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Preparing Teachers for a Lifetime in the Classroom

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"It takes a lot to be a teacher," Luke Carman says. "Every decision that is being made, you're simultaneously doing 17,000 other things. It requires a lot of intellectual forethought, persistence and energy."

Carman, 23, has spent the past two years preparing for a career in the classroom through the University of Chicago's Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP). The Rochester, N.Y. native will complete the program tomorrow, on July 1st.

Carman could have taken a shorter route to the classroom by doing Teach For America (TFA) or a similar alternative-preparation program, but he wanted more extensive training before embarking on a job he hopes to do for a long time -- if not a lifetime.

Asked how he settled on UTEP for his training, Carman says, "No matter what program you go through, there's probably no way that you're going to be totally and utterly prepared for any kind of experience." But, he says, "I think UTEP has prepared me as well as I could be for anything. ... I feel as supported as possible to make a career out of this and not just be in the classroom for a couple of years."

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Luke Carman, right, debriefing a lesson with Bill Kennedy. Photo by Justin Snider

UTEP and similar urban teacher residency programs across the country have received significant financial support from the federal government. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hopes such programs will be a game-changer for how the nation prepares its teachers. In an October 2009 speech at Teachers College, Columbia University, Duncan minced no words in describing the current state of teacher education: "by almost any standard, many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges, and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom. America's university-based teacher preparation programs need revolutionary change -- not evolutionary tinkering."

Duncan and President Barack Obama share a sense of urgency that the United States must do much more to ensure that every student is taught by a highly effective teacher.

"To put a great teacher in every classroom," Duncan says, "we need to dramatically improve preparation programs. We're embracing new models -- including both teacher residencies and alternative-route programs -- and holding them to a clear standard of whether they're preparing teachers who are effective in the classroom."

UTEP began in 2003, first to prepare University of Chicago undergraduates for careers as elementary-school teachers. The program is now open to graduates of other institutions, and it prepares not just elementary teachers but also secondary teachers of mathematics and biology. This past year, there were 38 UTEP students, although the hope is to expand to about 55 slots soon. There's also talk of one day enlarging the secondary program to include other subjects like chemistry, physics, English and history. The competitive admissions process includes a panel interview and a school visit, during which prospective students are asked to observe classes and then reflect on their observations in a group discussion.

The program takes two years to complete, though the first year is billed as part-time. University of Chicago undergraduates can begin the program in their senior year. UTEP graduates receive a Master of Arts in Teaching and state certification in either grades K-9 or grades 6-12.

To make becoming a teacher more financially feasible, UTEP offers its students a $20,000 stipend in their second year, and aspiring secondary teachers qualify for an additional $10,000 through the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which is run through the National Science Foundation. UTEP students are also eligible for federal Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants of up to $4,000 annually.

The first year in UTEP is a mix of academic coursework, guided observations of numerous Chicago Public Schools, twice-weekly tutoring of elementary or middle-school students, and a "soul strand," which promotional materials describe as an opportunity for students "to explore issues of teacher identity and educational equity as well as the ways in which race, class, and culture affect both teachers and students."

In the second year, teacher-interns continue with coursework, while also completing two half-year stints in a neighborhood public school and in one of the four charter schools run by the University of Chicago.

For his first clinical experience, Carman was assigned to a fifth-grade class at Donoghue Charter School on Chicago's South Side last fall. His two mentors at the school regularly observed him and offered feedback on both lesson plans and actual lessons. Carman was also formally observed twice a semester by Bill Kennedy, a former New York City teacher who oversees the work of mentors and who coaches UTEP graduates in their first three years of teaching. Such ongoing professional support -- in the form of teacher leadership training, professional-development workshops and in-classroom coaching -- is a critical component of UTEP and other residency programs.

In his second clinical experience, which ran from January until May 2011, Carman taught math and language arts to seventh-graders at Rachel Carson Elementary School, where more than 90 percent of students are Latino and 99 percent are low-income.

Starting in September, Carman will be teaching sixth grade at Chicago Quest, a new charter school that will open its doors to sixth- and seventh-graders this fall. It will eventually serve students in grades 6-12, just like its sister school in New York City, Quest to Learn, which opened to sixth-graders two years ago. Both schools capitalize on digital media and technology, as well as children's innate interest in games. "Mission critical at Quest is a translation of the underlying form of games into a powerful pedagogical model for its 6-12th graders," the Quest to Learn website reads.

Two other UTEP students, Audrey Edwards and Danielle Haney, interned at the University of Chicago's North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School. Both say the feedback they got from mentors -- and from watching themselves on videotape -- was essential to their preparation, and both believe UTEP's emphasis on self-reflection is important.

Edwards, whose undergraduate major was in comparative human development, advises those thinking about a career in teaching "to go to a place where you're not going to be thrown into a classroom unprepared. ... Go to a place where you are able to watch good teachers."

Haney, a 2004 graduate of the University of Iowa, adds that "observation is really important," and cautions those considering the classroom to "make sure it's really what you want to do -- it's intense."

The federal government's investment has led to the creation of teacher-residency programs around the country. Montclair State University in New Jersey, in partnership with the Newark Public Schools, started two urban-residency programs in 2010. A 12-month program is geared toward those wishing to teach secondary math or science, and it comes with a $26,000 stipend. An 18-month program prepares early-childhood and elementary teachers -- who also earn special-education credentials -- and those who enroll receive a $39,000 stipend. Additionally, in exchange for a three-year commitment to teach in Newark schools after graduation, Montclair State charges no tuition or fees for these programs. Graduates earn a master's degree and state certification.

Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City is home to another new teacher-residency program. A. Lin Goodwin, its director, says programs like hers give aspiring teachers "support and space to be learners of teaching -- to be deeply engaged with students at the same time that they are deeply engaged as students." Such a structure helps ensure that "neophyte teachers are learning from children, not on them," Goodwin says, which is a key difference she sees between teacher-residency programs and alternate pathways like TFA.

Recent graduate Jenny Field, 46, settled on the Teachers College program because it emphasized support, collaboration and a "gradual integration into the classroom," not immediate immersion. The London native -- who has turned to teaching after a career in the art world -- earned her certification in special education, an area that suffers from chronic shortages of qualified teachers.

Of her student-teaching experience, Field said, "When I had a disruptive classroom, my supervisor and my mentor-teacher didn't make me feel intimidated or nervous that it was my failing. It was understood that these are the challenges, and we had a solid support network. Now I feel like I can really handle anything."