One of the recommendations put forth by Governor Andrew Cuomo's education panel is to better train teachers and principals but exactly how that should happen is left undefined. Fortunately, there is a program already in use by the group New Visions for Public Schools that I believe should serve as a model for a statewide effort.
The Urban Teacher Residency Program, run in conjunction with Hunter College, engages prospective teachers in a year-long apprenticeship at a New Visions school while they earn their master’s degree at Hunter. The program graduates teachers who are well trained, teachers who begin their careers with their eyes wide open to the challenges of teaching, teachers who are relieved of the burden of attending school at night, and teachers who have committed to making education their vocation.
Based upon my experience hiring graduates of the program, I believe UTR-trained people are far better positioned to be successful teachers than any other group of new teachers with whom I have worked. They are ready for classroom teaching in their first year and that early success increases the chances they will stay in the profession long enough to become really good teachers. And since the UTR program requires its teachers to be consistently engaged in questioning themselves about the best way to help our young people learn, they add immeasurably to the professional conversation in our community.
Like a traditional student teaching program, UTR residents work and learn in the classrooms of veteran teachers. However, that work begins well before the opening day of school and continues until graduation, enabling the resident to fully comprehend the trajectory and rigor of a school year. By constantly looking at student work these apprentice teachers are trained to examine how our decisions, choices, and approaches to instruction affect the way students learn. The apprentice also works with a small group of students, tracking how various educational interventions affect students' progress. Furthermore, the UTR residents regularly report on their successes and challenges to their colleagues, engaging in an ongoing discussion and examination of their practice. This commitment to working in public (as opposed to the tradition of teaching in isolation), is undoubtedly the most powerful tool we have to improve the quality of instruction in our schools.
The experienced colleagues who are gracious and generous enough to mentor UTR residents receive regular coaching and instruction focused on their own growth as well. This has the ancillary but no less important benefit of engaging veteran teachers in discussions about their own professional growth.
However, there are clearly obstacles to expanding the UTR program throughout the state. It is a very expensive program. Albany lawmakers would have to be willing to pay the real costs of teacher training. Also, the program is based on the idea that the profession is worthy of a long term commitment. A program like this requires a serious commitment from serious people. It is not for dabblers.
The demonstrated success of the UTR program requires us to recognize that alternative certification programs which do not train new teachers to teach before they enter our classrooms are not the best way to introduce people to teaching. Many fine people have begun their careers through such programs, and our school in particular has benefitted immensely from the New York City Teaching Fellows program. However, the teachers from many alternative certification programs enter our classrooms untrained and unequipped to do their jobs well from day one. Some do learn quickly on the job, but they do so at the expense of our young people. Others do not, and they are often replaced by other, temporary teachers. The high attrition rate of such new teachers is costly, and our students shoulder the largest portion of those costs.
We know how to train teachers well. It is a rigorous and costly process but one that offers rewards and savings on the other side, when we have dedicated professionals ready to stay and tackle the never-ending process of learning how to be a great teacher.