The eighth grade classroom of English language arts teacher Natalie Mitchell is full of books by black writers. Titles like Natalie Y. Moore’s “The South Side,” and LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman’s “Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago,” are prominently displayed.
Mitchell’s literary choices here at the University of Chicago Charter School, Woodlawn campus, underscore a key element of her teaching: her own experience growing up on Chicago’s south side.
“My identity is deeply rooted in the community I grew up in, and I definitely see that mirrored in the kids that I’m teaching,” Mitchell said.
It’s these types of connections the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program, where Mitchell earned her master’s degree, is trying to build. This teacher residency program and others like it offered by universities and school districts around the country offer prospective teachers an intensive alternative to the traditional training program.
As part of an October EWA seminar on the teaching profession, a group of journalists traveled to the Woodlawn campus of the UChicago charter schools network, to learn more about teacher residencies and see some recent graduates of the UChicago UTEP program in action.
Participants enrolled in UTEP spend one year learning the foundational skills of teaching. They are then paired with mentor teachers for two half-year-long residency programs on Chicago Public Schools campuses. Graduates who are hired by Chicago Public Schools after graduating from the program continue to receive coaching and training from UChicago UTEP at no additional cost.
Jeanette Bartley, the co-director of UTEP, said program directors want teachers who complete the program to get a feel for different neighborhoods with different needs, while learning from veteran teachers who may have different strengths.
“It gives them a bigger picture so they can start to really reflect on who they want to be, and the kind of teacher they want to be,” Bartley said.
An important component is not just the development of the aspiring teachers in the programs, but also their mentors, said Bill Kennedy, the other UTEP co-director.
“Good teachers don’t necessarily make good mentors,” he said. “We spend a lot of time training mentors as well.” In addition, he said, “the mentor is constantly being forced to re-evaluate their own [teaching] practice.”
A ‘Good HouseKeeping Seal’
Anissa Listak, the founder and CEO of the National Center for Teacher Residencies, a Chicago-based nonprofit group, said the “really big goal” of residency programs like the one at UChicago “is to improve outcomes for high-needs students.” She added, “We do that by transforming the caliber and the skill level of the teacher standing in front of kids.”
The center is an 11-year-old organization that sets standards for and helps launch teacher residency programs around the country. Listak said her group aims to be the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for teacher residencies.
NCTR’s website lists 24 teacher residency programs across the country, with another 14 in development. The California legislature allocated $75 million in funding for new residency programs in its 2018-2019 budget. (For more on teacher residency programs, check out this recent EWA blog post.)
Students head to their next class at the University of Chicago Charter School, Woodlawn campus.
Because schools do not collect data on students that differentiates between their teachers’ training programs, the NCTR and teacher residency programs cannot point to exact outcomes for students. But there are some promising numbers surrounding the teachers who graduate from residency programs.
For example, 52 percent of residents are people of color, compared with about 20 percent of the overall teacher workforce, according to NCTR. Early teacher retention trends high, with 86 percent of residents staying at their first school over their first three years, the NCTR finds.
By comparison, a 2015 report from the National Center for Education Statistics finds that, in their second year, 74 percent of beginning teachers remain in the same school as the previous year.
“This is a really good snapshot of the impact that these programs are having,” Listak said.
Still, the teacher residency model comes with challenges, namely funding. In many cases, colleges and universities are responsible for creating a curriculum, building a network of professors and paying for other expenses outside the typical costs of teacher preparation programs, Listak said. That often requires seed money from philanthropists.
Listak estimates it costs, on average, about $50,000 to prepare a teacher under this model.
“Part of the reason why the financial sustainability of the residency model has been so difficult is that these programs have created an entirely separate system to prepare teachers,” Listak said.
A key component of UChicago UTEP’s program is social justice, said Bartley and Kennedy. In the United States, most students of color will be taught predominantly, if not entirely, by white teachers during their school career. Teacher residency programs like UTEP hope to recruit a more diverse and culturally aware cohort of candidates that can address those discrepancies.
“The kind of candidates that we tend to attract are people who really want to work from the justice-oriented perspective,” Kennedy said.
The UTEP program calls this concept “Soul Strand,” the idea that teacher candidates will be immersed in the environments that they teach in, helping them understand the surrounding communities while reflecting on their own backgrounds and racial identities.
At UC Woodlawn, nearly every student is African American. But seventh grade social studies teacher Skye Black, a white woman, said she came in comfortable having difficult conversations about “some really dark things that have happened in our history.”
“I would be doing a disservice to students if I did not address the fact that I am a white teacher talking about those who held power over others historically,” Black said.
Black starts every school year with a unit on Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. Students create biographies of themselves called “identity maps,” and often respond with shock when Black acknowledges she’s white.
“I had a student this year that raised her hand and was kind of stumbling over her words, and then said, ‘You’re the first white teacher that’s ever said that they’re white. Thank you.”
Rather than offering a single class on racial identity, teacher candidates work “in solidarity with communities” while pursuing their master’s degree, Kennedy said. Teachers should leave the program with a deep understanding of the complex challenges low-income, often segregated, neighborhoods face, and be able to respond.
“We’re not asking students to leave their identities at the door,” Bartley said. “They’re bringing them into the classroom with them.”
‘Let’s Respect All Identities’
DeVear Peters Jr. is another graduate of the program, and teaches seventh grade English and language arts at UC Woodlawn. He said that as a black man, there already are expectations set in place when he walks into a classroom.
“When the moments come, I do share my background experience with families, what happened when I grew up, and all those things,” he said.
Beyond that, however, Peters said he designs his lessons to respect and acknowledge all identities. For example, he noted his class recently was focused on analyzing fiction and fantasy novels, whose protagonists are predominantly white men. Students were asked to discuss what the characters’ experiences might be if the main characters were black, LGBTQ or individuals with disabilities.
“The idea is let’s respect all identities,” Peters said. “We don’t know where we all are in this room.”