Preparing Science Teachers for High-Need Schools

Ella Bonah (left), a teacher at Tyner Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, completed an apprenticeship through Project Inspire, a  program that prepares teachers for positions in high-need schools. (photo by David Humber)

“Our challenge is recruiting and developing teachers for a mid-sized city and preparing teachers to serve in high-need schools. [Teaching low-income students requires] a specialized skill set beyond teaching content,” says Mark Neal, director of Project Inspire, a teacher apprenticeship program serving Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Hamilton County School District. “We have been solely focused on secondary math and science, but we’re now expanding to [the elementary level],” he reports.

Project Inspire provides college graduates aspiring to teach with a year-long apprenticeship in a Hamilton County classroom and a stipend during that time. Higher-education partner Lee University of Cleveland, Tennessee, offers apprentices a 14-month degree program in which they earn a Masters of Arts in Teaching. Graduates are required to teach in a high-need school in the county for four years and receive coaching support and professional development (PD) from Hamilton County Department of Education and Lee University faculty.

“Secondary science is a difficult position to fill, and we have a number of priority schools that are difficult to teach in. We offer a one-year residency versus a student teacher practicum,” explains Justin Robertson, Hamilton County Schools assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Apprentices get to “see how students react, and they have permission to make mistakes. It’s a good way to prepare teachers for any school system, and specifically for our school system.”

“We continue to see really committed candidates, people who didn’t get this training as undergraduates,” says Neal. “[Though] we tend to get more recent undergraduates as applicants, our network has a strong interest in attracting career changers,” he observes, adding, “We’re aiming to have a more diverse and talented teaching force.”

Apprentices start planning with their mentors—known as “clinical instructors”—in June and spend several weeks during the summer with them. “Clinical instructors provide additional training and support throughout the year, and unstructured [PD] times as well…A lot of the best support comes from those sessions,” says Robertson.

In Project Inspire’s “gradual release model,” clinical instructors gradually allow apprentices to assume more and more responsibility, to ensure they “have a full role and are not just observing,” explains Robertson. “Side-by-side co-teaching and coaching is a great experience for [apprentices].”

Apprentices are taught “science methods used in our classrooms, our pedagogy and terminology,” Neal emphasizes, “so they don’t experience a disconnect when they hit the classroom.” They learn about “teaching in the context of high poverty, what it looks like in our area,” he explains.

As undergraduates, “a lot of our [apprentices] learned ‘old-style’ science, with a lot of lecturing. We try to stay with the cutting edge,” Neal contends. “Tennessee is writing its own standards, and they’ll be similar to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). We refer [apprentices] to the [NGSS] during training.”

Though they receive full certification that is portable, most graduates—“70%,” says Neal—teach in the Chattanooga area. “Generally in urban areas, the retention rate is only about 50%,” he points out.

In addition, Chattanooga is “known as ‘gig city’ because of all the tech startups; there’s a lot of innovation and change happening…Our program attracts [aspiring teachers] who are intentionally working in math and science and working in a high-need school—all in one package,” Neal contends.

Hired as Apprentices

Because of teacher shortages in Oklahoma, the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) district was “having to [hire teachers] who were waiting on their certification…Some may be entering the teacher workforce for the first time; others may be coming from out of state and need time to have their current certification transferred; and others may be simply waiting on their certification to arrive, having just graduated from a teacher preparation program,” says Bradley Eddy, TPS director of certified talent. “We were paying them as substitutes, which was the only option at the time.”

But the substitutes “weren’t paid adequately, and we couldn’t keep enough substitutes. Asking someone to prepare lessons, deliver them, and handle connections with parents and community” for just $65 per day wasn’t effective, he acknowledges. “So we offered them a chance to work hourly as a substitute, with overtime.”

Though the numbers increased a little, those positions “didn’t pay well enough [to make up for] the extra work. We [decided] to create an exempt position with a flat rate and a shorter-term contract” to ensure retention, Eddy relates.

Under the current plan, uncertified teachers are hired as apprentices and are offered a one-semester contract. They earn a first-year salary of $25,000 with benefits, including health insurance, if their contract is renewed for a second semester.

“This saves [TPS] money because [constant teacher attrition] is financially unfeasible…and [we had] apprentices [with emergency certification, which] is only good for the year it’s granted and isn’t renewable. [And sometimes] there’s a delay in time in which a principal [decides] to hire [someone]. We offer an apprentice contract so we can pay them as full-time classroom teachers,” he explains.

Apprentices also receive up to two years of mentoring support, paid evening and Saturday PD opportunities, and certification test preparation. While they have to attain certification within one semester, their salary makes it easier for them to pay $400 for the certification tests, he points out.

Many apprentices express interest in teaching science. “We were able to fill all of our science and math positions this year,” Eddy notes.

Promoting Best Practices

While Project Inspire and TPS prepare teachers for their own schools, the year-long Teacher Training Course (TTC) at independent Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, trains apprentice teachers to work in preK–8 classrooms at other schools. “We occasionally hire teachers from our program,” says Tracy Polte, science department chair, but many apprentices “go on to public schools for their second year of teaching.” TTC apprentices can train to teach early childhood and elementary classes, middle school humanities classes, or middle school science, math, and science/math classes.

About 50% of applicants come from outside the area. “We receive 50 to 55 applications each year,” with 14 to 18 accepted into the TTC, Polte relates. The program attracts persons ranging from new graduates to those in their sixties, she reports.

Tuition for the TTC costs slightly more than $11,000. Shady Hill has financial aid and merit awards to help apprentices pay for the course, and many apprentices “coach after school or work in after-school programs,” she notes.

While some apprentices enroll only in the TTC for their certification, many also participate in the master’s degree program at nearby Lesley University. “They’re [attending] Lesley all summer” and during the school year, says Polte.

Apprentices in the TTC work in the classroom for four days a week, and attend workshops on Fridays. They work with one teacher for the first half of the year and another during the second half, and learn about teaching various subjects and age bands before deciding which ones they prefer. “We give them experience with lots of different kinds of students,” she observes.

“To be an effective teacher, you have to have more experience in the classroom than [what you’d have] in a student-teacher program,” Polte contends. “As an independent school, we focus on multiculturalism, and every workshop has a multicultural component.”

“We can’t cover all the content [for every subject], so we hope their background has provided some of the content,” she admits. In science, “we cover the main points for grades K–6 and help them understand the inquiry method and the engineering design process, how to integrate engineering into literacy, [along with] the joy students feel” in science classes.

Teaching apprentices “is written into our contracts,” says Polte. “It keeps all of us fresh and new and makes us work harder to keep material up to date.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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