The Promise of Teacher-Residency Programs

This is the third story in a three-part series about teacher preparation and whether programs are doing enough to prepare new teachers to take over their own classrooms. The first part is here, the second part is here.

WASHINGTON—In her large, bright, pre-K classroom, the teacher turned to the group of 4-year-olds learning how to give a baby a bath. She sat on the carpet and cradled a doll carefully as eager students strained their necks to watch.

“How am I holding the baby?” the teacher, Alina Kaye, asked, and then answered her own question: “Nice and calm.” She held up a small, empty plastic bottle and mimed squirting shampoo onto the baby’s head.

The kids edged closer. Meghan Sanchez, a 23-year-old teacher in training, watched Kaye’s every move just as intently. Sanchez is in her first year of an immersive four-year training program via Urban Teachers, a nonprofit group that trains aspiring teachers in Washington and Baltimore.

Sanchez whispered to a little boy who had sat up on his knees to get a better view of the doll: “Legs crossed!” she commanded gently. He sat down quickly. “Thank you,” she said.

The Hechinger Report

As a “resident” of Urban Teachers, which receives funding from the schools in which its residents work as well as from private donations, Sanchez shares a classroom with Kaye, an experienced teacher, learning the ins and outs of teaching while taking evening courses to earn a master’s degree.

Sanchez is one of three teachers The Hechinger Report, which produced this story in partnership with The Atlantic, followed over the course of their first year to look at how training programs prepare teachers for the classroom—or not. The Urban Teachers residency program in D.C. is one of many new alternative routes to becoming a teacher that have sprung up as education schools have come under attack for inadequately preparing teachers for today’s challenges, including higher standards, new technology, and stubborn achievement gaps.

Alternative routes are often faster than traditional education-school programs, making them attractive to career changers and noneducation majors like Sanchez. But residency programs like Urban Teachers are something of a hybrid of traditional and alternative routes, and some experts hope they’ll be the wave of the future.

Traditional education schools generally require at least a year or two of education-related courses, but vary in their student-teaching requirements. Programs in Virginia, for example, require 150 to 680 hours. Alternative routes, such as Teach For America, in contrast, put teachers in charge of their own classrooms after one summer of teaching and coursework. Sanchez will spend over 1,500 hours in a classroom this year, overseen by her mentor, Kaye; take two years of graduate-school classes; and receive a total of four years of coaching and support from Urban Teachers.

The Urban Teachers program started with 19 residents in D.C. in 2010 and now has 217 participants teaching across the district. The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) will further expand the program next year, according to officials. Eventually, the district wants all of its new teachers hired through the residency program.

“Urban Teachers has a strong reputation for developing teachers,” said Paige Hoffman, the district’s manager of innovation and design. “We see folks really being able to enter the classroom with a strong foundation because they’ve had that experience of being in our schools.”

The classroom-focused approach of a residency appealed to Sanchez, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She decided she wanted to teach right before her senior year at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where she majored in history and minored in Italian. She applied and was accepted to Urban Teachers in January.

“I knew I needed to learn a lot more,” Sanchez said. “No other program offered that level of support … I really needed a program that would walk me through what I needed to support my kids as well as myself, as a teacher.”

* * *

Sanchez spent six weeks in Urban Teachers’s “boot camp,” which included teaching each morning in a summer program and taking classes on topics like classroom management each afternoon.

Sanchez was hired by Seaton Elementary School, which serves nearly 300 3-year-olds through fifth-graders. Nearly 100 percent of the students at Seaton qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Sanchez helps a student with an assignment in her prekindergarten classroom. (Jackie Mader)

This year, Sanchez is full-time in the classroom, where she observes and teaches alongside Kaye, 26, who has five years of experience and also entered the profession through an alternative route.

Sanchez feels lucky she got placed with Kaye. Both have upbeat personalities and can be warm and friendly with students while also being direct and strict. They hit it off from the beginning and often text each other in the evenings, sometimes about school and sometimes about their weekend plans or recipes they’ve tried at home.

Research suggests that mentors should have at least three years of experience, show evidence of being an effective teacher, and be able to provide feedback and lead professional conversations. They should also be willing not only to work with a student teacher, but to hand over their class to an amateur.

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“What would you like to make?” Sanchez asked.

“Umm … something beautiful.” She said quickly. “For the bathtub.”

“For the bathtub? So a toy for the baby?”

The student nodded.

Sanchez turned to the little boy who had slowly stopped crying.

“Are you ready to play plan?” she asked gently. He nodded. He had decided to go to the plastic toy kitchen area along a wall.

“OK, so you’re going to the kitchen. What are you going to do at the kitchen?” Sanchez asked.

“I forgot,” he said quietly.

“Do you need a second to think about it?” Sanchez asked.

He looked at her with wide eyes and nodded, wiping a few remaining tears away.

Sanchez continued around the table, dividing her attention among the children. One by one she helped the students draw a picture of their plan for free play and attempt to write a short sentence describing it.

Kaye says that spending so much time in a classroom before inheriting her own means Sanchez will better understand the development of 4-year-olds. “I love that she’s able to see the full year; she can see the flow,” Kaye said. A lot of new teachers want to “plow in” to activities from the beginning, she added, not realizing that early in the year kids may not be ready for even what seems like a simple art project or writing assignment.

“Next year, she’s going to be in such a good place because she knows you need to practice opening a marker first,” Kaye said.

“I don’t think I really understood what it takes to be a teacher,” Sanchez acknowledged after class. “I can imagine when people hear I’m a prekindergarten teacher, they think, ‘Oh you must have an easy job,’ or ‘it’s a daycare’ and I’m watching them. I just want them to know it’s the contrary, and it’s so important to develop them at this age.”

* * *

So far, there is little evidence to show which kind of program produces the most successful teachers. Some research shows that residency-program graduates may not be any more effective—at least in their first year—than teachers trained in other programs. What’s attractive to districts and teachers, though, are the studies showing that a few of the new programs may stem a perennial education quandary: the alarming rate at which new teachers flee the profession.

During the 2014-15 school year, 84 percent of teachers trained in National Center for Teacher Residencies network programs were still teaching after three years, and 71 percent were teaching after five years, according to a report by that nonprofit organization. (Nationwide, studies have found that anywhere from 17 percent to 46 percent of new teachers quit within their first five years.)

However, not all residency programs are considered high quality—and not all are alike. “Very often, alternate routes tend to be heavily, heavily [classroom-based] with relatively small doses of academics,” said Arthur Levine, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, which funds its own teacher-training program in three states. “In contrast, university programs tend to be heavily academic, with too little clinical experience.”

A student works on a writing assignment in Kaye and Sanchez’s prekindergarten classroom. (Jackie Mader)

Sanchez believes she’s getting the right mix of both. By November, she was teaching the morning lesson alone for a week. She didn’t have lesson plans written out, as she was trying to be better at going with the flow of the classroom. But she found herself having trouble keeping the kids engaged. “That was definitely a wake-up call,” she said. “Although it was a little scary, it was really important for me to see what I need to do.”

So, with the help of Kaye and coaches from Urban Teachers, she started planning lessons for each day she would be solo teaching.

All of her classroom learning is reinforced during her master’s coursework (four to five nights a week, run by Lesley University). She’s up at 6:45 a.m. every morning, teaches until 3:10 p.m. and leaves for grad school by 4 p.m. She’s not home until 8:45 each night, but tries to cook dinner with her boyfriend or watch television or study before heading to bed to do it all over again the next day.

Kaye knows how exhausting it is. “Basically we have 30 minutes [a day] to talk,” Kaye said. “We’re planning during nap time, texting over the weekend. … It’s hard for her to sleep. It’s hard for her social life and her work-life balance.”

* * *

Sanchez returned from winter break refreshed. Many of the lessons from the first half of the year had sunk in, like realizing that 4-year-olds need “body breaks” to help keep them focused during the day.

On a sunny January morning, her growing confidence was clear. She wasn’t thrown off by students who gave wrong answers or moved around on the floor. First, she had all the students stand up and dance (“to get their wiggles out of the way”). The kids smiled and giggled as they sang along with an upbeat song: “Step to the left, step to the right. Throw your hands in the air, try to reach the sky.” At the end of the song, Sanchez calmly directed the students to sit down.

Kaye, who was carefully observing the students and Sanchez from the side of the room, moved next to a clapping child and motioned for him to scoot forward. She sat down and started taking notes.

The Hechinger Report.