Universities Revamping Teacher Prep to Provide More Hands-On Training

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The problem of how to attract and hang on to talented new teachers has dogged school districts across the country. Some novice teachers enter the classroom with little preparation and are left to sink or swim.

It’s no surprise that as many as 50 percent of new teachers in high-needs schools leave the profession within five years, according to national studies of teacher retention. But would a different, more on-the-job form of training make a difference?

This year, new "residency"-style teacher-preparation programs are underway at Harvard University, New York University, and Marian University in Indianapolis, Ind. All of them are betting that the key to turning out graduates who stay in the teaching profession, particularly in high-needs schools, is to give these teachers additional supervised classroom training and to make sure they can connect with their students.

Modeled after medical-training programs, teacher residency programs have been cropping up across the country since 2001. Their aim is to put candidates through school-year-long, on-the-job training—or “clinical practice”—under expert teachers and provide them with financial support toward master’s degrees. They represent a departure from traditional teacher-prep programs, which generally require only about 15 weeks of student teaching for candidates to earn their degrees. And they’re are also an alternative to fast-track programs like Teach for America, which dispatches teachers into their own classrooms after about 10 weeks of summer training, knowing many of them won’t remain in the profession beyond the required two years.

Part of the strategy of these new university-based programs is to recruit students with backgrounds similar to the students they will encounter once they’re in the classroom. In general, residency-style programs have proved to be particularly effective at recruiting diverse candidates, including students of color, first-generation college students, and mid-career changers, according to a recent report by the Learning Policy Institute, a national education think tank founded by Stanford University education professor Linda Darling Hammond.

About half of the 15 candidates in Harvard’s new Teacher Fellows program are students of color, according to Katherine K. Merseth, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor who designed the program. Merseth says the program, which offers remote access, will eventually increase enrollment to 100 students per year.

She argues that schools of education have a responsibility to diversify a mostly white teacher workforce, since public school classrooms are predominantly filled with students of color.

“We need teachers who can identify with students, who can say, ‘I did it. You can do it too,’ ” she said.

That does not mean, Merseth clarified, that only a black male teacher can teach a black male student. But there has to be some mutual understanding between teacher and student, she said.

Cultural Connections

Kenith Britt, the dean of Educators College at Marian University, agrees. He is developing the school’s new teacher-residency program, which will launch next year and ultimately replace the traditional education program at the university.

Britt suggests teacher candidates need more and better training in cultural competency.

According to Ann Nutter Coffman, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association, such training provided inconsistently across teacher-prep programs.

“You don’t need to come from a disadvantaged background or be a person of color to be a successful teacher,” explained Coffman. “But it’s just a matter of making sure that teachers are trained in cultural competence and to understand what that means in how to help kids. Getting that training is super important; it’s just not always given the prominence it should.”

But Coffman also said that those whose backgrounds are similar to their students may have an advantage in the classroom. “If a teacher had trouble as a kid, came from a disadvantaged background and figured it out, kids respond to that. That teacher may have an easier time reaching students,” she said.

Britt says Marian will aim to recruit teachers to its residency program from the Indianapolis community. For example, the university plans to partner with groups that work with minority youth such as the Indianapolis Urban League, Elevate Indianapolis, and the Center for Leadership Development. Right now, Marian Marian’s education school has 450 students. Britt plans to double that number by 2021.

Britt says he’s sat on many school boards over the years and has consistently come across a repeating scenario. “Bright, talented teachers from affluent areas come into the profession and are placed into a very difficult situation,” he said. “They’ve never struggled academically or in their home life, and some of them don’t know how to handle it, so they leave halfway through the year or at the end of the year.”

Harvard’s Merseth believes that teacher-prep programs also need to do more to tap into young peoples’ social awareness. She said a popular class she teaches about education equity has become a recruiting ground for the Teacher Fellows program.

Merseth says students today are more aware of social justice issues than students 10 years ago, and they want to do their part to affect change.

“Many minority students are outraged and say they want to make a difference,” she said. “They are thinking hard about going back to their own communities and teaching. They hold a youthful belief that they can make a difference. It’s really exciting.”

And that kind of social commitment to the students may play role in teacher retention. A teacher who can identify with students and wants to fight for them may have a built-in incentive to stay in the profession, Merseth says.

But a passion for making a difference is not enough to make good teachers, says Merseth. Students need support, teaching practice, and time to reflect. That’s why Harvard teaching fellows only teach half-time, while the university provides a stipend so that candidates are paid as full-time teachers.

There’s a danger of candidates becoming so exhausted after teaching a full course load that they have no energy to think about practice, Merseth says.

But self-reflection is a must. Even while fellows are hundreds of miles away from the Harvard campus in Cambridge, Mass., teaching in cities like Oakland, Denver, and New York City, they are getting constant feedback from professors who are viewing videos of their teaching.

‘A Fuller Picture’

When Diana Turk, director of teacher education at New York University, worked with fellow professors to develop a new residency program that launched this school year, she said they took on the doctor’s credo: “Do no harm.”

“That’s a really high bar when you are taking people who have never spent time in urban high-needs schools,” said Turk.

The NYU residency program places teachers in Bridgeport, Ct., Wilmington, Del., Brooklyn and the lower east side of Manhattan, and Turk says the school's leaders are committed to recruiting underrepresented populations to the program, including first-generation college students.

Candidates spend a full year teaching in a classroom with a master teacher. But they do not take on teaching duties right away. They may start by writing a short activity that helps kick off a lesson called a “do-now,” or they may help the teacher put the students into cooperative groups. Little by little, they will take on additional teaching duties, from writing lesson plans to teaching for the entire school day.

The NEA's Coffman said this kind of extended classroom-practice training should be the norm in educator training.

“This is huge, huge!” she said. “You’re not a guest, you’re a member of that community. When you’re only there for a semester, you know it, the staff knows it, the kids know it, and you’re treading along. But when you are there all year, and you are a part of the fabric of the classroom and the school, then the impact on learning how to teach is so much greater. You get a fuller picture of what teaching really is.”

Like the Harvard teaching fellows, candidates in NYU’s residency program get regular feedback on videos of their teaching from their professors. This element, for Turk, is key to students’ success in the program since teacher candidates can get feedback from more than one professor on different aspects of their teaching. “We think this is a game changer,” said Turk, who specializes in the teaching of history and social studies. “I can watch a five-minute segment of a lesson and review it through the lens of a social studies mentor and talk about students’ understanding of an argument in history. That same clip could be viewed by a teacher mentor to provide feedback around how to provide support to a student with a disability. This method is so much more effective than relying on some random supervisor going in to observe.”

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