How one Illinois program aims to train more resilient, longer-lasting teachers

Just two years out of high school, Leo Sanchez can easily recall the drowsy feeling of sitting in a Chicago classroom on a warm day. 

So he recognized the moment this month at Julian High School when he needed to rouse his 12 students and had them stand up to work in small groups on presentations on Reconstruction, slave revolts and other Civil War topics. 

“They want to do something that is engaging and fun,” said Sanchez, a rising junior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who aspires to be a teacher and to guard against boring students. “That helps me when it comes to lesson planning and knowing what I want to do with them.” 

Sanchez and 120 fellow undergrads are spending four weeks this summer student teaching, guided by mentors from the Golden Apple Foundation in a program designed to give prospective teachers hands-on experience. The program invests in a key part of the teacher training pipeline — providing experience in an actual classroom, to foster more resilient teachers. 

Combating teacher burnout has taken on new significance with a dire teacher shortage facing the state. Chicago’s hardest-to-staff schools experience twice as much teacher turnover as the average district school. The newer the teacher the more likely they are to be placed in a troubled school with many vacancies, and the more likely they are to leave, research shows. 

Across the U.S, high-poverty schools have higher rates of teacher turnover and more inexperienced teachers, on average.

To build skills essential to success in high-needs schools, the Illinois-based Golden Apple Scholars Institute has trained more than 800 would-be teachers like Sanchez in the past year. 

Students teach in the morning, then attend trainings in the afternoons. They receive a $2,000 stipend — a modest amount, but better than unpaid student teaching positions. Golden Apple requires that participants commit to teaching for five years in a high-poverty or academically low-ranking school. 

Practical classroom experience could make all the difference for the newest crop of teachers, especially those entering the profession as their first job. Studies show that teachers are more ready for challenging environments if they have had in-classroom teaching experience, and less likely to leave the job altogether. 

The teaching practice can also help weed out young people who may realize, sometimes only after working full-time at a school, that teaching isn’t for them.

Teacher preparation can be hard to come by in traditional, university-based teaching programs. On his track majoring in history with a minor in education, Sanchez could expect to have a semester of teaching experience in a classroom in his senior year. 

Instead, through Golden Apple he has taught summer school for two years. On his own, he has mentored middle schoolers at local programs like High Jump, which offer enrichment and high school application coaching.
“I love it,” said Sanchez, who plans to teach in a Chicago school. As a graduate of the selective-enrollment high school Walter Payton College Preparatory, and a trans person, he is particularly invested in bringing teachers with a variety of identities into the classroom. 

“My students can see me, and see themselves, in the classroom,” Sanchez said. “If a student can connect with me on least one of my identities it might make them love school again.” 

For Alan Mather, a former teacher, principal and now president of the Golden Apple Foundation, offering enhanced classroom teaching experience for teacher hopefuls is a way to solve a variety of ills afflicting the profession.

“The highest-performing teachers go to the highest-performing classes, while first-year teachers go into the most difficult classrooms,” Mather said. “One of the missing pieces is what we call on-sites — classroom experience.” 

“Preparing people for what they are going to face is so key,” Mather said. 

A teaching challenge

Matt Lyons, chief talent officer at Chicago Public Schools, said staffing schools where students may be struggling with trauma or working below grade level is a key challenge. “The traditional model of student teaching for 10 to 12 weeks is not sufficient,” Lyons said. 

“There is really no other way to simulate the classroom teaching experience than to do it, and do it in a way that is supported and collaborative,” Lyons said. 

Golden Apple student teacher Noor Maghrebi said the experience has enabled her to learn how to bring her real self to class, while also retaining her authority. 

“It is kind of difficult to find that balance between your personal characteristics outside and in the classroom,” said Maghrebi, a history and secondary education major at Elmhurst College in Chicago’s western suburbs. 

In a summer school class this month, Maghrebi led a discussion on social justice, backed by Julian teacher Dominicca Washington. 

 “Do you think our society values freedom?” Maghrebi asked her class, arched an eyebrow and leaned forward.

She prompted spirited discussion about violence, self-protection and life goals. Washington pointed out Magrhebi’s deft handling of the topic, proof she had learned one of the most important lessons of working with students like those at Julian.

“If you show up with pedagogy but not in a humanized state, it won’t work,” Washington said. “With children like ours trust is a big thing, and they learn to trust you when you come to them authentically.” 

Looking ahead

Both the teachers union and other advocates agree that prospective teachers should train in schools similar to those where they’ll eventually teach. 

“We need more schools placing students into urban classrooms,” said Evan Stone, who heads Educators for Excellence, a national group that works to propose teacher-created solutions to educational challenges. 

Training programs range from summer stints followed by year-round support, such as what’s offered by Teach For America, to intensive yearlong residencies considered the gold standard in teacher training — and which Stone said produce the better-prepared teachers.

“It is really difficult to be prepared on day one if you have only had a summer of teaching summer school,” said Stone, who noted that some of the skills teachers use to set up classrooms — where to sharpen pencils or what to do when a student needs the restroom — might not be taught in shorter student teaching experiences but are essential.

“Teachers are really building a culture at the start of the year, and if that goes poorly the year can go poorly.” 

Sanchez, who plans to teach in a Chicago school, said he is looking forward to becoming the teacher he wished he had — someone of color to whom students can relate. “I know this is what I want to do and where I can make the biggest impact.”