Memphis Teacher Residency program expands, gets statewide recognition

It’s just past 8 a.m. in the basement of Union Avenue Baptist Church in the middle of the summer. A room full of 67 young adults who had not yet started working in Memphis classrooms this August, and had been out of college for barely a month, were trying to break down the factors that make one teacher effective, and another teacher ineffective.

One teacher resident observed that an ineffective teacher blamed the student instead of considering a different way to reach them.

Two MTR residents discuss which of two teachers they think was effective and why.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Two MTR residents discuss which of two teachers they think was effective and why.

After several more responses one of the two instructors in the room, Leah Luttrell, steps in to explain a concept called “asset based thinking.”

“Every child has something to offer,” Luttrell said. “As humans, as people made in the image of God, we’re incredibly complex, we’re incredibly unique. To get to the point where we say there’s something wrong with Mitch, who are we to say that?”

The room breaks into laughter.

Most teacher preparation programs offer some instruction on withholding judgement of students. But by comparing a teacher’s judgement to God’s judgement, the teacher under scrutiny looked not only ineffective, but absurd to this particular room of educators.

The Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), one of the most highly praised teacher preparation programs in Tennessee, has borrowed the “residency” model of teacher development. The residency model combines practices of alternative preparation programs such as Teach for America, which give immediate experience in the classroom, with a more gradual approach into being full-time teachers.

Districts in Tennessee and across the country have worked to better attract, train and retain quality teachers, as some influential studies have shown that teacher quality is one of, it not the, most important factor for raising student achievement. The University of Memphis has recently made plans for a new teacher training program that would emulate the residency program model.

MTR’s teachers are staying longer than other alternatively-certified teachers. More than 90 percent teach for three years after their residency year, and 75 percent of those continue to teach in Memphis past their initial four year commitment.

The average MTR resident has a TVAAS score between 4 and 5, with 5 being the highest.  TVAAS, is a state’s growth measure used to determine how much a teacher contributes to student improvement.

Its first four years it trained just over 20 teachers per year. But last year they doubled the number of teachers they trained. This year, 67 teachers were trained through the program.

The Christian values of MTR are apparent everywhere even on the walls, but once the year starts, teachers live out their values with their actions not their words.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
The Christian values of MTR are apparent everywhere even on the walls, but once the year starts, teachers live out their values with their actions not their words, trainees say.

MTR Director and Founder David Montague said MTR residents don’t prosthelytize with their words.

“I’m the first one to tell every resident that you’re coming here to learn how to be a very effective teacher,” said Montague. “And if you’re coming here to be disguised as a youth minister, then you’re in the wrong place.”

How it works

Teachers in MTR spend their first summer learning how to teach in urban environments and being introduced to important people and places in Memphis.

When school starts residents are paired with a mentor teacher in a real classroom four days per week for a year and gain more responsibility as the year progresses. On Fridays and Saturdays they take graduate classes from MTR teachers and education professors at Union University.

“How often do you get the opportunity to be in a classroom and then the next day start to enact those lessons?” said resident Graham Turner. “I know it matters because I get to use it tomorrow.”

During that first year residents are provided free housing and a small stipend to live on. All of the residents live together in a communal environment, not all that different from the college dorms they just left behind.

The next year they have to apply to jobs with the district and find housing on their own. Unlike Teach for America, which has a contract with Shelby County Schools, MTR teachers are not guaranteed any spots.

They commit to teaching for three years in Memphis after the initial residency year, for a total of four years, twice as much as what is asked of Teach for America teachers.

Robin Henderson, the director of MTR, has spent her career trying to convince teacher-training programs to place students in low-income areas.

Their training occurs in the same type of schools that they will ultimately teach in, according to Robin Henderson. As an education professor in Indiana she found that traditional teacher-training programs didn’t give teachers a chance to do their training in low-income areas.

“There are teacher prep programs doing phenomenal work on behalf of students and teachers,” Henderson said. “But when the student-teachers are not having the opportunities to train in the context in which they’ll ultimately serve, that presents some challenges to first year teachers.”

MTR introduces graduates to important people and places in Memphis, so that they will take on the community as their own.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
MTR introduces graduates to important people and places in Memphis, so that they will take on the community as their own.


With growth come challenges to maintain the same level of quality and to raise the money to support more teachers.

Montague has to fundraise $50,000 for each new teacher they bring on. He hopes that at some point Shelby County Schools will see MTR’s training as valuable and will help pay the cost of attracting more.

Teachers are given a $12,000 stipend for the first year of training.


""Just because Jesus didn’t go on the speaking circuit, doesn’t mean he didn’t address the core values of leadership,” said Leah Luttrell to 67 new MTR residents.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
“Just because Jesus didn’t go on the speaking circuit, doesn’t mean he didn’t address the core values of leadership,” said Leah Luttrell to 67 new MTR residents.

Closing Time

Before teacher residents headed for their July 4 three-day weekend, Luttrell wanted to send one last message.

“Just because Jesus didn’t go on the speaking circuit, doesn’t mean he didn’t address the core values of leadership,” Luttrell reminded her future teachers, in the basement of a church, on a hot Memphis summer day.  “If you want to lead, you have to serve.”


KENDRA, 1st year


Kendra Cunningham wanted to find a job where she could live out her faith everyday, rather than sit in a lab as a scientist. She saw the opportunity to inspire more African-American women to become scientists if she became a teacher.

But this is the first time she has moved away from Virginia and, just four weeks into the program, she said she and her mom are still adjusting.

“I am the baby,” Cunningham said. “She misses me a lot but at the same time she is proud, that God has called me to be here. But that has been hard.”

She comes from a Pentecostal background and says she is still trying to find a church community in Memphis where she’ll feel at home and not just a number.

“I need some things to be clarified because I’m kind of anxious,” she said during a session on building relationships with students. “I know it’s important to establish a classroom climate but we can’t just do relationship building for the first three months. We have to get down to chemistry at some point, right?”

BLAKE, 2nd year


Blake Lam, 24, applied to Teach for America out of college, but decided he wasn’t ready. After a year of web and graphic design work, he decided that he didn’t want to be stuck behind a computer, but be part of a community. When he learned about MTR, he thought Christian background of the program was perfect for him.

“Just being a really good teacher, is the clearest and most tangible way to live out my faith in the workplace,” Lam said. “I think my students are created by God and made in God’s image. Even if I’m not sharing my faith explicitly, I’m doing what I’m called to do by caring for them. They have needs that go beyond spirituality.”

He says the residency year last year helped him feel more prepared for his first teaching assignment this year, at Handley Elementary teaching 6th grade math. His mentor teacher, Ashley Simmons, pushed him to be less robotic and act more like himself in front of his students.

But at the same time, he had to push past some of his natural tendencies. He had trouble giving consequences to students because he thought it would sacrifice his relationships. An interaction with one student that changed and made him more prepared to take on his own classroom for the first time this year:

“I asked him to tell me the truth and he didn’t tell me the truth,” said Lam. “And two times I didn’t give him the consequence when I should have and the third time I followed through with the consequence. He was crying, yelling, saying he didn’t want to be in my groups anymore. I think at the beginning of the year I would’ve thought that the relationship was hopeless. Instead of having that mindset, I decided to be patient. I asked him during lunch, do you want to sit on your own or do you want to sit with me and talk it through? I expected him to want to sit on his own, but he said he wanted to sit with me. So I sat with him at lunch and talked about what had happened. I really saw the power of relationships with students. I can follow through with a consequence and not destroy a relationship.”

EMILY, 6th year

The first two years of MTR residents have graduated, and more than 90 percent fulfilled their commitment and 75 percent of those continue to teach in a Memphis school.
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
The first two years of MTR residents (pictured in the photos above) have finished their four year commitment: more than 90 percent finished and 75 percent of those continue to teach in a Memphis school.

Emily Vassar, 33,—one of the founding MTR teachers—started her sixth year teaching Algebra I to 9th graders at Kingsbury High School this year.

She has known since high school that she was destined to be a teacher. Her own high school math teacher pushed her to excel and even let her teach class on occasion. After college she did ministry work in Seattle for a few years, until she was finally drawn to Memphis and then into the profession she always thought she was destined for.

During her first year of mentoring, she learned the ropes such as how to work the copier.

“Being with a master teacher taught me so many of the little bitty things that nobody can warn you about,” said Vassar. “I could focus on the important stuff because I knew how to navigate the details in the building quickly.”

There are now four MTR teachers at her school, which Vassar said means she receives more students who are on grade-level. More than twice as many of her students scored advanced on the Algebra I exam this year than at the average Shelby County School. “It wasn’t me trying to catch them for several years of education they were lacking, but being able to build on the education they are coming to me with,” Vassar said.

Teacher turnover has gone down recently as well. “I tell them I’m going to be at your graduation and I want you to be there too,” Vassar said. “It means something when I really am.”

She also says she has gotten better every year. “I’m technically going into my fifth year of solo teaching,” Vassar said. “But I feel like I’m just now getting my feet under me.”

She’s been motivated to continue teaching in part because of efforts such as community partnerships in Kingsbury, such as Streets Ministries.

“I can see myself staying forever, I can see myself staying for another five to 10 years,” Vassar said. “It all depends what opens up.”


Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.