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teacher residency programs
Meghan Sanchez, a first-year teacher resident, leads a small group lesson in her prekindergarten classroom. Credit: 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.

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.

“Dip, dip, dip,” Kaye said, pretending to move water over the top of the baby’s head on this sunny fall morning in the Shaw neighborhood of D.C. “Now I’m going to wrap the baby up.”

“Like a burrito!” a student called out.

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.

Sanchez then turned her attention back to Kaye, who was about to lead the students in song. She jumped in, singing “eyes, ears, mouth and nose,” while pointing emphatically to each body part.

As a first-year “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 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 district officials. Eventually, the district wants all of its new teachers hired through the residency program.

“A teacher of 4-year-olds has to be an orchestra conductor.”

“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. During senior year, she only had time to take two education courses and spend a few weeks observing and working with small groups in a local school. 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.”

The length of the residency program is why Urban Teachers appeals to DCPS, too. Michelle Lerner, the district’s press secretary, said that principals appreciate having a year to work with potential new teachers to determine if they’re a good fit.

Classroom mentors matter

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

By late summer, Sanchez was hired by Seaton Elementary School, which serves nearly 300 3-year-olds through fifth-graders. More than 40 percent of the students are Hispanic, 36 percent are black and 5 percent are white. Nearly 100 percent of the students at Seaton qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Related: How can states better support and keep new teachers?

teacher residency programs
A student works on a writing assignment in Alina Kaye and Meghan Sanchez’s prekindergarten classroom. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

This year, Sanchez is full-time in the classroom, where she observes and teaches alongside Kaye, 26, an energetic pre-K teacher with five years of experience who also entered teaching through an alternative route. Sanchez is always listening to the clear directions Kaye gives children and trying to learn from the way Kaye seamlessly runs the classroom.

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, 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.”

71 percent of graduates from one teacher residency program are still teaching after five years; nationally, studies have found that 17-46 percent of new teachers stop teaching within five years.

Experts say the more exposure a teacher has in a classroom before going it alone, the better. But that exposure, whether through student teaching or a residency program, must have a few important components, said Mistilina Sato, associate professor of teacher development at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

“It would include a good exemplar teacher who knows how to mentor a beginning teacher,” Sato said. “It would be more time, so it’s not just ‘six weeks and you know how to teach.’ That’s not a criticism of short-term programs. Traditional teacher ed programs will sometimes have very limited time.”

A 2008 study in New York City found that the amount of time aspiring teachers spent in classrooms before graduating did make a difference for student outcomes. More time can also make teachers feel more prepared and ultimately lead to a longer teaching career, a 2015 report by the American Institutes for Research found. (AIR is among the many supporters of The Hechinger Report.)

All three teachers followed by The Hechinger Report say that classroom time is an important part of growing as a teacher, and believe there are certain things you can’t learn until you get inside one.

Sanchez sees the value of going beyond one semester of observing or student teaching, and says she is especially helped by seeing good teaching each day and receiving immediate feedback.

“It can be a lot and it can be overwhelming,” Sanchez said. “But I don’t think I would learn as much if I was just in a classroom taking notes and not really practicing.”

Teaching 4-year-olds requires specific skills and knowledge that isn’t always taught in preparation programs, said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and 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 little 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.

Related: My first years of teaching: How hands-on training helped me hit the ground running

teacher residency programs
Meghan Sanchez helps a student with an assignment in her prekindergarten classroom. Credit: Jackie Mader

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.

Sanchez agreed that there’s still a learning curve when it comes to knowing how to teach 4-year-olds.

“Some of them can throw tantrums and fits,” Sanchez said. “At the beginning of the year, I was like, ‘What do I do now?’ ”

That’s where having a more experienced teacher comes in handy.

Over the course of the year, Kaye has helped Sanchez pinpoint areas to work on, like learning behavior management for 4-year-olds and finding a happy medium between meticulous planning and going with the flow.

“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.”

Stemming classroom flight

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.

Graduates of the Boston Teacher Residency program, for example, were no better than other new teachers at improving student test scores in English language arts, and less effective at increasing math test scores, according to a 2011 study. The residency graduates did, however, improve faster than their peers, and they outperformed veteran teachers by their fourth and fifth years of teaching.

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 new teachers flee the profession.

Related: Is the first-year teacher in your life crying in the car? Here are five things you should know

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.)

“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.”

In addition, nearly 30 percent of NCTR residents were teaching science, technology, engineering or math, and 13 percent were teaching English language learners — five areas that often face chronic teacher shortages.

However, not all residency programs are considered high quality — and not all are alike. Research suggests residency programs need several key components to be effective, including providing support for residents for multiple years after they take over their own classrooms and integrating education theory with classroom experience, according to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

“Very often, alternate routes tend to be heavily, heavily [classroom-based] with relatively small doses of academics,” said Arthur Levine, 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.”

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, which included questions for students and estimates of time she should spend on each part so she could keep her lesson moving along.

All of her classroom learning is reinforced during her master’s coursework (four to five nights a week, run by Lesley University).While traditional preparation programs provide semesters of classes on topics such as child development and classroom management, and teaching-specific topics such as reading, residency programs like Urban Teachers teach those topics while residents are working in classrooms.

Sanchez finds she can immediately apply what she’s learned in class to her lessons the next day. And she can take issues from the classroom to her professors and peers to brainstorm solutions.

She is also observed and coached regularly by the staff of Urban Teachers.

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.

Sanchez’s mentor, 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 also misses out on various events held at Seaton Elementary, Kaye added, like staff bonding activities and literacy nights for parents. “Those are the things that make your first year a little more fun.”

A conductor of 4-year-olds

As winter approached, Sanchez continued to work daily with the easier-to-manage small groups. “That’s helped a lot in building confidence,” she said.

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.

“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.”

On a sunny January morning, Sanchez was preparing for her third day in a row of leading full group morning lessons. She had carefully planned out how she would introduce concepts, what activities students would do and what questions she would ask.

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 spoke in a calm, soft voice and 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.

“Sometimes you look at the pictures and you also have to listen to the words Ms. Sanchez is saying,” Kaye added. “That will help you look for clues.”

Sanchez started reading the story of a wolf and a duck who crossed paths and decided to go for a walk together. “The wolf was out for a stroll,” Sanchez read.

“What do you think ‘stroll’ means?” Kaye asked the class.

As the lesson continued, Kaye chimed in occasionally to clarify instructions or affirm student responses. Occasionally, she redirected students who were off task.

Making the model work

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. … I do agree that it should be 100 percent participation during most things, but in terms of sitting criss-cross applesauce, that can’t be expected of all 4-year-olds because it’s not developmentally appropriate.”

Both Kaye and Sanchez said that while Urban Teachers has provided helpful feedback, strong coaching and support in all facets of learning how to teach, the program is still new and learning how to mold itself to fit different types of classrooms. 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.

Jacqueline Greer from Urban Teachers said they are still trying to determine how to best support the needs of early childhood teachers. So far they are providing specific training and early childhood experts as coaches. They may consider creating a separate program focused solely on early education. “Early education is so different,” Greer said.

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 began to hand out books and immediately 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.

“Remember, all of our books are flat on the table.”

Several kids, who were holding books upright, put them on the table.

Sanchez had also started jumping in when Kaye was leading whole group lessons, instead of just watching from the back. And she was trying to add in more examples to her lessons and give students examples from her own life to illustrate new ideas.

“That’s one extra step I need to be at,” Sanchez said. “Not just asking questions, but trying to support their learning with my own experiences. That’s something [Kaye] has been telling me since day one, but it hasn’t really connected until now.”

Sanchez said that although she has more to learn, she’s feeling confident about next year. She’s hoping to stay at Seaton Elementary, but if there are no openings, Urban Teachers will help her find another position.

As for teaching 4-year-olds on her own, she believes she’ll be able to dive in and apply the lessons she’s learned from Kaye.

“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 story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about teacher preparation.

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