Classroom Lessons

They saw life inside Detroit classrooms — and now some of them want to teach

PHOTO: Geneva Simons Photography
City Year Americorp members close their graduation ceremony with a spirited celebration.

For the 71 young adults who just finished 10 months of service in Detroit district schools, this past academic year was, essentially, a trial by fire.

The City Year Americorps members worked with some of Detroit’s neediest children — tutoring and mentoring them, and assisting their teachers in the classroom. It wasn’t easy. Many rose at 5:30 a.m. and reported working up to 12-hour days for a modest stipend. For many volunteers, the rigor of it all was clarifying: It inspired some to pursue teaching and pointed others toward different career paths.

City Year does not yet have comprehensive data about what percentage of its corps members are interested in going into teaching, or working as counselors or social workers in a Detroit school setting. But the program is beginning to track its alumni; what it finds out could prove instructive for the district, which is still struggling to fill nearly 200 teacher vacancies.

Americorps is a federal volunteer program, whose participants get a $1,000 a month stipend, a $5,800 post-service award. Some also have a chance to be awarded a $5,000 college scholarship. In return, the 18- to 25-year-olds commit to year of full-time service with the goal of keeping public school students on track to graduate.

Chalkbeat caught up with six recent Americorps alumni to discuss what they learned about the challenges and rewards of serving in Detroit schools, and how those lessons shape what they want to do next.

Bryan Aaron, 23, Detroit

Bryan Aaron

When he started tutoring in a class of fifth graders at Noble Elementary-Middle School, Bryan Aaron knew students’ English and math scores were shockingly low, with fewer than 10 percent passing the MSTEP in both subjects. But he was surprised to learn just how much factors outside of the classroom — food and housing insecurities, lack of transportation — affect students’ grades and attendance. In some cases students would be living with a parent one day, and an aunt or grandparent the next.

“It’s a huge factor in their ability to learn,” he said, noting that standardized tests don’t account for these issues. “What is not being taken into consideration is they haven’t had any sleep because they had to move in the middle of the night, and they haven’t had adequate nutrition.”

That helped him understand how much consistency matters for students. In one case, he helped a student with poor attendance figure out how to get to school since his father was using the family car at that time. Aaron arranged for him to ride the bus with an older sibling.

Now, Aaron, a recent college grad, is planning to apply to medical school. As he is working on his application, he’s considering conducting pediatric research on bioethics or the post-operative effects of opiates. He’s hoping to be accepted by a medical school in the region, and aspires to form a partnership between the district and the medical school to expose Noble students to the health sciences.

Blake Wilkes, 23, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Blake Wilkes

After spending a school year working in an eighth-grade classroom at J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Wilkes has decided he’s not suited for a career as a classroom teacher in the long-term because he said he doesn’t “have the patience to deal with what [students] go through.” But he’s not leaving education altogether: The recent college graduate will return to do a second year of service, which corps members have an option to do, then he plans to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, with the goal of becoming a school guidance counselor for the Detroit district.

During his first year in the program, the night owl pushed himself to rise by 5:30 a.m. for the 12-hour workday ahead. He tutored students in core subjects, helped the classroom teacher with lesson plans, and coordinated after-school activities. He said that his work taught him what difficult home lives some students endure, and how much the resulting social-emotional issues  impact their attitude and academic performance. He recalls a once-happy, high-achieving student who started having anger and behavioral issues after her mother died in the middle of the school year. He said he talked it through with her as best he could, and shed empathetic tears for the grieving student.

He also cried on the last day of school, recognizing how transformational the year had been, and how much he had grown and developed on a personal level.

“Seeing the kinds of stuff that the kids have to deal with everyday and how nobody’s on their side, it motivates me to work hard for them,” Wilkes said.

Brea Liggons, 25, Detroit

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Brea Liggons

Working inside a fourth grade classroom at Gompers Elementary-Middle School, a pre-K–8 school in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, showed Liggons the staggering amount teachers have on their plates.

“Sometimes, it looks like teachers don’t care about their students, but they have one title and multiple roles they have to play every day,” she said. “They don’t have the capacity to sit down with the students one-on-one, but I did.”

Her Americorps year recalled her own challenging middle school experience, and that increased her resolve to help students with their grades, attendance, and social-emotional skill set.

“Everyday, we had to talk about their struggles, their improvement, and we really needed to pay close attention if they acted out of the ordinary,” she said. “That’s how we knew if they were having a problem like a parent passing away.”

Liggons, who plans to return to her graduate studies at Wayne State University before becoming a counselor of some kind in a district school, taught students how to set goals, and about the power of optimistic thinking.  

“After awhile, they were begging to set their own goals. They were excited,” she said of their goals, such as deciding to let others go first, remembering to raise hands in class, and giving compliments to others and to themselves. “Just by doing that, we were literally able to watch some of our students grow immensely.”

Yazmin Gerardo, 22, Farmington Hills

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Yazmin Gerardo

A self-described introvert, Gerardo found it overwhelming to work with fourth grade students at the Brenda Scott Academy because it was so large. The school in northeast Detroit, which serves pre-K to 8th graders, has more than 700 students. But she stretched, in an effort to understand and assist students.

“It wasn’t about me,” the native Detroit, who attended Detroit public schools, said. “At the end of the day, we were doing this, working with kids, and for good reason.”

Her year of service inspired her to pursue a career in teaching in the Detroit district.

“Having someone to constantly show up and root for them is what I want to do,” she said.

“They would come to me and say, ‘I wasn’t going to come to school today, but you promised me we would eat together at lunch, we could play a game or you would give me stickers.’”

Daniel Finegan, 25, Sterling Heights

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Daniel Finegan

By the end of the school year, which he spent tutoring, mentoring and assisting the classroom teacher with seventh and eighth graders at Bethune Elementary-Middle School, Finegan was so set on teaching in a Detroit public school, he was already looking for a rental home in the Bagley neighborhood in northwest Detroit. Not only that, he’s had interviews with principals at four schools and has a contingency offer in hand.

“City Year has been my student teaching experience,” Finegan, who has a degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh, said. His Americorps year solidified his decision to teach.

He is working toward his teacher’s certification, and if all goes according to plan, he’ll be ready to start teaching in the district when the 2018–19 school year begins.

Parker Schimler, 23, Royal Oak

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Parker Schimler

After his year of service in seventh and eighth grade classrooms at Gompers, Schimler understands exactly what it can be like when a school district struggles with teacher vacancies. One teacher he worked with had hip surgery, and substitute teachers were in and out of the classroom for most of the school year. It left students discombobulated and unfocused.

But that gave him an opportunity to take a deep dive into the lives of the students, discovering their strengths and helping them work on their weaker areas. He said he became particularly good at getting shy students to open up to him, and the ones who appreciated him most sometimes drew pictures for him. He was left with a strong appreciation for one student in particular, who set a goal to be a NBA player and an athletic shoe designer. That student made Schimler an origami athletic shoe.

“Without a teacher in the classroom, they weren’t getting the education I did and the education they deserve,” he said. “I worked with them in small groups and gave them worksheets to help them out the best I could.”

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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