Teacher Residency Program Provides Tools for Classroom Success

The 31 graduate students in the Richmond Teacher Residency (RTR) are not your typical teacher candidates, and the Virginia Commonwealth University master of teaching degree program is not your typical graduate program for new teachers. Like other urban school districts, the Richmond Public Schools (RPS) faces unique challenges, not the least of which is providing its 25,000 students with outstanding teachers. For RTR, that means persons with “extensive content knowledge, along with the heart and vision to create a more equitable outcome for all students.”

Among the 31 aspiring teachers in this year’s RTR program, several are Peace Corps veterans, some have come to teaching from other professional careers following college, and others are fresh from their undergraduate degree programs, but often without undergraduate teaching experience. These “nontraditional” teacher candidates experience an intensive, year-long residency in Richmond City Schools’ classrooms, in a teacher-training model adapted from the field of medicine.

Creating a pipeline of extraordinary teachers

The RTR program is part of a national effort — the Urban Teacher Residency United Network — and a grantee of ED’s Teacher Quality Partnerships (TQP) grant program, which supports model teacher preparation programs through reforms by higher education institutions working in collaboration with high-need schools and districts. As it is with the RTR program, TQP places an emphasis on recruiting effective individuals, including minorities and persons from outside the teaching profession.

In 2010, VCU received a $5.796 million TQP grant from the Office of Innovation and Improvement to cultivate a pipeline of extraordinary teachers who take seriously the job of leveling the playing field and closing the achievement gap for Richmond students. The four-year graduate program is highly selective and awards successful candidates stipends between $24,000 and $34,000, depending on their area of expertise, for their residency year. To receive the stipends, RTR students commit to both the residency year and at least three years of teaching in Richmond schools. Until this year, the single focus was on secondary school education, spanning the subjects of math and science, English language arts, and the humanities. With the 2014 cohort of residents, RTR opened a special education option at both the elementary and secondary levels.

Only the truly committed need apply

The initial residency component is demanding, lasting 14 months for future secondary teachers and 16 months for those preparing for special education assignments, and requiring 60-plus hours each week for the combined roles of classroom teacher and full-time graduate student. The summer before the initial school-year residency requires completion of at least 18 graduate credit hours. Mondays through Thursdays during the school year, the RTR residents are co-teaching alongside a master teacher, and graduate classes account for Fridays and one to two late afternoons each week. As the RTR website explains it, “On a challenging day, you’ll find yourself juggling priorities — like an exam to study for and a lesson plan to design.”

As the current VCU summer session unfolds for the 31 RTR teacher candidates who soon begin their residencies, several shared their backgrounds with a reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, including a husband and wife, Bradley Mock, 28, and Sarah Pedersen, 27, who are Peace Corps veterans. They chose teaching to extend their commitment to “try to effect change” in the world, but felt they weren’t qualified to take on a secondary classroom. “I tried to think of how I’d react if I were a parent and my child had me as a teacher,” Pedersen said. They chose Richmond and the RTR program because of the joint commitment of the university and the local schools to high-quality urban education.

Bucking the high-attrition trend in urban schools

Following their residency year in Richmond’s schools, RTR teachers commit to three years, during which time they receive professional development designed to help them succeed. The first cohort of RTR teachers are about to begin their third year, after which the program will evaluate its effectiveness at retaining the new teachers. Nationally, the attrition rate for new urban school teachers is 50 percent by the end of their third year, but for graduates of residency programs like RTR, the retention rate is 85 percent, according to Urban Teacher Residency United.

Therese K. “Terry” Dozier, a former national teacher of the year and director of VCU’s Center for Teacher Leadership and the RTR program, sees the program’s strength in the tools it provides for classroom success. “They get support while they’re with us” she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “and they keep getting support as teachers.”

The paper plans to publish an occasional series of stories about the RTR program through next May, focusing on both the RTR teacher candidates beginning their residencies and those who will complete the four-year program.

Cross-posted from the July 10, 2014 edition of The Teachers Edition, a weekly e-newsletter of ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach.