Taking teacher training seriously: A medical-style residency program at U of M

Gone are the years when student teachers were told to sink or swim alone in front of 30 children, say the leaders of the four-year-old University of Minnesota Teacher Education Redesign Initiative (TERI).

This article is part of a series that will examine the requirements Minnesotans must meet to become teachers, the ways in which training programs are changing, and the people they continue to leave out. For related stories, go to Who's teaching in Minnesota?

Amina Ahmed is teaching students at Highland Elementary in Columbia Heights to read nonfiction. She defines for them the purposes of diagrams and how to understand them, pointing to labels on a map.

Cheryl Felling chimes in “You know, Ms. Ahmed, I’m wondering, if I had a diagram of how my camera worked and it didn’t have labels, would I be able to find out?”

“No! It would be so difficult,” Ahmed replied.

Felling’s interjection is an offering of instruction not only for the students but for Ms. Ahmed herself: bring the lesson back to what the kids know.

The synergy between Ahmed and Felling is the result of a wholesale rethinking of the way one of Minnesota’s biggest educators prepares teachers for the classroom.

The U of M’s TERI is not a program but an initiative, a redesign of the College of Education and Human Development’s many teacher training programs. It was spurred by funding from the Bush Foundation. The $4.5 million grant pushed forward changes already in the works at the U: closer partnerships between the teaching programs and area districts, recruitment designed to meet schools’ needs and to draw more teachers of color into the classroom. The initiative means trainees do more work with teacher performance assessments, like the edTPA, and participate in a revamped in-classroom experience that has transformed student teaching into co-teaching.

“A lot of the way that we do business has just fundamentally changed,” said Martha Bigelow, interim director of the university’s Educator Development and Research Center. “There’s just no way to go back now.”

Teacher preparation institutions nationwide are facing pressure to overhaul their programs as the field of teaching flips towards accountability-based systems that attribute students’ academic performance to the instruction provided by their teachers. Basic ideas about how teachers ought to be trained and tested are now being reexamined and, in some cases, hotly debated.

The student teaching experience is one of many areas that are changing rapidly. TERI's residency program is for all participants in the five-year elementary education and early education programs. Teachers in other programs are also seeing a change, with co-teaching now the standard in all student teaching for U of M students. 

Co-teaching: first ELL, now everybody else

Bigelow was once a student teacher herself. “Every day I was taking on a new prep, until I had all the preps, and that happened really quickly. A lot of times the classroom teacher wasn’t in the room anymore,” she said. “That is just not happening anymore.”

Teacher candidates like Ahmed, enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s five-year-long early education or elementary education programs, now spend their final full year with a single teacher. The pairs team-teach, splitting classrooms in two, working in groups, or delivering lessons side-by-side.

The impetus for the change is multifold. The state requires only 10 weeks of student teaching., yet many new teachers say their most valuable training experiences took place inside the classroom.

The model is also useful for mentor teachers and the schools in which they work. Until recently, co-teaching was primarily the work of special education and English as a Second Language teachers. “The problem with that … is you need the general ed teachers to know how to collaborate as well,” said Stacy Ernst, TERI’s school partner network coordinator. The co-teaching model, which was developed by educators at St. Cloud University, prepares both veteran and new teachers for a field where collaboration is more often the norm. “When [new teachers are] getting to their schools, they’re seeking out collaborative relationships with ELL teachers, special education teachers, parents, communities,”said Ernst.

Teacher residency for teacher pay?

The yearlong in-school experience is as close as the university can get to the kinds of residencies that professionals in the medical field complete. “We call that residency-like,” said Bigelow. “A pure residency would be, after they finish, they are getting paid, working full-time, but are released from a significant portion of teaching to do professional development.”

Student teachers in the University of Minnesota’s programs, and in the majority of teaching schools, are still not paid, making the experience akin to an intensive unpaid internship. Mentor teachers like Felling are paid. The University of Minnesota typically provides full-time mentors around $300 per semester, and some districts, such as Minneapolis, contribute additional pay.

Another Bush-funded teaching program is experimenting with providing a stipend to teacher-residents. Participants in the two-year-old Twin Cities Teacher Collaborative, or TC2, earn $10,000 for a yearlong, full-time residency. TC2 is part of Bush’s Network for Excellence in Teaching, along with TERI.

But the TC2 program is small. It’s a collaborative between six colleges and universities working with only 12 candidates this year. Funding the stipend is challenging. Next year, with less Bush money flowing, the $10,000 will be reduced to $5,000, with the smaller stipend paid for by federal dollars.

Paying even the reduced stipend to the hundreds of students enrolled in all of the University of Minnesota’s teaching programs would be a much bigger undertaking.

Ernst said the University of Minnesota will be able to maintain the changes it has made, even as Bush money winds down. The grant was designed to distribute most of the $4.5 million between 2009 and 2014. Additional funds will be available between 2017 and 2020. In the interim period, the school will have to prove it can continue to fund the work.

The reading lesson ends, and the students at Highland school transition from the floor to their desks. As Ms. Ahmed splits them into groups, Ms. Felling gives a warning to a distracted child. Half the class reads silently while Ms. Felling and Ms. Ahmed each work with a group of four to six children.

“I like to do small group instruction because the kids learn better,” Felling said. “If I don’t have [a student teacher], when I do groups it’s really hard to manage.”

Co-teaching serves other needs that are even more immediate. “There are no breaks until 12:15,” Felling said. “Being able to run to the restroom is really a plus.”

Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.

  • This shows a little glimpse of the good work resulting from the redesign of our teacher ed programs at the U of M. And I don't see any huge misquotes. One never knows what reporters will do with an interview! - by Martha Bigelow on Mon, 12/16/2013 - 9:37am
  • A great reflection on the redesign work at the U of MN! A small correction for the TC2 Urban Teacher Residency (http://tc2residency.org/): our current cohort has 12 candidates this year. - by TC2 Urban Teacher Residency on Mon, 12/16/2013 - 10:03am
  • Good work Alleen - by JoAnn Van Aernum on Mon, 12/16/2013 - 6:30pm
  • I have always liked residency programs. I do worry that the amount of stipend is not enough to support someone for this longer time and so those who are not somewhat solvent or backed by money are left out of this. I do think, contrary to TFA training, that time in the classroom with a supervisory teacher, or co-teacher is the way to go to really learn how it all works. This is clearly going in the right direction! - by Julie Landsman on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 6:09pm
  • Glad to see this great work taking place! I also did a 1 year residency program in Illinois and I I believe this kind of model was invaluable to my preparation. - by Jimmy Barnhill on Mon, 12/16/2013 - 6:59pm
  • The St Paul Federation of Teachers developed a program called CareerTeacher that is an OUTSTANDING residency model that predates the U of M. You need to write a story about it in order to be accurate. - by Kimberly Keiko White Colbert on Tue, 12/17/2013 - 10:54pm
  • Really nice article on some fundamental changes in how teachers learn to be teachers. - by Kelli McCully on Mon, 12/16/2013 - 6:27pm

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Alleen Brown's picture
Alleen Brown

Alleen Brown (alleenbrown [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net or Twitter @AlleenBrown) is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.