By Kendi Anderson, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
Sept. 27–Anyone who peeked in the door of Tad Russell’s science classroom might assume he’s been teaching for years.
The eyes of his sixth-grade students stay fixed on Russell as he moves around the room, occasionally crouching down to desk level as he explains how ecosystems form biomes.
“Today you’re going to become the expert on one biome,” Russell said, instilling confidence in each student. “You have 30 minutes and then I’m going to sit down and you’ll become the teacher.”
As soon as his instructions are finished the kids began leafing through worn textbooks and scrolling on iPads, researching a specific biome to present to the class. Sharing information with their group, the students work together and giggle about funny biome names like Taiga Forest.
After the bell rings and class is dismissed, Russell takes a deep breath. Running his hands through his bright red hair, he says, “One of the best things I’ve learned is that students are going to talk. The secret is me giving them something to talk about.”
This teaching strategy is just one of the things Russell learned during his 15-month teaching residency with Project Inspire. The program placed Russell in classrooms four days a week to learn from a “master teacher” while he worked on a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Tennessee Tech.
Project Inspire was started in Chattanooga in 2010 in hopes of resolving the perpetual struggle to recruit and maintain math and science teachers in middle and high schools, especially those with high poverty rates.
The program, a partnership between the Public Education Foundation, Tennessee Tech and the Hamilton County Department of Education, works to combat the problem by preparing teachers to be highly effective in these classrooms. Twelve teachers are currently enrolled.
Dan Challener, president of the PEF, said he saw the need years ago and an opportunity to meet it. Teacher residency programs were gaining momentum nationally, and Challener said it made sense to him to train teachers like doctors.
“Medicine and education are both at their very core about people and lives,” Challener said. ” We all learn best at the hands of someone who is an expert.”
This hands-on, intensive training is what allows Russell to enter his classroom every day at Soddy-Daisy Middle School with confidence, he said, even though this is his first year teaching.
“I feel more prepared than many other first-year teachers I know,” Russell said. “It’s like I’ve already had a first year of teaching.”
Meeting a need
Jamie Parris, director of secondary math and science for Hamilton County schools, said that the year the program started, the district needed about a dozen math and science teachers just weeks before school began.
The shortage, coupled with the steep learning curve many first-year teachers face, encouraged Parris to start looking for ways Hamilton County could reshape its teacher training and preparation.
“We wanted teachers to come out and be prepared to be successful their first year,” Parris said. He said a residency program “is an incredible way to expedite a teacher’s practice.”
Edna Varner, a coach with Project Inspire who served for years as a principal in several high-need, high-poverty schools in Hamilton County, said she knows firsthand how hard it is to recruit good teachers to such schools.
Year after year, Varner said, the best teachers were lured away by flashy offers from schools with bigger budgets, fancier facilities and different student demographics.
“A high-poverty school has a reputation of being difficult,” Varner said. “A lot of people try to avoid these schools.”
Varner said Project Inspire is directly combating this problem by recruiting and training a diverse group of teachers who want to be in these schools and believe their students can learn.
“Project Inspire is training teachers to believe that no matter what bad things you see in a high-need school, you can change that,” Varner said. “We are training and preparing teachers that can prove to these kids that they can learn and they are smart.”
Parris said graduates of Project Inspire are helping fill hard-to-staff positions across the district.
“This program is allowing us to start the year if not fully staffed, close to fully staffed,” he said.
As of this year, 25 Project Inspire grads are teaching in 15 Hamilton County schools. Many are Title I schools, which typically have lower test scores, higher rates of teacher turnover and large numbers of students living in poverty.
Early teacher evaluation data suggests Project Inspire’s residents are making a difference in classrooms.
Because of privacy laws, Project Inspire does not track individual teacher performance, but the program has collected data showing residency graduates outperform other teachers in high-poverty schools across Hamilton County.
Jill Reese, Hamilton County’s teacher residency site coordinator, credits much of this success to the “master teachers” who train the residents.
“A major reason this work is effective is because we have effective classroom teachers that are taking on this commitment,” Reese said. “It is a role that is difficult for them; they have to relinquish some control and be transparent about their practice and [reflect] about the things that work and don’t.”
Putting into practice
Anthony Goad, who has been teaching science in Hamilton County for 11 years, has two residents training in his classroom this year at Tyner Middle School Academy.
Goad said he loves watching and helping residents grow as they learn to give lessons and manage a classroom. As the school year progresses, residents are given more teaching responsibility and they can ease into the profession while making mistakes and learning in a safe, supervised space.
“By the end of the year they are doing what I would do, and doing it with their own style,” Goad said.
Susie Everly, 23, one of Goad’s residents, said she has learned the most about classroom management during the first weeks of school, and joked that she is practicing her “teacher voice.”
“The hardest part for me right now is figuring out my own style of teaching,” she said. “Goad is definitely great and really distinct, and it works for him, but I have to figure out how to incorporate his style into my own.”
Everly was lured from a small Idaho town to join Project Inspire because of the extensive training it offered.
“I’m not having to learn everything all at once by being thrown into the classroom and told to figure it out,” Everly said. “I kind of get my hand held and get to learn from other teachers.”
Fellow resident William Budd was an oilfield geologist and did environmental consulting before deciding he wanted to change careers and become a teacher. He chose to move to Chattanooga from Chicago for Project Inspire.
He said the professional development and support he receives while teaching Algebra I and II at Tyner Academy make the hard work of the program manageable.
“This program has the power to change schools and communities,” Budd said. “It’s doing more than changing a couple teachers.”
Budd also values the time he and residents spend connecting with the community. For him, teaching is a way to seek social justice inside schools and across the county.
“People need to be called to the fringes, to the margins,” Budd said. “I’m learning that being a teacher, I can fill a need.”
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