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Learning Curve

Training urban teachers who stay

Amy Scott Jan 5, 2015
Learning Curve

Training urban teachers who stay

Amy Scott Jan 5, 2015

Cheyandria Monks is getting ready to teach a phonics lesson to a class of first graders. Monks, 29, is not a teacher  yet. She’s a resident at Liberty Elementary in Baltimore. Basically, she’s an apprentice. Her host teacher, Angela Guidera, walks her through the lesson.

Urban Teacher Center resident Cheyandria Monks, left, talks with her host teacher, Angela Guidera.

Monks listens to a recording of a song about a train “clickety-clacking” down a track. “Read it first,” Guidera suggests, “because the song goes pretty fast.”

Monks’ residency is part of a program at Urban Teacher Center, a nonprofit based in Baltimore. It’s built on the idea that, like doctors and chefs, teachers should train side-by-side with pros before they take charge of their own classrooms. In a traditional school, teachers-in-training might spend six or eight weeks  maybe a semester  as student teachers. The Urban Teacher Center residency lasts 15 months.

“They are learning what good teaching looks like and feels like, so that by the time they become the classroom teacher, there’s no surprises,” says Jennifer Green, the center’s co-founder and CEO.

The schedule is demanding. Monks co-teaches most days, then heads off to her own master’s classes at night. When she finally gets home, she might spend a few minutes with her baby daughter before tackling homework and lesson plans. She gets five or six hours of sleep.

The residency is meant to be hard, Green says. “We often hear that the first year of teaching is the hardest year of someone’s life.” One aim of the residency, she says, “is to make sure that our residents are up for the grueling nature of the task.”

If they’re not, they can drop out without leaving a class of students teacherless. Nationally, half of new teachers leave the profession within five years. In urban districts, turnover is even higher. Residencies are catching on as one way to produce teachers who know what they’re getting into. At the Urban Teacher Center, more than 20 percent of residents either quit or are asked to leave each year. Some don’t return after the winter break.

“I think sometimes it’s unnecessarily brutal,” says Joseph Manko, principal of Liberty Elementary. “This is their first experience with the profession, and you want to prepare people. You also don’t want to scare them away.”

For the last three years, Manko has hosted a crop of residents at his school, which pays about 40 percent of the cost of their training. For now, philanthropy covers the rest. In return, Manko gets extra help in his classrooms and a school year to check out potential teachers. He hired one of last year’s residents for a permanent job. “He’s the first first-year teacher that we’ve hired in five years, but I’m happy to say he is far and away the best first-year teacher I’ve ever seen,” Manko says.

That teacher, Kevin Chandler, is still with the program at Urban Teacher Center. Now a fellow, he continues to take courses and work with a coach, but he’s in charge of a second-grade class. “The residency is the hardest part of this program,” Chandler says. “If you can make it through that year, you will be set.”

Monks is still getting through it. After lunch, she’s ready to teach that first-grade phonics lesson. The kids sit cross-legged on the carpet, each student on a colored square with an individual small whiteboard. They start out reading the train poem. “Clickety-clickety, clack clack clack,” they read in unison.

Then they try to find the words that start with the “cl” sound and write them on their boards. Before long, the kids start to fidget, then drift from their squares. Some scribble on their whiteboards.

Monks finds herself up against one of the hardest lessons for new teachers: classroom management. After a while, the official teacher, Guidera, steps in.

“Class, class, class,” she chants. “Yes, yes, yes!” the kids shout back.

Later, resident and mentor debrief. “How did you feel?” Guidera asks Monks. “I think I had them on the carpet way too long, so the whole group got really off task,” Monks says.

Guidera gives her some tips for moving through the lesson more quickly, and for holding the interest of restless kids. Monks will have another chance to get it right – she’s leading class all week.

Now, though, it’s time to put on her student hat.  She heads downtown for a class on teaching ratios and percentages with the other residents. There are 112 this year.

As class gets underway, Monks spreads out her dinner  a hot dog, yogurt and some coconut water from 7-Eleven  on her desk. Sometimes she’ll throw in a Red Bull to stay awake. If she gets through this year, Baltimore may have another effective teacher who actually sticks around. After the residency, fellows commit to teaching in a Baltimore or Washington, D.C. school for three years. The first class of fellows just finished that commitment. About three-quarters stayed on.

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