Q&A with Anissa Listak, Urban Teacher Residency United

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Residency programs for aspiring teachers are a new model of training that proponents hope will transform teacher education and give rookies a more solid grounding in the challenges of urban education. With this model, new teachers are placed in a classroom for up to a year to learn the profession first-hand from a veteran mentor teacher while working toward a master’s degree in education. The trainees earn a salary and commit to work for three or four years in a struggling urban school after completing their residency. Chicago’s Academy of Urban School Leadership is one such model and has earned praise from President Barack Obama, whose administration has put teacher quality on its list of top education priorities.  Anissa Listak is director of Urban Teacher Residency United, a partnership between AUSL and National-Louis University that has created a network of new and existing residency programs. Network members meet for workshops to discuss the nuts-and-bolts of setting up residency programs; the goal is to have new programs learn from the experiences of existing models. Besides AUSL, the network includes similar programs in Boston and suburban Denver, along with new programs in Philadelphia, New York, the city of Denver, and Chattanooga, Tenn. The initiative is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Listak talked with writer Stephanie Behne about residency programs and the future of teacher training.

Residency programs for aspiring teachers are a new model of training that proponents hope will transform teacher education and give rookies a more solid grounding in the challenges of urban education. With this model, new teachers are placed in a classroom for up to a year to learn the profession first-hand from a veteran mentor teacher while working toward a master’s degree in education. The trainees earn a salary and commit to work for three or four years in a struggling urban school after completing their residency. Chicago’s Academy of Urban School Leadership is one such model and has earned praise from President Barack Obama, whose administration has put teacher quality on its list of top education priorities.  Anissa Listak is director of Urban Teacher Residency United, a network of new and existing residency programs. Network members meet for workshops to discuss the nuts-and-bolts of setting up residency programs; the goal is to have new programs learn from the experiences of existing models. Besides AUSL, the network includes similar programs in Boston and suburban Denver, along with new programs in Philadelphia, New York, the city of Denver, and Chattanooga, Tenn. The initiative is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Listak talked with writer Stephanie Behne about residency programs and the future of teacher training.

Q: Mentor teachers are key to residencies. How do you go about choosing mentors?

A: They’re high-quality classroom teachers. But one of the lessons learned [by existing programs] is that great classroom teachers don’t necessarily make great mentors. You have to start with a great classroom teacher and provide professional development. Then, have evaluations throughout the year to assess their ability to continue being a great teacher while there’s a new teacher in the room. A lot of studies show that many teachers who try to be mentors are unable to turn over their classrooms to another person. The mentor has to be able to step back, and in some cases, watch mistakes happen with their kids and feel OK—that it’s a learning experience for the emerging teacher.

Q: How do programs recruit strong teacher candidates?

A: They recruit year-round, from universities, community centers and churches.  There are some partnerships with businesses to get mid-career changers. There is rigorous recruiting and then a rigorous admissions process, more rigorous than a university or an alternative certification program. They’re really looking for folks who are willing to commit [significant] time to the teaching profession.

Q: You mentioned looking for candidates who will make a long-term commitment to teaching. What other qualities do good candidates have?

A: Resilience. All the candidates have a real commitment to social justice, so they see teaching as a way to (address) issues of equity. There is a feeling of giving back. They have a longer-term view of what it means to be a teaching professional. 

Q: What about getting a diverse pool of candidates?

A: That’s not an easy task, especially when it comes to recruiting men of color. In the Chicago and Boston programs, on average, 50 percent to 60 percent of their new residents are people of color. The programs get out into the communities and work with minority education and alumni groups at colleges. Boston hosts community forums. Chicago hosts information sessions at schools around the city so people can come to learn about the program. There’s really deliberate outreach. 

Q: How does retention in these programs compare to that of traditional teacher training?

A: After three years, 90 percent and higher. The national average is about 50%. After four to five years, the Chicago program reports 86 percent retention. The existing Denver program has retained 100 percent of its graduates after four years. 

Q: Is there an assessment in the works?

A: We’re looking to undergo a study of the impact that residency-trained teachers have on student achievement. We have some funding from the Ford Foundation to begin looking at this. It’s tricky because there isn’t a national consensus about how to measure teacher effectiveness. The programs are looking at how they may do that. But we also need to fit into the larger framework of what’s happening nationally.  Some foundations are undertaking a pretty large initiative on how to measure teacher effectiveness, and I think it’s possible to influence what the federal government may use to measure teacher effectiveness. 

Q: Do you think this model has the potential to become the standard for teacher training?

A: That is the hope. We want to see residencies having significant impact on the field.  There will be practices identified in residency training that other teacher preparation organizations will be able to adopt. We need the evidence to show that residency-trained teachers are better than non-residency-trained teachers. There’s also an emphasis on professionalizing teaching and honoring the profession by saying flatly, it takes at least a year to get your legs. If we can give these things to urban schools and if any component begins to be adopted wholesale, we’ll have been really successful.