By Joan Richardson
The young woman sitting across from me had just finished eight weeks of student teaching, and she was anxious to have her own elementary school classroom in one of America’s major cities. She gushed with the kind of enthusiasm that you want to see in beginning professionals. All hope and energy and belief.
I can’t wait to talk to her at Thanksgiving.
Encounters like these are just one reason why Ron Thorpe’s proposal for a teacher residency modeled after medical residency makes so much sense. (See “Residency: Can it transform teaching the way it did medicine?” on p. 36 of the September Kappan.) Sending a teacher into a classroom after just a few weeks of fulltime student teaching is tantamount to supporting malpractice. Does the profession believe there is a link between the quality of teaching and the quality of student learning? If so, then we must closely examine all of our practices to ensure that we are doing everything we can to ensure a high quality of teaching in every classroom.
When it comes to fully preparing teachers for the classroom, we have a long way to go.
As teacher preparation programs have re-examined themselves in recent years, many are providing more classroom observations and short-term field experiences in schools. That’s all to the good. But observing an expert doing the work is hardly the same as being fully responsible for the work yourself. Experts, no matter what the field, make everything look easy.
As I understand, medical residency involves a gradual release of responsibility. First-year residents are closely monitored and become more independent as they move farther through their residency. Throughout their residency, however, they work side-by-side with a team of staff physicians who monitor their work.
One of the most crucial points that Thorpe makes is that teachers ought to be inducted into the profession as part of a similar community. If teachers are immersed in a community of high-quality professionals during a teaching residency, then they’re likely to carry those practices with them into the schools that employ them. We are already seeing schools and districts change as younger teachers move into the ranks and take with them expectations that they will work in teams. We can complete that transition if we ensure that every teacher goes through a one-year residency that is team-based. When teachers begin to create communities on their own, we will truly have transformed the way schools operate.
Residency also presents a relatively low-cost process for weeding out individuals who shouldn’t be part of the profession. First, they won’t be selected for residencies. Second, they will find after being immersed in classroom work that they don’t have the disposition to be a teacher.
Not all medical students or residents, of course, successfully enter the profession. They may be masters in the classroom but the reality of contact with patients makes them realize that the practice of medicine is not for them. Instead, they go into related fields, perhaps to a pharmaceutical or medical equipment company, a research lab, or another medical technology field that values their medical school training. The same should be true for education.
After teachers have completed residency and moved into fulltime teaching, the next step for them should be certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a step that I believe is far more valuable than expecting teachers to seek a master’s degree.
The only part of Thorpe’s proposal that unsettles me is his suggestion that we tap Title II of ESEA for funding to support teaching residencies. Adding money to the Title II pot to cover the cost of teaching residencies makes sense to me, but merely drawing down the pot strikes me as more akin to robbing Peter to pay Paul. Once we’ve invested in teacher residencies, we want to ensure that those fully certified teachers have good quality professional learning. Reducing the funds to pay for that won’t achieve the overall goal of improving teaching quality.
Every decision in education should be guided by whether it will improve student learning. Will it move us closer to ensuring that every child experiences high-quality teaching and learning every hour of every day? Residency coupled with board certification would put education on the right path to professionalism. Let’s pull together to see if we can make it happen.