Residency program tries to solve problem of teacher burnout

Baltimore-based Urban Teacher Center gives new teachers the opportunity to work in classroom with mentors

  • David Wise works with Zachary Fiorenza, left, and Raul Saldana-Hernandez, right, at Holabird Academy's summer school math class. Wise is part of the Urban Teacher Program.
David Wise works with Zachary Fiorenza, left, and Raul Saldana-Hernandez,… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
August 17, 2014|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

As principal of a small Southeast Baltimore school, Anthony Ruby has guided an array of first-year teachers, from the stars who seem to have an innate sense of how to handle a class to those who were so ineffective he declined to renew their contracts.

When teachers aren't effective, he said, "it is not fair to our kids," many of whom are low-income and immigrant.

Hundreds of teachers are hired each year to fill vacancies in Baltimore, and the majority will be newcomers to the profession. In urban districts, where many are assigned to teach children with some of the greatest challenges, the national burnout rate is astonishing. Fifty percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first three years.

For years, former Baltimore school administrator Jennifer Green watched struggling teachers with lots of will but little skill, and came to believe one major obstacle to improving schools was the high turnover rate and inexperienced teachers. Eventually, she hatched a potential solution, and in 2009, she and a colleague quit their jobs and started the Baltimore-based Urban Teacher Center.

The idea: Green would reach out to principals hampered each year by the next new crop of young, beginner teachers fumbling their way through their first few years of teaching. For $20,000 from the principals, she would dispatch a recent college graduate who would spend the first year as a resident helping in an experienced teacher's classroom.

In return, the resident would get valuable mentoring while taking graduate classes and have a shot at being hired as a full-time teacher the following year. They would continue to work while earning a master's from Lesley University, a private college in Cambridge, Mass.

"The genesis of what I hope will become a national model was born out of my experiences in Baltimore," Green said.

Ruby at Holabird Academy was one of the principals Green approached. He saw it as a bargain.

"We look for any way we can to get more qualified adults working with students for an extended period of time. The more positive adult interactions kids have, the better they do in school," he said. "I can afford four full-time residents for what is still $10,000 less than a teacher."

He also has used residents from the Urban Teacher Center to staff summer school and as substitutes.

The prospective teachers get the chance to try out the profession and make a few mistakes under a watchful eye before taking on the full responsibility of a classroom, and Ruby gets a pipeline of potential hires in which he has more confidence.

In the past four years, 130 residents from the Urban Teacher Center have signed up for the four-year commitment to city schools, which includes one year of a residency and three years of teaching.

As part of the program, teachers are required to prove their effectiveness in the classroom before moving to the next year.

About 80 percent of teachers in their first year in the classroom produce student achievement gains that are equal to those of regular second-year teachers, according to teacher center data. And the Urban Teacher Center guarantees students taught by one of their teachers will make a full year's worth of academic gains, more progress than many urban teachers whose students often perform at below grade level in reading and math.

"We wanted to try to guarantee that when we let people into the classroom, that these people were really proficient at being able to teach and advance student achievement," Green said.

As American education leaders search for ways to build better teachers, some have argued the focus should be on more rigorous selection and training of teachers. Instead, many states have emphasized weeding out ineffective teachers through an evaluation system that grades them in part on student test scores.

Supporters of that first approach point to other countries where student achievement has surpassed that of the United States.

Finland, for instance, has shown gains in student achievement far beyond the United States after reducing the number of college education programs, selecting candidates with higher grade-point averages and making training more rigorous, according to a best-selling book that compares education in the highest-achieving countries in the world to the U.S.

Borrowing from some of those principles, the Urban Teacher Center is selective: only 25 percent of applicants are chosen for the four-year program. And a teacher's training includes more clinical practice than many college programs.

The teacher center is just one of a growing number of residency programs across the country that are trying different training models, much in the same way doctors are trained at hospitals by learning from more experienced colleagues.

In that way, Holabird Academy has now become the equivalent of a teaching hospital. This fall, Ruby's staff of 30 teachers will be aided by four residents as well as six interns from a local college.

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