When Marie Lewis applied to the Nashville Teacher Residency (NTR), she was earning $18,000 per year as a paraprofessional, supporting students with special needs, one-on-one or in small groups.
To make ends meet, she also worked over the summers and during school breaks at a child care center, earning $10.25 per hour. A single Black mother of two, Marie loved children and knew she wanted to be a teacher, but couldn’t afford to pay for a licensure program, which can cost $30,000 or more at local universities for a degree and license.
Lewis loved the work and the difference she felt she could make in children’s lives, but the way things were going, neither her dreams nor her potential were going to be realized.
Sadly, her story isn’t unusual. Such lack of opportunity disproportionately affects people of color at a time when we are facing a national teaching shortage of teachers of color.
The diversity of students in this country is increasing, but the diversity of our teaching force is not. Just seven percent of our country’s teachers are Black. Yet research tells us that exposure to a Black teacher in elementary school can reduce the high school dropout rate for low-income Black male students by 39 percent.
There is also a related but largely unseen crisis: the number of underemployed and underpaid educators who can’t become full-time teachers because of systemic barriers. Again, kids are suffering because of this — but we can do something about it.
In five years of training residents at NTR, we’ve found many people with the potential to become amazing teachers if given the training, support and opportunity to do so.
While the pandemic has elevated the importance of teachers, highlighting both the difficulty of their work and how poorly compensated they are for it, this elevation has ignored the largely unseen cost of becoming a teacher in the first place.
In traditional models of teacher education, teacher candidates largely cover the cost themselves. They pay educator preparation programs for course credits earned by their free labor as student teachers.
But too many excellent teacher candidates lack both the economic and racial privilege to fight through the multi-layered systems of teacher education. What’s worse, a disproportionate number of those thwarted candidates are Black or brown.
Our system of teacher education continues to churn out disproportionately white teachers, publicly professing the need to do better at preparing teachers of color yet doing very little to change the racialized curricular and programmatic assumptions that have created the problem. Teacher education can be an antidote for systemic racism, but we must first recognize that it has also been both a symptom and a cause of it. Teacher residencies, while not a panacea, can provide a way to address these problems, by:
- Embedding teacher candidates in paid positions where they can earn a salary while learning how to teach.
- Deferring tuition until candidates are licensed and teaching full time.
- Creating loan and emergency fund programs for candidates.
- Better preparing candidates for licensure exams and rigorous academic standards.
- Prioritizing the training of teachers of color and crafting coursework and programmatic structures that celebrate and empower them.
The Nashville Teacher Residency uses each of these strategies to some degree, sharing the cost of teacher education with school districts and members of the philanthropic community, one of the most important of which has been the National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR) and its Black Educators Initiative (BEI).
BEI has given us a chance to partner with and learn from other NCTR programs that are also trying to make teacher education programs more equitable, especially in terms of how they serve Black teacher candidates.
In NTR’s five years of existence, over 60 percent of our teacher residents have been people of color, but we’re still just beginning to figure out what works and what we need to do better.
Our residents still don’t earn enough for the service they provide to schools, and we still aren’t preparing them well enough for the content requirements of licensure exams and rigorous instruction. But we have made it a little easier for teachers of color to show the impact they can have on kids if given the chance.
The diversity of students in this country is increasing, but the diversity of our teaching force is not.
Take Marie Lewis, who is now in her second year teaching at the same school where she completed her residency. She earns a salary which, while still not enough, is over twice as large as what she made as a paraprofessional. Lewis is an emerging leader who achieves outstanding results and receives excellent observation scores. Teaching in a mask, in-person during the pandemic, her classroom is a calm, productive ideal — kids feel safe and work hard.
Her son, Jordan, comes to her classroom with her every morning while she gets ready for the day before beginning his own day as a student at her school.
If we want to make it possible for all the Marie Lewises to get a chance to shine as teachers, we, as an education community, must commit to principles of equitable preparation and consider some of the promising practices of the residency model.
Randall Lahann is outgoing executive director of the Nashville Teacher Residency.