Casting their lines

‘Come help these babies.’ Inside the Detroit district’s long-shot effort to end a crippling teacher shortage

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Recruiters Edwina Dortch and Asenath Jones chat with passersby at Morgan State University's spring career fair

Sporting perfectly tailored black-and-white ensembles and wide, beaming smiles, three seasoned Detroit schools recruiters scanned a packed ballroom at Baltimore’s Morgan State University’s spring job fair recently, searching out likely catches.

“Hey, soror, come on over here,” one of them, Cass Technical High School social studies teacher Asenath Jones, called out as she beckoned to a young woman toting an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority bag. “Let me tell you about Detroit.”

Senior Ashley Fox shot back a quick smile. But while the sociology major stopped to chat with her sister in the nation’s first black sorority, she was not interested in either teaching or joining the district. On an early-April tour of job fairs at historically black colleges and universities, Fox and scores of others who ignored Detroit’s pitches illustrate the challenge confronting Jones and her fellow recruiters.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Ashley Fox, a graduating Morgan State sociology major from Chicago, doesn’t want to teach in Detroit—or anywhere else.

Facing an acute shortage of teachers, districts across the nation are offering $1,500 signing bonuses, loan repayment and master’s degree tuition reimbursement to lure coveted candidates. The financially strapped Detroit Public Schools Community District can offer none of that. And its need is dire: Mid-spring, the district still has nearly 200 vacancies — nearly 7 percent of its teaching force. That’s robbed some children of a chance to be taught by a fully-qualified teacher and forced others into overcrowded classrooms.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and his dogged team of recruiters say they’re determined to fill every classroom next school year with a permanent teacher. Besides recruiting locally, he has revived out-of-state tours to campuses that previously provided Detroit’s main district with young teachers.

The district is spending nearly $49,000 this spring to visit recruiting fairs at 38 universities in 13 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. That number includes 15 in-state hiring trips. To hire more teachers of color, recruiters are focusing on historically black colleges and universities such as Morgan State and Howard University, but they also are searching for new educators at teaching powerhouses such as Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.

Without the incentives other districts are offering, Vitti has pulled out his secret weapons: highly charismatic recruiters like Jones, recruiting specialist Edwina Dortch, and Cass Tech Principal Lisa Phillips. At Morgan State in Baltimore, the team radiated charm and personality as they cast their lines into the sea of anxious job seekers and reeled in the eager, the curious, and the anxious.

The students had no idea the recruiters, who are on the career-fair circuit, were just as desperate as they were.

The three women chatted up Detroit’s comeback, vibrant nightlife, and low cost of living — a nice one-bedroom apartment can cost only $900. They lightly portrayed challenges as opportunities to work in a troubled district that is transforming, to hone their skills, and to make a difference in the lives of children.

“If you can teach here, you can teach anywhere,” Dortch told some students.

And the women tugged at the hearts and consciences of students well-versed in lessons of black history and driven by a sense of responsibility to salve urban woes.

“I have a heart for Detroit,” said Symone Odoms, a junior elementary education major who met with Detroit recruiters when they came to Howard University. “I think it’s the kind of place where I can make a difference as a teacher. I know I can teach a fifth-grader who can’t read how to read.”

At Morgan State, Dortch, turned on her motherly, nurturing, and warm persona, and told some wide-eyed seniors, “You can come help these babies in Detroit.”

That pitch resonated with graduating senior Demetrie Johnson.

“I like the history of Detroit,” he said. “I’m from Philly and I’m attracted to the city life, but I also like the civil rights movement history on up. I can have the whole black experience in Detroit.”

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Morgan State University senior Demetrie Johnson shakes hands with Detroit recruiters after an interview.

Yet while he was willing to serve in an advisory or organizational role, the speech communication major didn’t want to be a teacher.

Phillips had a quick reply: “You don’t have to be a teacher, we’ve got other positions open.”

But not all students were buying the Detroit pitch.

“Detroit! You all had the worst test scores in the nation,” a graduating political science major abruptly stopped and leaned in to tell the recruiters as he passed by.

Dortch was not deterred. “There’s more to the story,” she called after him. “There’s far more to Detroit than poor test scores.”

Recruiters made a point not to mention such negatives: class sizes up to 40 students, leaking roofs and roach-infested classrooms, a shortage of books and desks — and, of course, low pay.

Vitti has vowed to remedy some of that. A new teacher contract approved last year increased entry-level salaries 5.6 percent to $38,500. Last week, the school board approved a new deal that also will enable the district, for the first time in years, to offer higher salaries to experienced teachers coming into the district. Previously, even seasoned teachers had to start at the bottom of the pay scale when accepting a district job.

Still, the urban district lags behind nearby districts. Starting pay will be $45,398 in Warren Consolidated Schools and $41,341 in Northville next year. Further away, Chicago will offer $56,665, and Cleveland, $45,686.

As of May 3, the district had made conditional job offers to more than 300 aspiring teachers, including 148 from the national tour. Those candidates have been invited to a recruiting event this week that could result in signed contracts. But it’s not yet clear how many of those candidates will accept jobs — and resist other offers that might roll in over the summer.

Already, the district is mapping out next year’s recruiting tour, refining timing and planning to hit more schools that could yield teaching candidates.

The district is spending an estimated $49,000 this year on recruiting including about $30,000 for out-of-state travel expenses.

It’s a lot of money, but Vitti said it’s worth it.

“Absolutely,” he said.“When people ask me what is your greatest challenge right now as a school district leader, it’s vacancies. When we think about the learning that is lost for 30 students assigned to a classroom with a vacant teacher, that $30,000 is pennies considering the economic loss we just had with children who don’t have a full-time teacher. There’s a great return on that $30,000.”

Stepped-up recruiting has been chipping away at the problem. Since August, the district has filled 40 percent of its 340 teaching vacancies. But district officials are bracing for a large wave of retirements and other departures that could make the shortage difficult to completely resolve.

Salaries are only one issue. Strong mentoring is key in recruiting and retaining teachers of color, said Linda Darling-Hammond of the Palo Alto-based Learning Policy Institute. It released a study last month highlighting the importance of getting and keeping black teachers in classrooms across the country.

“I would hope the energy they are putting into recruiting, they will also put into ensuring [teachers] have adequate tools to teach, mentoring, good working conditions, and stable places to work,” Darling-Hammond said.

While talking to job candidates, Dortch touted the mentoring and training new teachers receive while working for the district.

Right now, with the next school year just a few months away, Dortch and her team are ramping up all their persuasive skills. And here and there, they’re meeting success.

At a local job fair, back home in Detroit, they nabbed Jennifer Lentz, who will graduate this month from Wayne State with a degree in elementary education and wants to teach music. She’s turning down districts elsewhere that offer large band programs, she said, because Detroit is the place for her, especially as the district is trying to reinvigorate music programs in schools.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Jennifer Lentz, a graduating Wayne State University senior, hopes to teach music in a Detroit district school.

“It’s a real blessing,” Lentz said. “People don’t say nice things about Detroit all the time, but that doesn’t scare me because I really love this city.”

She’s got the spirit recruiters, who will continue searching for candidates throughout the spring and summer, are looking for.

Now they only need to find a few score more like her who are just as willing and eager to teach in Detroit.

“We are looking for teachers who are enthusiastic, really concerned about learning and teaching children,” Dortch said. “We want them to be excited to come work with us.”

Training teachers

How a doctor inspired a new way to train teachers — and how that is leading to a new kind of school

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Elizabeth Moje, dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan, studied how doctors are trained with Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman at Beaumont Hospital - Dearborn as she developed a new approach to training teachers.

After decades of training teachers in largely the same way, professors at the University of Michigan are making a radical change.

They’re moving to end the longtime practice of sending educators into their own classrooms after just a few months of student teaching.

In its place, they’re creating a new method — one based on the way doctors are trained — that will extend teacher training through their first three years on the job, supporting them as they take on the daunting responsibility of educating children.

“It was very nerve-wracking,” said Lisa Murray, who just finished her second year as an English teacher at Detroit’s Munger Elementary-Middle School.

Before starting at Munger, she’d spent 14 weeks as a student teacher in a fourth-grade classroom but suddenly found herself teaching seventh-grade English. She had a supportive mentor at her new school, she said, but “ultimately you kind of have to figure it out. It’s kind of trial and error.”

That’s how teacher training has been for generations, said Elizabeth Moje, the dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan.

“That’s what I did,” Moje said of her intimidating first teaching job when she was 21. “It’s what teachers do — and it’s ludicrous.”

Moje hopes her new approach will not only lead to better outcomes for kids, but will keep teachers in the classroom longer at a time when one in ten are leaving the profession after their first year.

She’s particularly hoping to keep teachers working in urban schools where students are more likely to be academically behind, but where limited resources for supporting teachers means that as as many as 35 percent of new teachers leave the profession after their first year.

The new approach involves this: A K-12 teaching school, similar to a teaching hospital, where future teachers — called interns — will train together under a single roof.

They’ll complete their student teaching there. Then, instead of heading out in search of a job in another school, they’ll stay on for three more years as full-time, fully certified teaching “residents.”

Residents won’t be trainees. They’ll be real classroom teachers working with real children and making a real salary — the same as any other first-, second-, or third-year teacher. But, unlike their peers in traditional schools, they’ll continue to learn from their professors and will work closely with the veteran teachers — called attendings — who will make up most of the school’s teaching staff.

Moje hopes to launch the teaching school as a partnership with a school or district in or near Detroit as soon as the fall of 2019.

Once it’s up and running, she said, she expects that between half and two-thirds of the faculty will be veteran teachers. The rest will be residents.

Details are still being ironed out, including the specifics about which school or district will partner with the university on the effort. But one option is the main Detroit district, where Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he’s been in “active conversations” with Moje.

We are confident that something will be announced shortly about our plans,” he said. “The residency program is exactly what we need during a time when many teachers are not provided with the right support and training to assume responsibility of improving student performance, especially in Detroit.”

Vitti added that he thinks a program like this would recruit high-quality candidates to teach in Detroit and keep them in city schools.


PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, director of educational development at Beaumont Hospital -Dearborn, travels around the hospital with doctors-in-training including a medical student, a resident and an intern, stopping to ask them what they’ve learned from each patient. It’s a model the University of Michigan wants to apply to training teachers.

Moje is not the first to call for teacher training to look more like medical training.

Even as the trend in education in recent years has tilted toward accelerated certification programs like Teach for America that give non-education majors a crash course in teaching before placing them in a classroom, research has shown that if teachers aren’t well prepared and supported, they’re more likely to burn out and quit.

Teacher turnover — a problem that’s especially acute in schools with fewer resources to support new teachers — can exacerbate the very teacher shortages that alternative certification programs like Teach For America and the for-profit Teachers of Tomorrow are designed to address.

That’s why some districts and charter school networks in recent years have started year-long residency programs that are similar to student teaching but involve an entire school year.

Some schools have hired new teachers as “associates” before letting them fly solo in a classroom. The Denver school district has a new program that lets a handful of new teachers spend their first year working part-time in a classroom and using the rest of their time to plan, observe and hone their craft.

But Moje’s concept — the idea of extending teacher training for three years— is one that experts say is a novel approach that’s worth watching.

Because the residents are paid members of the school staff, the model doesn’t rely on private donations, or ask teachers to do extra training on their own dime.

“It’s exciting,” said Maria Hyler, a senior researcher for the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank. “It fits into a lot of what’s going on in teacher prep right now, but on steroids, which is fabulous!”

Hyler noted that 30-50 percent of teachers leave the profession in the first three years, “often because of challenging working conditions or lack of preparation” so it makes sense to support them through that time.  

Karen DeMoss, who directs the Prepared To Teach program at Bank Street College, said she questioned how this model could work for large teaching colleges that bring in more candidates than they’re likely to have jobs for in any one teaching school. But she said she’ll be watching with interest to see how this model plays out for Michigan.

“I love the idea that an institution is committing to every single student having access to this kind of extended learning experience to learn how to do one of the most complicated jobs around,” she said.


PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Elizabeth Moje, the dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan joins a resident, an intern and a medical student as they meet with a patient at Beaumont Hospital – Dearborn. A school she’s developing will similarly create ways for teachers to learn from peers a year or two ahead of them.


Moje’s teaching school concept began in earnest around 2010 when Dr. Jonathan Zimmerman, who was the residency director for internal medicine at Beaumont Hospital-Dearborn, reached out to Moje and her colleague, Bob Bain, at Michigan’s education school for help developing a new evaluation tool for medical residents.

A partnership soon emerged that had Moje joining Zimmerman on medical rounds in the hospital and Zimmerman joining Moje to observe teachers training at Detroit’s Cody High School.

The two soon noticed key differences in the way their students are taught.

At Cody, for example, Zimmerman noted a classroom where a seasoned teacher was working with four student teachers.

The classroom teacher had divided her high school students into four groups and had assigned a student teacher to lead each group.

“I saw them doing the very best they could to get the students to pay attention to a project,” Zimmerman said of the student teachers, but while all of the student teachers were focused on the teens they were working with, none of them were watching each other.

The classroom teacher circulated to each of the small groups, but she could only see one group at a time so the other three student teachers were largely on their own.

“They were all engaged in independent practice, which is great,” Moje said. But all of the student teachers were in the first semester of their training. Most had not yet developed much skill, so three of them at any time could have been doing something wrong “and no one would know,” she said.

In contrast, medical students, interns, residents, and attendings visit patients together in daily hospital rounds. Everyone has a role to play that includes learning from the person ahead of them in their training, and teaching the person coming up behind them.

“A third-year medical student is almost always paired at the hip with an intern,” Zimmerman said. “It’s much easier to learn from a peer that’s one or two years ahead of you and it’s much easier to teach if you are teaching somebody one or two years behind you. You have a better sense of where they’re coming from and they’re not so scared. ”

When Moje and Zimmerman were on rounds one day last month at Beaumont-Dearborn, they were accompanied by a fourth-year medical student, a first-year resident (called an intern) and a second-year resident.

As the team visited a patient with a severe inflammation of the pancreas, Zimmerman asked David Dimcheff, the medical student, what he thought the patient needed next.

“We treat with antibiotics,” Dimcheff responded.

Ok, Zimmerman said but, “what are the other options?”

Dimcheff looked confused. He froze for a minute, thinking, then glanced across the patient’s bed to where the two residents, Pooja Modi and Ahmed Ali, were making a hand gesture that looked like pulling a thread from a piece of fabric.

Dimcheff hesitated until the gestures made sense.

“We could get a sample with a fine needle aspiration and determine what bacteria is causing the infection,” he said. “That would help us tailor our antibiotic treatments.”

Yes, Zimmerman said, “and it would also help us ascertain whether or not [the pancreas] is actually infected.”

Moje noted later that her student teachers at Cody didn’t have residents to turn to if they were struggling.

They were “working independently and not having the kind of support that [Zimmerman’s] team has,” Moje siad. “His fourth-year med student, David, always has somebody more senior to him and our students don’t.”

Moje believes her teaching school can change that.

She’s designing the school so that as resident teachers improve, they’ll help train teachers coming up behind them. They’ll attend classes and workshops that could be held in the school building. And they’ll participate in meetings similar to what hospitals call “grand rounds,” where doctors, residents and medical students gather to discuss the condition of patients and the best course of treatment.

“One day you might be in a classroom with a student teacher and an attending, and a [university] field instructor might also be present, and a faculty member would show up, especially if we’re teaching classes there,” Moje said. “The next day, you might be in the exact same classroom and the student teacher is in a different classroom, but the attending is there.”

The new model will simplify a lot of things for the university’s school of education, which last year had student teachers working in 356 classrooms scattered around southeastern Michigan, Moje said. The university also has interns doing observations in classrooms for several months before their student teaching begins. 

“We can’t be there every day,” she said. “The advantage of the teaching school is that they’ll be in one location so we’ll be able to concentrate a lot more of our time and attention on these interns. That’s also why we can continue to support the residents because they’ll all be in one place.”

By offering college classes in the teaching school building, students can work toward their bachelor’s degree — or pursue a master’s — without having to drive between a Detroit school and a college lecture hall 45 minutes away in Ann Arbor.

When interns first start out, they’ll rotate to different teachers’ classrooms and slowly take on more responsibility.

“A first semester intern might be in a classroom with a teaching resident for part of the day, and in a classroom with an attending teacher for part of the day,” Moje said. “While in medicine, doctors move from patient to patient, in our clases they’ll be attached to a third-grade classroom. But, for part of the day, the teaching resident is leading and the other part, the attending is leading.”

All future teachers “would see a high level of practice,” she said, and all of the extra hands in the building will enable educators of all stages to leave their classrooms to supervise junior teachers or to watch a senior teacher work.

After three years on staff in the teaching school, residents will leave as fourth-year teachers who have been trained to weather the intensive challenges of teaching in urban schools.

That’s how Moje believes her school can potentially impact the quality of instruction across a city like Detroit.

“The gamble we’re all making,” Moje said, is that residents will move on from this teaching school and take jobs in other urban schools. “We’ll start to build a sense of scale because we’re distributing the talent pool to all these other schools.”


PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
When the team of doctors at Beaumont Hospital -Dearborn use a scope to view a patient’s vocal chords, they stop to make sure medical student David Dimcheff gets a chance to look through the scope.

Moje’s vision is to eventually have at least two teaching schools — one in an urban area like Detroit and the other near the university’s main campus in more affluent Ann Arbor.

“We hope this will recruit large numbers of people who want to do something very different in terms of teacher education,” she said. ”As the school grows and gains more stature, we hope it will also draw people into teaching.”

The new teaching school could be a tough sell for some parents who might fear that the new model is too experimental, or that educating their children would take a back seat to the demands of training teachers. But Moje said children will get a lot more attention in this school than they would in a typical school.

She believes children will benefit from efficiencies like those created in the hospital when doctors and med students work together.

As Zimmerman and his team made their way around the hospital last month, Zimmerman had the group stop to watch an ear, nose, and throat specialist use a scope to examine a patient’s vocal chords, making sure that Dimcheff, the medical student, got a chance to look through the scope.

He stopped an infectious disease specialist to request an impromptu hallway lecture on bacterial growth. And when the team emerged from the room of a 91-year-old patient who’d developed a bleeding ulcer when drugs he was taking for a heart condition interacted with drugs he was prescribed for shoulder pain, Zimmerman held the group in the hallway for almost 20 minutes, questioning each member about learnings from that patient.

In some ways, stopping to teach is inefficient, he said, but the work interns and residents do in the hospital more than makes up for the time spent teaching them.

“They’re admitting all the patients,” he said. “Putting orders into the computer, following up on [test results], getting a consultant to come see the patient, gathering everybody’s opinion, talking to the family, talking to the patient over and over, checking with them over and over again.”

Moje said she envisions her teaching school working the same way.

“It’s very rare that attending teachers, or any teachers, have the time to do this kind of on-the-job teaching of teachers,” Moje said as she watched Zimmerman and his team.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to think through,” she said. “What would it mean if we made what we’re now calling attending teachers able to move around the building more? And be able to pop in and work with a novice teacher? With a teaching resident? With a student teacher? An intern? What would we have to do structurally?”

Murray, the English teacher at Detroit’s Munger Elementary-Middle school was intrigued by the idea of teachers getting more support in their first years.

Ultimately, she said, she’s found ways to serve her students. In her second year, the main Detroit school district honored her as its rookie teacher of the year.

“I had a better understanding of how I can run my classroom,” she said. “A better understanding of the curriculum.”

But she fondly remembers the support she had from her college professors and liked the idea of formal support continuing into a teacher’s first years.

“Teaching is one of those careers that no one can ever really prepare you for,” she said.

But once you’re in a school, doing the work, “to be able to have all these connections, all these professors, and all the people I had the support from in college … That could be really powerful.”

Who's leaving?

63 teachers are leaving Detroit’s main district. Here’s a list of their names and former schools.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Is your child’s favorite teacher saying goodbye to the Detroit Public Schools Community District?

Last week, Detroit’s main district released the names of 63 teachers and 55 building staff members who retired or resigned by the end of June. We have a list of their names and the schools where they worked.

Rather than leave classrooms during the school year, teachers typically choose to retire or switch school districts while students are on break. This is only the first wave of departures expected this summer — one reason schools in Detroit are racing to hire certified teachers by the fall.

But for Detroit families, the teachers on this list are more than a number. Scroll down to see if an educator who made a difference in your child’s life — or your own — is leaving the district.

Teacher and staff separations in June 2018. Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District