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VOL. 11 | NO. 18 | Saturday, May 5, 2018

Inner Fortitude

College educators partner to train teachers for challenges in urban schools


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Amid a teacher shortage attributed partly to economic opportunities luring away candidates, local educators are creating urban teaching programs and adopting new recruitment strategies.

Rhodes College is launching a master’s program in urban education in June and is offering a $10,000 scholarship to each student. If the student receives a Stafford federal loan of $15,000 and commits to teaching at a “high-need” school, the degree essentially will be free.

The University of Memphis, which is starting an undergraduate program with an urban emphasis in the fall, will host rising high school seniors in July. Officials plan to impress upon them that an ideal way of expressing social consciousness would be teaching in local, inner-city schools.

Shelby County Schools is offering alternative routes to the head of classrooms by recruiting candidates who hold non-education degrees. Required to meet some front-end requirements, they will be allowed to teach while working on obtaining a license.

And Memphis Teacher Residency, a source that SCS taps for qualified teachers, will pitch to student counselors at an academic and art camp it runs. MTR graduates 60 to 70 teachers a year. SCS has about 900 vacancies a year.

But the issue goes beyond numbers. Educators and administrators want teachers who can be effective in the complex atmosphere of the urban classroom.

To address the shortage and generate teachers with skills to teach in urban classrooms, local educators formed a collaborative earlier this year. It meets once a month at SCS district offices. The group, tentatively called the Educator Preparation Program Collaborative, includes representatives from the University of Memphis, Rhodes College, Union University, Christian Brothers University and LeMoyne-Owen College.

“We’re not just trying to meet a teacher-shortage problem,” said David Montague, executive director of Memphis Teacher Residency, which provides master’s degrees in urban education through Union University. “You’re not just looking for a body. You’re looking for a well-trained, motivated teacher who has high expectations for themselves and for students.”


SCS must fill about 900 annual teacher vacancies, created mostly by teachers with less than five years in the school system. Retirement is among the top five reasons for vacancies, with promotions also a leading cause. SCS’s hiring season begins in December and wraps up soon, in June. Nancy Ballinger, director of talent management, or human resources, at Shelby County Schools, said that’s a lot of hires in a short period of time.

“We are essentially at zero vacancies,” Ballinger said. “We have all the classrooms covered.”

Make no mistake – just because the job is nearly finished doesn’t indicate it wasn’t difficult.

Shelby County got creative and looked “at any possible pipeline” to fill teacher spots, said Abigail Johnson, who works in SCS staffing and recruiting.

One pipeline was the deepening of SCS’s relationship with MTR, which is in its ninth year of providing teachers to SCS. The school system placed as many of its teachers as possible.

The nonprofit with a Christian perspective trains 60 to 70 teachers a year in an immersive experience that includes candidates living in adjoining apartments. Participants commit to three consecutive years in a “partner school.” It works with schools in six partner neighborhoods, including Frayser, Binghampton and Orange Mound.

SCS also recruited teachers degreed in studies other than education. Administrators used substitutes for temporary vacancies caused by things like pregnancies.

All told, SCS employs 6,500 teachers. It’s the biggest school system in the region with 111,500 students, including 15,000 in charter schools.

SCS administrators expect to scramble for teachers for the next five years, Ballinger said. It’s a national phenomenon accentuated by the challenge of the urban environment. At conferences, Ballinger hears the talk from educators in places like Seattle and Detroit.

“They say exactly – identical challenges – as we do. It’s almost like therapy,” she said. “They’re trying some of the same things as we do, but different things, too.”

While no one thing is leading to the teacher shortage, the challenges grew as the economic recession faded. Worker options broadened. Competition increased. And though SCS pays a beginning teacher a $43,000 base salary annually – considered competitive regionally – there is competition from industries offering higher wages.

“School districts across the country are seeing massive challenges in getting new teachers in the profession,” said Athena Palmer, executive director of Teach for America, which recruits, develops and supports teachers to work in low-income communities. “There’s a supply challenge. College graduates today have tons of opportunities. Our school system can’t compete with that.”


But there are other ways to attract young adults to education.

TFA furnishes about 150 teachers to Shelby County every year. The nonprofit organization hopes to fix inequities in the system and provide quality recruits who will make a big impact on students. Though recruiting to urban classrooms can be tough – “exhausting work,” said Palmer – TFA seeks out people motivated to change the system and change lives. She sees new teachers who “fall in love with their children very quickly and feel responsible to be part of the solution.”

For Natalie Person, chair of educational studies at Rhodes College, you cannot talk about urban education without talking about poverty.

A former preschool and kindergarten teacher in Whitehaven, Person has been part of the development team for the Master of Arts in Urban Education program, in the works six years. Rhodes sought the input of principals, teachers, parents, charter schools and other colleges such as LeMoyne-Owen as it stitched together an undergrad teaching program and then the master’s.

“We don’t think education is a silver bullet, but to be a teacher you need a deep understanding … of the impact of poverty on families and on the readiness to learn,” Person said.

In an urban environment, a student may lack internet access to perform classroom work – or electricity. Urban schools need teachers attuned and ready to grapple with the obstacles. To that end, Rhodes education undergrads study things like sociology and history, and the master’s program “very much has a social justice/equity focus,” Person said.

Instead of coming from “a deficit approach” to understand youth, professors will teach students to consider the knowledge young people offer from their traditions and environment.

“How do you take the strength a child does have and incorporate that into learning?” Person said.

Rhodes hopes to enroll up to 24 students in the master’s program this year but eventually 100 students at one time. For the first five years of the program, each student will receive a $10,000 scholarship funded by gifts from donors, including the Memphis Education Fund.

The University of Memphis is beefing up its urban focus by launching a new venture with SCS, the River City Partnership. The premise of the program, which starts in the fall, is to develop teachers specifically for SCS, said Dr. Alfred Hall, assistant dean of the College of Education.

The venture aims to stimulate the social consciousness of local high schoolers and retain them for the district after they’re degreed. They’ll be schooled in the needs of urban students and taught how to address challenges to the learning environment. The four-year program begins in the fall with 25 students. In six to seven years, officials hope to grow the program to 75 a year.

“We’ve been responsive, but our goal is to be more responsive,” Hall said. “We have recognized a decline in teacher prep programs. We’re going to have to be more intentional about recruiting.”

U of M typically churns out about 100 education graduates a year, but many return to their home districts outside of Memphis. Only about 20 percent of graduates hail from SCS, and only about 20 percent return to teach for SCS, Hall said. The university hopes to change that trend.

The struggle now looms large, however.

“Even at our peak,” Hall said, “we’re not preparing enough teachers. It’s still a challenge, and it’s an ongoing challenge.”

While reasons for the teacher shortage are varied, one thing limiting LeMoyne-Owen’s ability to contribute more teachers has been standardized tests and licensure.

A historically black college, LeMoyne-Owen has been steeped in addressing urban education for decades. Its administrators recognize that other colleges are now coming on board with programs dedicated to preparing teachers for an inner-city environment.

LeMoyne-Owen graduated 15 to 20 teachers a year some 15 years ago – quite a number for a college of its size – but now annually produces three to five licensed teachers a year, said Ralph Calhoun, chairman of the college’s Division of Education.

Administrators recognized an issue with LeMoyne-Owen education students becoming degreed but struggling to obtain a permanent license. That was reflective of the difficulty many African-American students have with standardized testing, Calhoun said. That adds to the local teacher shortage, he said.

To help students, LeMoyne-Owen has established a “practice institute” for those who haven’t passed the licensure test so they will go on to success with the real test.

Ultimately, though, what teachers need to be prepared for in inner-city classrooms doesn’t come from textbooks, Calhoun said. What children need isn’t sympathy but empathy – the ability to identify with a student’s problems and obstacles.

“Textbooks don’t adequately address the need of urban students,” Calhoun said. “Maybe during the night, a child has been awakened because of gun shots in the neighborhood … or maybe they’re dealing with the injury or arrest of a loved one. Each child comes with different needs. Teaching in an urban environment is quite different. We have to teach academically – and socially and emotionally, too.”

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