The Promise of Teacher-Residency Programs

Can this alternative approach to training teachers lead to better-prepared, life-long educators?

Meghan Sanchez, a first-year teacher resident, leads a small group lesson in her prekindergarten classroom. (Jackie Mader)

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.

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.

Jacqueline Greer, the executive director of Urban Teachers in D.C., believes spending a full year in a classroom as a co-teacher gives residents a leg up on their peers. “Urban teacher fellows in their first [solo] year just don’t look like first-year teachers,” Greer said. “You’re not going to see a classroom in disarray. You’re going to see a confident teacher.”

Teaching 4-year-olds requires specific skills and knowledge that isn’t always taught in preparation programs, said Robert Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and the director of the National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education. “Four-year-olds are very curious and interested in being learners … they’re very eager to engage in conversation. They’re physically active.” Pianta said. “A teacher of 4-year-olds has to be an orchestra conductor.”

Back in Kaye and Sanchez’s classroom in the fall, it was time for Sanchez to work with a small group of students. At a table on the side of the classroom, Sanchez, wearing a gray shirt and black dress pants, sat down with four 4-year-olds to discuss their plans for the next activity of the day: free play.

First, Sanchez announced, each student would need to “play plan,” or write how they would spend their time during free play.

One boy immediately burst into tears. “I don’t want to play,” he said.

Sanchez calmly tapped the table where there was an empty seat and directed the boy to sit down. She turned to another student.

“Would you like to go first?”

“I’m going to make something,” the student responded.

“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.

Sanchez led the students through a lesson on predictions. First, she began to write, “How to make predictions” on the board.

“That’s long,” a student called out as Sanchez wrote “predictions.”

“Yes it’s a very long word,” Sanchez said without missing a beat. “Does anyone know what we’re looking for when we’re making predictions?”

“Clues!” a student called out.

Kaye nodded at the student and piped in, “You guys are good at looking for clues.”

Sanchez held up a book. “When I read this book, I want your eyes right on the page,” she said in a strong, even voice, making eye contact with several students to make sure they were ready.

* * *

The residency has mostly lived up to Sanchez’s expectations, but she’s found some weaknesses when it comes to early education. For instance, Sanchez said that she had been taught to set high expectations for her students—such as 100 percent compliance with directions 100 percent of the time. She quickly learned how unrealistic that is for 4-year-olds. “I was taught that anytime a student wasn’t sitting ‘criss-cross applesauce,’ I should fix it,” Sanchez said. “I find that really, really challenging for the younger kids.”

Both Kaye and Sanchez said that while Urban Teachers has provided strong support, the program is still new. Early in the year, Sanchez had to speak up when she found that parts of the Urban Teachers rubric used to evaluate residents didn’t make sense in an early-childhood classroom. Her coaches were responsive, she said, and have tried to give feedback and suggestions that she can use in her class. (Greer from Urban Teachers said they are still trying to determine how to best support the needs of early-childhood teachers, and may consider creating a separate program focused solely on early education.)

Next year, Sanchez will finish classes for her master’s program while having her own classroom, but continue to receive support from her program’s coaches. In the third year, she’ll receive some coaching but might be ready to earn her certification. Even then, Urban Teachers will continue to provide development and support in her fourth and final year of the program.

This year, as spring approached, Sanchez was already conducting her little orchestra with the skill of a veteran. During a morning small-group session, she quickly addressed a student who was playing with beads instead of working on her assignment. When time was up, Sanchez rang a bell and instructed students to look at her.

“Take your letter tiles and put them back in your container.” She asked one little boy to pick up some white papers, and another to pick up black ones. “While you’re doing that, I’m going to pass out books.”

Sanchez noticed that the first little boy wasn’t collecting the papers. “Stand up!” Sanchez instructed in a strong and upbeat voice. He stood up and immediately started to pick up papers.

Sanchez said that although she has more to learn, she’s feeling confident about next year. “We’ve really progressed as a group,” Sanchez said. “I understand them well enough. I know what they need and how to provide that for them.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.