There’s a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza

I love the beginning of the school year.

For those of us who spend most of our time with other adults – wrestling with data, designing programs and curricula, planning, planning and planning; when the students come back, it is as if someone clicked the lights on. Suddenly, the debates over data, minutiae of cut scores, data dashboards, frustration of contract negotiations, fade. We straighten our backs, step away from our computers, and appreciate the noise, energy, community, and joy.

This year, returning along with the students, is the inaugural cohort of teacher residents. Entering their second year of the Mastery-Relay Teacher Residency, 21 Residents will fly solo in Mastery classrooms while working toward a Master’s degree. In addition, a brand new cohort of 39 aspiring teachers begins the journey to becoming classroom teachers.

A great deal has been written about the shortage of teachers, of teachers of color in particular. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is in steep decline and the number of students choosing education programs is decreasing.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the number of Black and Latino Education majors decreased by 60.5% and 61.5% respectively since 1996. Based on these numbers, new teachers of color are not going to come from traditional teacher preparation programs.

There is a hole in the bucket

A critical part of the national conversation about the shortage of teachers of color is the “hole in the bucket” – teachers of color are leaving the profession at higher rates than their white peers, and faster than new teachers entering the profession. Many argue we have a retention problem, not a recruitment problem.

National policy conversation aside, the purpose of this post is to outline a solution we are exploring, with the goal of building a robust, diverse teacher corps. In the interest of brevity, clarity and context, the frame for our solution is:

  1. Preparation. First year teachers struggle mightily – no matter the prep program: traditional colleges, Teach For America (TFA), Graduate Schools of Education, The New Teacher Project – our data indicates they all struggle
  2. Retention. The majority of teachers we lose each year have fewer than 3 years of experience
  3. Diversity. Our student population is 90% students of color, our teacher population is 80% white
  4. Recruitment. The teacher pipeline is anemic, the recruitment team battles for the 250+ teachers we hire each year
  5. Hard to fill positions. Secondary math and science teachers are extremely scarce, and difficult to retain
  6. Financial barriers. Very few people can afford to sacrifice a year’s salary and pay graduate school tuition

The solution, developed in partnership with Relay Graduate School of Education, is a 2 year residency program. Teacher residency programs are not a new concept. Modeled after the medical residency, the teacher residency combines academic theory with supported, hands-on practice in classrooms.

Teacher Residency programs help new teachers and students

A slower introduction to leading in a classroom, the residency gives aspiring teachers an authentic experience in front of students. The Relay and Mastery teams collaborated to align the Relay residency and Mastery academic models so residents receive a cohesive, integrated experience.

In year 1, Residents attend classes at Relay while working as support teachers in Mastery schools. Residents are coached and observed by a school-based teacher leader or assistant principal as part of the program. Relay faculty also observe Residents and compare assessments, plans for support and feedback with school-based leadership. The school principal approves each of the formal assessments ensuring alignment and consistent feedback. In year 2, Residents move into core classroom teacher roles with continued, scaled back support.

In the first year, we built investment and adapted existing systems to support the Residency. Once recruited, Residents applied and were accepted to Relay GSE, and hired into a school building. Principals maintained the final “green light” for any residency hires. Recognizing an internal teacher pipeline would significantly reduce the recruitment burden down the road, the recruitment team began to identify competencies of an aspiring teacher versus a support teacher.

Expanding outreach to paraprofessionals, learning support teachers, aides and recent Mastery college graduates immediately diversified the candidate pool. We instituted protocols and defined the process from Recruitment to Relay GSE to Finance, Human Resources and finally, school placement.

To mitigate the financial barriers, Residents receive a full-time salary and benefits, and apply the professional development stipend every Mastery employee receives to their Relay tuition. Additionally, the finance team offers payroll deductions to Residents, spreading the tuition over two years, eliminating large tuition bills at the start of each semester.

Toward the end of the pilot year, principals anticipated hiring teachers with their specific school context, who understood the culture of the building and were invested in the students.

Our hypothesis: A Different type of support will lead to higher retention

The hypothesis is with a longer on-ramp, a realistic view of teaching and investment in students, teachers who begin their teaching career through the residency are less likely to become overwhelmed in their first year and leave the profession. In the coming years, we will know if our hypotheses are correct.

As we begin our second year, we are excited to build on the successes and lessons learned in year 1.  We hired an amazing Residency Program Manager to expand the residency and refine our systems. Every Resident who successfully completed year 1 is currently working in a Mastery school. Recruitment and placement for the 2nd cohort exceeded our target of 32 Residents and principals are asking to host Residents.

There are several challenges we continue to wrestle with in the upcoming year. Key to long term success of the Mastery-Relay Teacher Residency is sustainability. Tight school budgets in Pennsylvania mean schools are unable to add salaried positions. While support teachers are built into elementary school budgets, there is not an analogous position in the secondary schools.

In the pilot year, and in this current year, secondary residency positions are supported through grant dollars. Additionally, some residents struggle to pass the licensure exams, and potential residents have college GPAs that may be too low to meet current state requirements for teacher certification.

As I visit schools in the upcoming weeks, I will see 21 new classroom teachers prepared and excited to stand in front of our children. In one year, each teacher will impact at least 25 students – 525 students collectively.

Aptly reminded of why we choose to serve, I look forward to working alongside our partner, school teams, Residents and colleagues to resolve the remaining challenges.  Then hunch back down over my computer to figure out how to plug the hole in that bucket.

What do you think?

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Soledad Alfaro

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