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.”


call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”