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VOL. 6 | NO. 13 | Saturday, March 23, 2013

‘Teacher Town’

Schools turn focus to recruiting new crop of idealistic instructors

By Bill Dries

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There was a time not too long ago when teacher residency programs in Memphis were exercises in isolation. The new teaching recruits in and out of those programs often talked of being overwhelmed in their new school and career environments. But in the larger maelstrom of changes to the face of local public education, the residency programs are growing across all the different types of public schools emerging in advance of the August merger of city and county schools.

New college graduates who in many cases had never considered teaching – much less moving to Memphis – are finding their way around a city they are learning about and that they also mean to change. Residency programs like Teach For America and Memphis Teacher Residency are infusing the soon-to-be-merged public school systems with a young, energized and idealistic corps of new teachers.

They come from outside the traditional pipeline that, particularly in the case of Memphis City Schools, has been a closed system with sometimes arcane rules and customs. The residencies are intense, a word that keeps popping up in descriptions of the experience by the teachers and by educators who are watching the impact of the new teachers on public education.

Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District for the bottom 5 percent performing schools in Tennessee in terms of student achievement, is among those who describe the work as “intense.” He acknowledges the intensity might be the first part of an evolution that changes the teacher pipeline with the new recruits as shock troops in the turnaround effort.

“I think we’ve got to import some folks and we’ve got to really make Memphis sort of the scene of ‘teacher town’ – a place where teachers want to come and live and work,” Barbic said.

At Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Jasmyn Wright, Jessica Alexander and Marie Cushing are past spring break of their first school year in the Achievement School District. All three are recent college graduates from other parts of the country who joined Teach For America and chose Memphis as a place to come and first observe and work with veteran teachers and then teach themselves. Each talks about the intense recruiters for the program they encountered on their college campuses.

“I’d already heard of it but was kind of afraid of the recruiting officer there,” Alexander said of her experience on the University of Alabama campus. “He was so aggressive.”

For Wright, at Atlanta’s Spelman College, the intensity of the recruiter was a draw and what she found in Frayser was profoundly different than what she had encountered in other poor performing schools elsewhere where students at least had the benefit of pre-kindergarten.

“I heard them say that we were working with the bottom 5 percent of schools,” Wright said of her preparation for Frayser. “But I guess it didn’t register until I actually went into the classroom. That really hit me – that we really are working with the bottom 5 percent of schools.”

Alexander had a similar experience saying once she got into a Memphis classroom, it was nothing like she expected it would be. But she was quick to add that she also felt prepared.

“When I was thinking about the classes I grew up in it was very, very organized. The children were very homogenous,” she said. “When I got here, it was tons of different personalities. … I was a student just six months ago finishing up my undergraduate career and now I am responsible for educating these third graders.”

Each of the three says they may get physically tired but see no end in sight to their careers as educators.

“I’m too stubborn. A kid does something one day and I’m going to come back tomorrow and I’m going to show you that you doing this doesn’t mean I don’t love you. I’ll be here for you,” said Cushing, who along with Alexander and Wright was eagerly looking forward to spring break. “You very, very highly value breaks and I don’t think I’ve been more excited for potential snow days as a teacher, which is probably not the best thing.”

Barbic has a longer view of what is happening with the influx of new teachers and the role of teacher residency programs.

A second grader completes a math exercise at Frayser Elementary, part of the state-run ASD. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“This is tough work. It’s hard work,” he said. “Could someone spend their entire career in turnaround environment? I think there are some people that could. But this is intense work. It would be like asking a doctor to spend their entire career in the ER. … This is a situation where you have somebody coming in for five, six or seven years and this is the kind of work they want to do. I think it’s too early to say long term sustainability in an environment like this – that that’s possible or even should be possible.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam dropped in on the Memphis Teacher Residency headquarters around winter break to talk with 40 of the teachers and residents in the program. With electrical cords hanging from the basement ceiling at Union Avenue Baptist Church and stacks of books mixed with laptops and classroom visual aids on the wall, Haslam got a good look at the intensity of some of the shock troops.

Haslam’s daughter is a schoolteacher who taught for a time in Memphis and he said she too has talked about the feeling of being alone as a new teacher.

“We’re not here to be a hero,” said one of the male teachers from New York. “I’m not just another person. I’m here to stay.”

Others framed their decision to come to Memphis in terms of religious faith.

The group told Haslam the surprises included “the realities of what some of our schools are really like” and “so many factors working against you in the classroom.”

The first influx of new teachers in Memphis Teacher Residency came to town in June 2009 just before the move to merge Shelby County’s two school systems began. That group’s four-year hitch in the program will end in May. The residency pays a stipend with access to housing, which for most is in the Georgian Woods Apartments, next to the Teaching and Learning Center at Union and Hollywood, where the countywide school board meets.

“Community is a big part of what we do,” said Dr. Robin Scott, director of education for Memphis Teacher Residency.

The changes in local public education on several fronts from the schools merger to the coming switch to Common Core standards is what drew many residents to the program.

“The work that’s happening in Memphis is exciting and it is being noticed on a national landscape,” Scott said. “People are drawn to the fact that there is this great momentum happening in our city. They are excited by it. They are excited about being in a city where we have an opportunity to be the model for effective school reform for the nation.”

It is part of an organized recruitment pitch to come teach in Memphis. The new Teach 901 campaign is a recruitment program with links to Memphis Teacher Residency, Teach For America, charter school operators, both public school systems and the Achievement School District. Its ambitious pitch is “Together, we will rewrite the future of an entire generation.”

The pitch is not for college students to come and stick their toe in the waters of Memphis public education. It emphasizes that the reformers are here long term and here to change education in Memphis.

Former Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash identified the existing teacher pipeline and process as ripe for reform as soon as he settled in Memphis in 2008. The Teacher Effectiveness Initiative he won $90 million in funding for from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for is partially an attempt to change the pipeline. Cash also worried that charter schools and other alternatives to conventional public schools were “burning out” the new teachers.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam listens to Josh Shelley (right) and others participating in the Memphis Teacher Residency program during a meeting with the group in Union Avenue Baptist Church. (Photo: Courtesy of MTR/Brandon Dill)

“What’s happening in a lot of charter schools is they are turning into sweat shops,” Cash said in 2011. “And they are burning out these teachers.”

Like Cash, Barbic wants to see the statistics on teacher retention change. Cash’s Teacher Effectiveness Initiative proposal began by citing the statistic that 40 percent of all city school teachers leave before their third year and 20 percent leave after the first year.

Those in the residency programs say they have relied on career teachers who came through the traditional pipeline and have offered them the practical experience of decades in the classroom.

But there are tensions. Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association, has repeatedly criticized the residency programs as attempts to push out more experienced teachers. He’s also questioned the belief by education reformers, including Barbic, that there is no data that show student performance improves specifically because of teachers who have been teaching longer or who have advanced degrees.

The union’s position is teachers should be paid based on their experience, seniority and advanced college degrees they’ve attained. It’s a system the countywide school board voted just this month to discard in the merger. The new system in part ties teacher pay to student performance. It is among the reforms the merged school system will pursue under the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative. The countywide school board approved this month a new two-year agreement with Teach for America funded with over $1 million in Gates Foundation money.

Teach For America will provide 172 teachers over the years to be “hired for vacancies across the full range of grades and subject matters and not restricted or limited to so-called critical or shortage subjects or grade level vacancies” under terms of the contract.

Barbic said the ability to pay teachers based in part on student performance and other merit factors must include the ability to pay them $70,000 to $90,000 a year.

“Short term we have to try and incentivize folks who are already here to want to work in schools where kids need them the most,” Barbic said. “I think longer term, we have to do two things. We’ve got to really try and develop pipelines of teachers – alternative pipelines that really tap into the ones that are already there. And figuring out how we bring in different types of teacher training programs that are maybe more specific to turnaround work.”

When Haslam asked how many in the Memphis Teacher Residency group thought they would still be teaching in Memphis in five years, most raised their hands. Cushing, who came to Memphis in 2010 with two years in Memphis schools before the Frayser ASD assignment, is now a Teach for America alumni. Originally from New Hampshire and with family now in Nashville, she said she wanted “something completely different.”

She wants to remain in education but isn’t sure whether that means as a classroom teacher long term. She and Alexander say other teachers they talk shop with these days talk more about coming TCAP exams and after that Common Core standards than the schools merger. And when Cushing talks about a movement, it isn’t a crusade across broad educational barriers and sweeping national goals.

“You’ve got to go in with the right mind set about it,” Cushing said. “Every day is going to be a challenge and it’s going to be a challenge in a new way, either with the kids or the material. What Teach For America helped me do is develop my skills as a leader and see myself really as the leader and the driving movement in my classroom.”

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