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Training teachers to succeed: Urban Teachers builds a residency model

Being a first year teacher often means instructing with limited classroom experience and Baltimore City Public Schools, like many urban school districts, has more inexperienced teachers than suburban school districts.  A local program, called Urban Teachers, grown out of former educators’ experience working in Baltimore’s central office, is trying to change that.  

Ms. Tierra Woods is greeting her 4th grade math class as they shuffle into their seats. She’s a first year teacher, but this isn’t her first time leading a class.

“I was here last year so I know most of the kids so I didn’t have that great anxiety of, ‘oh my gosh, I have to get in from of these kids I don’t know,’ ” she explains. “The classroom is my peaceful space. I’m not nervous. I’m excited.”

Today’s lesson looks at rounding numbers in the thousands through the use of timelines and comparing units.

“So now I have the number 7,578; and I want to round that number to nearest thousands. . . I know when I use a vertical number line I have a base . . . and a limit,” instructs Ms. Woods. 

Woods is 23 years old and just finished the first year of the training program, Urban Teachers.  It’s open to college graduates - they start out with a summer institute, then they begin a year-long residency, taking classes through Johns Hopkins University in the evenings and working with a teacher in his or her classroom. In the second year residents become full-time teachers in that same school, and continue to take classes. Woods says she’s using last year’s techniques from the classroom almost everyday and the coursework, she says, has been valuable too -- her faculty coach was born and raised in Baltimore which helped Woods, who grew up in New York City, better understand her students.     

“ . . . Like how being strict may be necessary because in the culture the students grow up in their parents aren’t negotiating with them so when you give them room to negotiate that’s different than how they’re being raised at home,” Woods reflects.  “So you have to be clear, explicit, give them expectations and make sure you’re following through with it.”     

In the third year, participants continue to get mentorship and coaching at their placement school and through Urban Teachers. At the end of that year, if their evaluations go well, they’re recommended for a full state license and complete their commitment with one more teaching year.

“You’re in that classroom kind of like you’re a surgeon; you’re in the ER,” explains Woods, comparing the experiences to a medical residency.

So teachers get a full year of experience before they ever become a lead teacher to try things out, like diagnosing why a student isn’t decoding words on grade level or figuring out how to create tiers in a lesson that meet the needs of everyone.

Jennifer Green is CEO and co-founder of Urban Teachers. Before that, she was Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Baltimore City Public Schools. She says too often teachers are not prepared and don’t get continued support and evaluation.

“When I was at North Avenue what I came to believe was that we did a disservice to children when we put unprepared teachers into schools that struggled to support them. I think that the conditions in schools are very challenging.

Green goes on to explain it's systemic issues that can make improving a teaching practice challenging. “The children it turns out are terrific but they need someone in front them who understands how to build mutual respect and trust, how to teach to their needs, how wrap support around them,” she explains. “What we find too often is that new teachers come in and get a few years of experience in urban schools systems and then move into the counties.”

County districts then don’t have to take as many first year teachers. Inexperienced teachers can cause students to fall as much as seven months behind. Plus, kids in urban schools often need strong instruction the most because students are farther behind, they may not be getting as much reinforcement at home, and school resources are stretched more thinly.

In her West Baltimore classroom at Furman Templeton Elementary, Ms. Woods, whose demeanor is demanding but nurturing, is encouraging her 25 students to talk to one another about midpoints. The focus in the room rarely waivers for the hour and a half lesson.

Urban Teachers is only one of many pipelines that trains teachers, but it’s one that attracts people who know they need experience before they can become a great teacher

“I find it offensive that people go into the classroom without any experience,” says Woods. “You need to know what you’re doing to do it, that’s someone’s future in your hands. . .” 

We will have future stories checking in with Tierra Woods as her first year unfolds. In our next story, we’ll look more closely at what motivates Ms. Woods to teach.