathway, she doesn’t pay for any academic expenses and she develops confidence through her school community and mentor teacher.”

“Grow Your Own provides all of those support systems,” says Cheryl Robertson (Knoxville ’03), Grow Your Own coordinator at UT Knoxville and former science teacher with Knox County Schools. “These teachers are way more prepared than many teachers are.”

After learning she would be assigned a teacher mentor at West Valley Middle School as part of the Grow Your Own program, Joyce was excited to learn she had been matched with the math department chair and eighth-grade math teacher Lisa Green (Knoxville ’05), who had more than 20 years of teaching experience.

As the apprenticeship progressed, Green observed the positive impact of the Grow Your Own program on Joyce. “She will go to a student’s desk and work with that kid and make sure they understand what they’re doing. She just has compassion towards making someone learn,” Green says. “She’s ready to be a teacher.”

Joyce says two areas in Grow Your Own have helped her the most: classroom management skills and confidence.

“I love the kids; that’s easy. But managing a classroom so that every student has the opportunity to learn and grow. It’s a big job,” she says. While Joyce had some fears early on, Robertson and Green provided support and encouragement, which helped her confidence to grow.

“They make me feel like I will be a really good teacher,” Joyce says. Joyce jokes about connecting with her daughter on schoolwork and grades, but the journey has presented challenges. She is glad her daughter is there to watch and learn.

“I think it’s great for her to see me as a middle-aged person kind of struggling,” says Joyce. “I think I definitely will be better for it; I think my daughter will be better for it.”

In December 2024, Joyce will graduate with a Master of Science in Teacher Education and will be licensed to teach in Tennessee. She plans to teach eighth-grade math in Knox County Schools, where in May there were more than a dozen middle-school math teacher positions open in the district.

She hopes her story inspires others to “Keep learning, keep growing, keep trying to improve.”

What is the Tennessee Grow Your Own Center?

The University of Tennessee System leads the Tennessee Grow Your Own Center with funding support from the Tennessee Department of Education. The center works with school districts and higher education institutions across the state to provide teacher licensure pathways for aspiring K-12 educators. The program offers flexible entry points that support people in all stages of life. For more information, visit:

GYOC Higher Education Partners

  • Arete Public Montessori Residency
  • Austin Peay State University
  • Cumberland University
  • Lincoln Memorial University
  • Lipscomb University
  • Middle Tennessee State University
  • University of Memphis
  • University of Tennessee, Knoxville
  • University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
  • University of Tennessee at Martin
  • University of Tennessee Southern