Lessons from a Teacher Residency - ASCD
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May 1, 2018

Lessons from a Teacher Residency

A preparation program in New York City aims to give teaching candidates a more clinically rich experience.

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Leadership

Developing high-quality teachers is a pressing concern for U.S. schools, given critical teacher shortages, students' lackluster performance on international assessments, continued opportunity gaps in education, and the disruptions too many schools experience—especially in urban and rural areas—as a result of high teacher turnover and attrition. These persistent issues raise the question: What can we do differently to find and better prepare promising candidates for today's schools?

Teacher residencies, based on the medical school training model, are emerging as one innovative model of educator preparation. Our experiences working with a residency program in New York City have shown us that the model can be effective in attracting diverse and talented candidates to the field and in giving them valuable teaching skills and knowledge-building experiences in specific school contexts.

While teacher residency models are not standardized, they do share some common characteristics. Most centrally, the curricula of such programs are based on "clinically rich" field practice: The pre-service teachers are deeply immersed as "residents" in partner K–12 schools, working alongside an experienced teacher or teachers over an entire school year prior to becoming teachers of record (National Education Association, 2014). Additionally, residency programs tend to focus on preparing educators for shortage fields, such as special education or science, and for traditionally hard-to-staff schools in urban or rural districts (DeMonte, 2016).

The program we've worked with, Teaching Residents at Teachers College (TR@TC), is an 18-month master's degree program that leads to New York State teacher certification in special education (grades 7–12), Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL, K–12), and science (7–12). Started in 2009 by Teachers College, Columbia University and funded in part by a Teacher Quality Partnership Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, TR@TC was designed specifically to prepare—and retain—excellent secondary teachers for New York City public schools. In keeping with the origins and mission of Teachers College, the program envisions teachers as social justice advocates, thoughtful intellectuals, deliberative and reflective practitioners, and collaborative teacher-leaders who strive for equitable education for all children. But it also emphasizes the importance of moving from rhetoric to substance and action. The program is driven by the philosophy that good teaching can and must be learned, that learning to teach is developmental and ongoing, that teachers learn in community, and that a positive, justice-oriented mindset is inadequate without deep instructional knowledge and skill.

Attracting Diverse Candidates

The teacher workforce today is predominantly white and female, and relatively few education school graduates have an interest in working or staying in urban schools (Ingersoll, May & Collins, 2017). Residency programs offer a potential way to recruit more candidates from underrepresented groups and increase the diversity of teachers, both in terms of demographics and their experiences and background knowledge. TR@TC, like many residencies, offers a living stipend and tuition benefits, which serve as a strong recruitment incentive and help to attract a more diverse pool of applicants, many of whom could not afford to pay for a teacher-preparation program that requires a semester (or longer) of full-time, unpaid student teaching. TR@TC also offers financial assistance for health insurance, teacher certification tests, and teaching materials.

Stipends, tuition benefits, and other financial supports cost money, and a common critique of residencies is their expense. However, high rates of teacher attrition are even more costly, not just in terms of dollars but also lost instructional time and interrupted learning (Learning Policy Institute, 2017). Spending money upfront to recruit and then equip teachers with the knowledge and tools necessary to stay in high-needs schools in shortage positions is an essential investment.

But while monetary incentives are important for attracting strong applicants who have many vocational options, they are not sufficient. TR@TC uses a variety of mechanisms to recruit diverse, talented candidates, including monthly information sessions; advertisements in both national and community news outlets; social media outreach; and partnerships with organizations (such as the Black Teacher Project) that specialize in recruiting teachers of color.

TR@TC also holds a two-day admissions institute in which promising applicants come to campus to engage in the kinds of activities they will experience as teaching residents. These include reading and responding to research articles; classroom observations; and small group projects and discussions. Program staff and faculty interact with applicants in formal and informal conversations throughout the institute. The institute provides crucial information to the program leaders, all relevant to selecting candidates deemed most likely to be successful in the program and the profession. It also allows for candidates who may be weaker in certain admissions criteria, such as standardized test scores, to show their strengths in other ways that may be more important for future teachers, such as working collaboratively and thinking critically.

Thus far, TR@TC's efforts have proved successful at recruiting talented and diverse candidates, including people of color, career changers, and military veterans. The current 2017–2018 cohort is a good example: Eleven of the 18 residents identify as people of color (one Asian, one bi-racial, four black, five Hispanic), 44 percent are career changers, and 33 percent are men. In addition, one of the women is in science education, and we have one resident who is a person with a disability. The average undergraduate GPA of the group is 3.52, and six of the students have graduate-level degrees.

An Immersive Experience

A key element of the TR@TC program is that, in addition to completing rigorous graduate-level coursework specific to their certification areas, residents are immersed in the teaching contexts in which they will eventually work. The idea is to help them gain an in-depth knowledge of the assets, opportunities, and challenges of New York City public schools before they have classrooms of their own. To this end, TR@TC residents begin their first spring semester doing fieldwork in partner schools, including school visits, guided observations in classrooms, and explorations of the neighborhoods in which partner schools are located. Students then begin their residency work in late August, and spend the entire following year in two different year-long placements, one for three days a week and one for one day a week. Working in different schools enables residents to experience a range of school structures and cultures in the largest public school district in the nation.

A TR@TC literacy course, taught on-site at a partnership school, illustrates the potential for combining clinically rich preparation with a strong understanding of theory. A component of fieldwork in the first term, the weekly course brings residents to a secondary school serving minority students, many of whom are newcomers and most of whom are from low-income families and speak a home language other than English. Residents spend the day working closely with the students, especially in literacy. At the end of the school day, the literacy course begins. The focus of the course is on theories and pedagogies of literacy, as well as on making conscious theory-practice connections and applications through debriefs, discussions, reflections, and assessments.

The tutoring experience, over the course of a semester, gives candidates the opportunity to practice what they have learned in the course and to build an instructional repertoire through repeating cycles of formal instruction/practice and application/assessment. They learn to value the role of theory, recognizing that good teaching cannot rely on good instincts or caring alone. At the same time, they develop close relationships with students and come to see them as individuals rather than statistics or examples in a textbook.

"There is something seamless about having preservice teachers receive hands-on experience working with struggling readers in the same place in which they are learning the theory and details of literacy instruction," notes the principal of the school.

Teaching

Teaching all students is an oft-voiced goal of educators, even while evidence indicates that most schools are better at teaching only some students (Reardon, Robinson, & Weathers, 2015). TR@TC is intentionally designed to give educators the knowledge and tools they need to capably teach and advocate for the full range of students they will serve in high-needs urban schools. We articulate and teach to this objective through four instructional pillars, which form the connective tissue for an 18-month integrating core course that all residents take together as a collaborative cohort, regardless of certification area. Each pillar is directly relevant to teaching diverse students in an inequitable world and aims to provide residents with the skills (and dispositions) to equalize educational opportunities:

  • STEM Literacy and Enrichment focuses on strengthening residents' conceptual understanding of STEM subjects, so they become adept at integrating this knowledge into extant curriculum and supporting students' learning in these critical gatekeeping subjects. This is particularly important for special education and ESL teachers, who must support content learning, but who are often stronger in the humanities than they are in the sciences.

  • Instructional Technology and Assistive Technology ensures that residents are aware of how technology can support student learning in multiple ways, and can be the difference between a student's being able to participate in a class and not.

  • Universal Design for Learning and Curriculum Development supports teachers to be curriculum makers—not simply deliverers—who modify and adapt materials, differentiate instruction, and create lessons for rich and deep learning. UDL provides a framework grounded in the premise that diversity is the human condition, which means curriculum must provide multiple pathways and access points into learning.

  • Co-Teaching and Co-Planning across Science, Special Education, and ESL supports residents in becoming strong collaborators, colleagues, and planners. This pillar develops their ability to align instruction, work across disciplinary boundaries, and engage in careful collective planning with peers.

Still, as generative as these four pillars might be, they can easily become silos if not deliberately integrated. Preservice teacher preparation programs typically require candidates to complete a series of course requirements, but then leave them to apply discrete learnings independently in student-teaching assignments. In the TR@TC program, by contrast, candidates' work in schools is undergirded by this integrating seminar, a space for making connections, drawing different knowledges and skills together to meet numerous instructional needs, and empowering diverse and vulnerable students. A program axiom is that teacher certification may be categorical, but children are not.

Lessons Learned

As of this writing, TR@TC has graduated six cohorts of teachers, with one cohort in the pipeline and another recently admitted. Each new year has been an opportunity to regroup, rethink, and revise. In the course of this evolution, we have learned a couple of central lessons about making residency-style teacher preparation work.

First, preparing effective teachers requires the collective efforts of a community of learners. Everyone involved in the program, from the faculty to the residents, must themselves be actively learning about and improving their role. Everyone in the program must be both a teacher and a learner as a matter of deliberate practice. To this end, TR@TC provides professional development for mentor teachers, field supervisors, and induction mentors, focusing specifically on the skills and understanding needed to teach prospective teachers well. Program staff are also continuously co-planning, teaching, and assessing so that we too can adapt to demands and grow in understanding.

Second, while the residency model provides additional classroom-practice time and important structural elements such as partnerships with K–12 schools, these are not enough to transform the quality and scope of teacher preparation and equip educators for the fast-changing realities of today's classrooms. Communication, mutual goal setting, shared decision making, and feedback mechanisms among program staff are all essential to re-envisioning and then implementing innovative teacher education. These elements are also critical for ensuring that the many components of a residency are aligned and mutually informing, and for keeping the program team all pointing in the same purposeful direction and speaking the same language. Establishing such alignment can be extremely difficult and time-consuming, requiring constant meeting, discussion, planning, and evaluation. But we have learned that good teacher preparation cannot happen without it.

A Promising Approach

The earliest graduates of TR@TC are now in their seventh year of teaching, working in "high needs" schools in New York City just as planned. Some of our later graduates have found positions in NYC schools where prior TR@TC graduates were working, providing a strong professional network and increased collective power to make change.

According to statistics, about half of our graduates should have left the profession by now, but instead, across cohorts, 92 percent remain in teaching, and 86 percent of these are still teaching in New York in schools similar to those where they were residents. Feedback from hiring principals has been uniformly positive, with at least six schools choosing to hire several graduates because of their exceptional performance.

We don't profess to have all the answers on recruiting and developing high-quality teachers for today's schools, but we've learned that, with the right resources and planning, residency-style programs can bring together unique features that are especially applicable to preparing teachers for the needs of the field today.

References

DeMonte, J. (2016). Toward better teacher prep. Educational Leadership, 73(8), 66–71.

Ingersoll, R., May, H., & Collins, G. (September 2017). Minority teacher recruitment, employment and retention: 1987 to 2013. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Learning Policy Institute. (September 13, 2017). What's the cost of teacher turnover. Retrieved from https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/the-cost-of-teacher-turnover

National Education Association. (January 2014). Teacher residencies: Redefining teacher preparation through partnerships. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Reardon, S. F., Robinson, J. P., & Weathers, E. S. (2015). Patterns and trends in racial/ethnic and socioeconomic academic achievement gaps. In H. A. Ladd & E. B. Fiske (Eds.), Handbook of Research in Education Finance and Policy (2nd ed.) (pp. 491–510). New York: Routledge.


Rachel Roegman is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


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