Why Would Anyone Stand Against Relay Graduate School of Education and the Opportunity for More Effective Teachers of Color?

This year at my school we’ve been proud to host two teacher residents.

They are both Black and have worked under the guidance of master teachers, co-planning and observing expertly designed lessons, and then practicing them. These two teachers have worked hard, attended graduate classes, delivered instruction, received coaching and feedback, practiced applying best practices, analyzed data, and developed their skills.

And they are both students in the Relay Graduate School of Education.

As a principal, I am always looking for the teaching talent that my students deserve. I am looking for real solutions in urban education, and I’m wary of “experts” who don’t know the context we operate in. My lens is simple: Is this candidate someone I would want in front of my own children?

I admit, Relay is different than the traditional teacher graduate programs out there. But maybe that’s why I like it. It focuses much more on time spent working in a real urban school, sharing a classroom with a mentor teacher, and less time learning the history of didacticism in the leafy confines of a college campus. When Relay teacher residents are learning theory, they are given multiple opportunities to practice and receive feedback from their faculty and our cooperating teachers. They can put that “theory” into action immediately in a classroom and see what works.

Anyone who has been in our city’s public schools for an iota of time knows, with certainty, that a traditional program does not guarantee success. Unfortunately, there are some people in positions of power and influence who proclaim “radical” statements and “revolutionary” thoughts, but in the end align themselves with the status quo, in spite of the evidence.

Most notably I’m speaking of vocal Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym, who wants to challenge the “radical” idea that a non-traditional graduate school program can have an impact on preparing teachers for our city. Just check out her recent Twitter rant, which starts here:

Late in her Twitter diatribe, the councilwoman finally acknowledges that traditional education programs have some shortcomings, notably failing to attract more candidates of color:

But she doesn’t go nearly far enough. The National Center for Teacher Quality has shown that many traditional schools of education aren’t actually doing a great job in general at producing strong educators of any background.

In 2013, the National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) rated over 600 programs around the country. Unfortunately, only four out of 1,200 teacher prep programs received four out of four stars in the review. Just as alarming, 163 programs received less than one star. NCTQ shared that aspiring educators should be wary about applying to these programs because they are “unlikely to obtain much return on their investment.” The most recent report (December 2016) from NCTQ continued to show that our nation’s programs still needed to do a lot of work to improve their practices.

Helen Gym’s attack on the Relay program demonstrates that her actual alignment isn’t with Black students, teachers of color, or rigorous teacher prep programs—she’s often more aligned to the status quo.

To be clear, there are plenty of areas that touch our schools where I agree with Councilwoman Gym. Her stance against illegal and racist immigration policies and racist prison guidelines are all commendable. I would wholly agree with her that the state’s education funding program deliberately and knowingly undermines our students’ educational opportunities and chances of success.

But attacking a contract that calls for 20 (yes, 20) teachers in a city of over 8000 teachers to be prepared by Relay, reeks of something other than Gym’s benign concern for our students. When Councilwoman Gym clings to the status quo, she is not aligned with our families or aspiring Black and Latino teachers seeking a different pathway to serve our communities.

When I shared Gym’s vitriol towards Relay with our two student teachers, they were shocked. In an email, one of these aspiring teachers shared with me:

I chose Relay Graduate School of Education because I did not study education as an undergrad. With an emphasis on practice, Relay gave me the knowledge and training that I brought to the classroom every single day.

I would recommend Relay over any other educational institute because they did not just teach me theories from 100 years ago that do not apply to our generation, they taught me how to be an effective teacher in any setting.

The other one said:

Relay Graduate School is a truly engaging experience. We teach children every day which helps our instruction and gives us true feedback. Unlike traditional graduate school- with only papers, dissertations, and inapplicable assignments- Relay provides deliberate and daily practice, coupled with feedback, which alleviates the fears, frustrations, and confusion that comes with first year teaching. I am more than proud to be a part of the Relay family.

Here are some actual facts about Relay which likely led a seasoned educator like Philly Superintendent Dr. Hite, who is committed to improving the diversity of our educators, to support the Relay program in the first place:

  • Nearly 70 percent of Relay Philadelphia and Camden participants identify as Black or Latino, more than double the citywide rate of teachers of color.
  • Relay has shown a commitment to recruit and prepare more teachers of color, including Black men, who currently represent 12 percent of their first-year residency cohort. If that sounds like a small number, here’s some perspective: I recently spoke to a dean at a local college who shared with me that in her seven years there, she has had only one Black male candidate. The Fellowship-Black Male Educators for Social Justice is proud to count Relay GSE as important partners in this work.
  • Since Relay’s program in Philadelphia and Camden launched in 2015, all 18 Philadelphia candidates were kept on for a second year of employment and 14 of those were hired into lead teaching roles.
  • Every school that hosted a Relay resident last year opted to host one again this year.

The two teachers we trained this year are both ready for the classroom next year. As a 24-year veteran educator and a current principal, I would be happy to hire both of them. As a father, I would be proud to have them as my own children’s teachers. I’m proud to have collaborated with the Relay Graduate School of Education to be a part of their growth and development.

We don’t expect any first year students to be flawless. Teaching is one of the most complicated professions out there. Of course, they will need to continue to work hard, build relationships, hone their content expertise, analyze data, reflect on their instructional practices, and relentlessly focus on student outcomes in order to continue to improve. Much like any new teacher, their work is cut out for them.

Our city needs collaborative problem-solvers, leaders who are thinking of and collaborating around complex solutions to address entrenched and complex issues. We need honest dialogue and high levels of curiosity and engagement. People like Councilwoman Gym should understand that the leadership in Philadelphia needs to support multiple pathways to our classrooms and schools. With effort and partnerships, we can strengthen and diversify our city’s educator workforce.

Fortunately, Relay has helped these student teachers develop the analytical skill and self-reflection to grow as educators over a lifetime. Maybe Councilwoman Gym can take a note and dig a little deeper to see a different perspective than the one promoted by the status quo.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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