Teaching the Teachers

With the teacher shortage at crisis levels, education leaders are trying something new — intensive coaching while training on the job

Back Longreads Aug 21, 2019 By Steven Yoder

Ryan Wallace was a few seconds from seeing a dream slip away. In September 2016, he was a 30-year-old manager of a pest control company in Sacramento. One day that month, he walked into the Midtown Sacramento office of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to ask how he might become a teacher.

It was his third attempt at getting into the profession. Wallace grew up wanting to work in the classroom but got sidetracked in college, instead choosing a health exercise science degree and becoming a personal trainer. He and his wife had moved to Lincoln from Oklahoma in 2008 after graduating college, but when the recession hit, his work as a personal trainer dried up.

He visited the Placer County Office of Education in 2008 and 2010 to ask what it would take to become a teacher, but his timing was awful — most districts were in the middle of layoffs. A friend helped him land a job in pest control, and two years later he was promoted to manager and earning $75,000 a year.

But his desire to teach wouldn’t go away. So that afternoon at the CTC office, he showed the receptionist his transcripts. She told him he’d need to enroll full time in a university for at least a year of coursework and do six months of unpaid student teaching. She handed him a list of schools where he could earn a teaching credential.

He and his wife had three kids to support, so an unpaid teaching stint was impossible. He was turning to leave when he and the receptionist were interrupted by an education coordinator from the Sacramento County Office of Education, who was there on other business. “I couldn’t help but overhear — there are other options for getting your credential,” she told him, handing over a card for someone in SCOE’s new teacher intern program.

“As soon as she said there are other options, I was like, ‘This is it,’” says Wallace. “I said to myself, ‘I’m all in.’”

Enthusiasm for the classroom is a scarce resource in California. The need for more teachers is dire, especially in math, science and special education. In a fall 2017 survey of districts representing a quarter of the state’s enrollment, 80 percent reported shortages, with 90 percent of those reporting the numbers getting worse, the Palo Alto-based Learning Policy Institute found. Turnover is high, with almost 9 percent of teachers leaving the field or the state each year. Research shows attrition highest among teachers who are in their first three years. The consequences of all that churn are huge — each teacher transition costs California taxpayers from $9,000 to $20,000. And higher turnover can drive down student test scores, a 2013 national study found.

To fill the gap, county education offices and college schools of education are trying something new: paid internships and residencies, in which teachers work under the guidance of a coach or mentor teacher while they take education-theory classes, for which they pay tuition. As in the traditional route, they pay for those classes, but they also get paid a salary or stipend for their work in the classroom, making them attractive to working professionals like Wallace who have families to support and a passion for teaching. The number of those graduating through both routes is growing. And for residencies, the early indicators on teacher turnover are promising, with more residents staying in the field long term. 

The Rise of Supported Internships 

If the classroom were a cockpit, an intern would be the pilot in training who does months of coursework, passes a battery of tests and then needs to grab the yoke — with lots of help from a coach. Interns get a hefty dose of educational theory. SCOE internships are open to graduates of accredited colleges, both those just out of school and those switching from another career. So great is the teacher shortfall that SCOE doesn’t turn away applicants with a college degree, and the program can take in as many as 65 applicants per year. 

The program starts with five months (160 hours) of evening coursework and tests: a state basic educational skills test and a test for competency in specific subjects that covers an applicant’s area of focus, such as math, biology or physics. The testing knocks out some participants; state data show that on average seven of 10 first-time takers pass them. (In a few cases, applicants can skip the basic skills test, if they have a qualifying score on an SAT or Advanced Placement test, for example.) 

After passing the courses and tests, interns apply for full-time teaching jobs at school districts, including those outside Sacramento County. Under state rules, interns can be hired only when someone with at least a preliminary teaching credential isn’t available. (Preliminary credentials are valid for the first five years; teachers must complete a set of requirements within five years to upgrade to a clear credential.) More than seven of 10 of those who do the five months of coursework land jobs, according to SCOE. Among the three in 10 not hired are participants who never apply for a job because they drop out of the program — often because of family obligations — or don’t pass the required tests, says program director Linda Liebert. 

Those hired get a “district intern credential” and do two years of full-time teaching under the guidance of a SCOE-contracted coach, a retired teacher or school administrator paid $1,600 for a school year per intern they work with. While teaching, interns complete two state-mandated performance assessments that involve compiling detailed portfolios of their classroom teaching, meet regularly with their coach, attend program workshops on the weekend and meet a few other requirements. If they get through all that, SCOE recommends them for the coveted preliminary teaching credential that makes them a full-fledged teacher. “I would never want to sugarcoat and say it’s for everyone, because it’s very rigorous,” says Liebert.  

Wallace, who was accepted into SCOE’s program and did his coursework in the spring of 2017, had teaching offers from two schools. He picked Marysville High School and was hired as a math teacher under an intern credential. SCOE paired him with Richard Garmire, an intern coach based in Yuba City who advanced from being a teacher to a district superintendent during his 37-year career, filling nearly every key position along the way.

Classroom management is among the biggest hurdles for new teachers: Trouble dealing with student behavior is one of the top reasons new teachers become dissatisfied and quit, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. Because he had a coach, Wallace was able to bounce ideas off of Garmire about tough classroom situations. Garmire was never judgmental or intimidating; “‘That worked, keep doing it. Maybe try this next time,’ he’d say.” 

During one fourth-period class with Garmire observing, Wallace was giving a test when he noticed a student in the back, glancing at his phone. Wallace approached and quietly asked for it without drawing attention. On the phone, he saw that another student had texted a photo of their completed test page.

Wallace didn’t want to shame the kids involved; the core of his philosophy is “relational teaching,” creating respectful connections with students, a teaching philosophy that his preservice classes helped him develop, he says. Garmire watches him greet every student by name when they come into class and thank them for hard work. Garmire says Wallace’s classroom is full during lunch hour — he eats with students, answers questions, finds out about them. And before tests, Wallace tells students how much academic integrity matters.

Wallace walked to the front of the class and held up the phone: “This is what I was talking about. Academic integrity. Taking responsibility for your own work.” He asked that whomever had sent the picture see him after class, and the student did. Both students got zeros and had to work hard to make up for the poor grade. Garmire says Wallace managed to call out the behavior without shaming the kids. There were no more cheating episodes in his classes. Word has gotten around; students in other periods put away their phones before tests, and Garmire says “you can hear a pin drop” in testing periods.

For Liebert, just-in-time coaching is the active ingredient in SCOE’s program. Coaches meet with interns regularly but are also available on the fly 24/7, she says. Garmire says he almost quit during his semester of student teaching back in the early 1980s under the traditional model because he had no support. “It’s someone in your corner,” he says of coaching. 

For those who can handle the demanding schedule — full-time teaching and classes or workshops on nights or weekends — the economics of an internship can be attractive. SCOE’s tuition is $16,500 for the 2 1/2 years, but interns draw a salary if they are hired. (If they’re not hired, they pay only the initial $1,500 for the five months of coursework.) At Marysville, Wallace says he came on at a regular starting teacher’s pay of $50,000 with full benefits, though he says some districts SCOE works with offer less than that for interns. Tuition for university-based residency and internship programs typically is higher, but those students also are eligible for federal financial aid, which SCOE’s interns aren’t. 

The number of teachers coming to the profession through a program like SCOE’s is growing. Statewide, the number of people getting into teaching via a county office of education or school district internship doubled in the last five years, to a total of 885 in the 2017-18 school year. Overall, fully a quarter of the state’s teachers now enter on some kind of intern credential.

The Promise of Teacher Residencies

Back in the cockpit, the teacher resident is cousin to the student pilot who watches a master pilot fly and takes over at points along the way — all the while taking courses and passing tests back on the ground. Instead of taking courses up front, residents apprentice alongside a mentor teacher while they take courses and pass the necessary tests on nights or weekends. Residents receive either a salary or a stipend, depending on the program and the school district.

 The two approaches break from the traditional training model in similar ways. Both internships and residencies require more time in the classroom than the traditional route. For example, data show that in most residencies student teachers spend at least 900 hours in the classroom, compared with 400-600 hours in traditional education programs. And both pull in older professionals with their evening and weekend class schedules and offers of salaries and stipends. 

While the intern model has been a necessary response to a crisis, the residency approach has shown the most evidence that it can attract and keep teachers. Two rigorous national studies of residencies found that higher proportions of residents than nonresidents are still in the profession at five years. And having a mentor matters: A 2015 federal study found that 86 percent of teachers who had a mentor were still teaching after five years, compared with 71 percent who didn’t. Another 2014 federal survey found having a mentor was the most valuable form of assistance a new teacher can receive.

All of that has gotten the attention of state leaders. In the 2018-19 budget, they set aside $75 million for universities, school districts and county education offices to partner on residencies, the largest investment by any state, according to one national residency expert. (SCOE itself doesn’t offer a residency program.) 

Locally, the University of the Pacific and Sacramento State teamed with local districts to win grants. Starting this fall, UOP is working with Stockton Unified School District to launch a two-year Accelerated Credential for Educators residency program that will produce special-education teachers. The program targets those already working in special-education classrooms in roles like teacher assistant who have earned at least 60 hours of college credit. And it’s open to students from other districts willing to work with the ACE program, says Christina Rusk, UOP assistant professor and special education programs coordinator.

ACE will let working adults offset the costs of going back to school by integrating program requirements into their current jobs. Participating districts will let them do their in-class observation and student teaching, under the guidance of a mentor teacher, in the classroom where they already work. Courses will be offered in the evening and both online and in person. 

Sacramento State also will offer a residency program starting in September. Its College of Education is partnering with the Yolo County Office of Education to turn out

special-education teachers and with the Sacramento City Unified School District to graduate math and science teachers. 

Studies on the effects of residencies on student outcomes are mixed. In a 2017 survey of principals from 73 participating schools by the National Center for Teacher Residencies, nearly all respondents were enthusiastic. Upward of 90 percent said residents outperformed typical new teachers, that residencies improved achievement and student learning, and that they would recommend hiring a resident to another principal. But a few studies that looked at student test scores have been less decisive, with teacher residents not improving student achievement more than traditionally trained teachers. (The California Teachers Association, the labor union that represents teachers, didn’t respond to requests for comment on teacher internships and residencies.) 

A Star Is Born

The promising data from residency studies don’t necessarily apply to internships. National data show residents stay in the field at higher rates than do interns, says Tara Kini, director of state policy at the Learning Policy Institute.

Still, those outcomes may not reflect results in California. In the last several years, the state has strengthened its coursework, coaching and supervision requirements for intern programs, making them more stringent than in other states. “(California) is really, I think, a leader among states in the strong support that it requires districts to provide to intern teachers that they’re hiring,” says Kini. 

There are no statewide data on how long interns stay in the profession. Michele Perrault of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the state agency that issues teacher credentials, says the commission doesn’t track turnover for specific teacher training pathways. But so far SCOE sees promise in successfully keeping its interns in teaching. The program, launched in September 2014 using both state and county funds, has graduated 107 students in its three classes. Liebert knows of no one in the first two groups who has left teaching, and the third class just graduated. 

Events this spring would seem to make Wallace one of those in for the long haul. When he started teaching in the 2017-18 school year, he had a bad case of imposter syndrome: “I thought the kids could see right through me because I came in with a positive attitude. But on the inside I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’”

No longer. In May, he was named New Educator of the Year for the Marysville Joint Unified School Distrtict. And his enthusiasm has rubbed off on his coach. Garmire was so inspired watching Wallace and his other interns that he decided to substitute teach. “I learned so much that I wanted to take it back to the classroom, and I’ve had an absolute blast,” he says.

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