Professional Community at MTR
Author: Dr. Robin Henderson | Director of MTR | Article from MTR 2014 Yearbook: Community Matters
The education reform movement has revealed that effective teachers can positively influence student achievement; yet working in isolation, they cannot transform schools or districts. At Memphis Teacher Residency, we believe that when a critical mass of effective educators works together as a team with students, students’ families, and community partners, schools can be transformed in lasting, positive ways.
From its inception, MTR has worked to establish a community of teachers who serve as supportive colleagues, thought partners, and friends for one another. Teaching is hard work—demanding considerable time, energy, intellect, and heart. To be a successful teacher for the long term, it is essential to have positive relationships with other teachers—relationships that offer opportunities for collaboration, feedback and reflection, and mutual encouragement. To create teams of educators working together and supporting each other, MTR clusters residents and graduates in schools in specific partner neighborhoods and also incorporates collaborative assignments into graduate courses. Thus, we optimize our impact on student learning and simultaneously foster supportive, productive relationships among MTR residents, graduates, alumni, and mentors.
BEGINNING TOGETHER: LEARNING FROM TEACHERS WORKING TOGETHER
The foundation of the professional community of teachers at MTR is built into the residency model. Aspiring teachers spend the majority of their preparation year in the classrooms of effective veteran teachers who serve as their mentors. This apprenticeship model means that all day long, four days each week, throughout the school year, MTR residents are in classrooms observing their mentors, co-planning with them, interacting with students, getting feedback from their mentors, and reflecting with the mentor as a thought partner. Daily communication and weekly classroom visits from the MTR staff coach (a former teacher) provide residents with an additional source of guidance, feedback, and ideas and help residents process what they are seeing and experiencing. Learning from the example of the mentor, receiving feedback from the mentor and the coach, and working in collaboration with the mentor and the coach establish the norms of observation, collaboration, and openness to feedback and reflection that characterize the MTR experience.
Coursework leading to a master’s degree in Urban Education complements the classroom apprenticeship, and instructors intentionally incorporate teamwork into many of the major assignments as another opportunity for residents to learn from each other and to encourage collaboration. Whether teams of residents are gathering information that they then share with the larger group or designing instructional experiences, their assignments often prompt them to work with and learn from each other. In addition, many residents take advantage of their proximity to each other in the same apartment complex by forming study groups for their master’s courses. The inherent collaboration of the residency year provides MTR residents with a model for how they can use the human capital in their school buildings
GROWING TOGETHER: CO-PLANNING, REFLECTION, AND MUTUAL SUPPORT
Community extends beyond the residency year through a teacher placement strategy that clusters MTR graduates together in specific MTR partner neighborhoods and schools. This strategy promotes collaboration and co-planning among MTR graduates, residents, and mentors as well as with other teachers in the building. It also helps the teachers to become invested members within a school community and neighborhood, as they work alongside principals, colleagues, and families to promote positive culture not only in the school, but also within the neighborhood. This strategy creates a sense of community because graduates in the high school serve the same families as their MTR colleagues at the elementary school. In addition to the collaboration and community among teachers in a given feeder pattern, the personal relationships and the habit of collaboration that graduates form during their residency also lead many graduates to co-plan or share resources with MTR graduates at other schools as well.
Collaboration within Schools and Neighborhoods
This value of collaboration and co-planning extends across cohorts and often includes teachers who have not been trained by MTR. Over the last two years, the math department at Melrose High School has experienced the value of what is possible when teachers work together. Four MTR graduates along with veteran teachers have forged a professional learning community. Department meetings examine student achievement across courses and years and explore such topics as how to improve mathematical thinking across the grades and how to coordinate their explanations of some concepts so that students more readily generalize or apply knowledge from one course to another. The teachers also challenge each other to teach mathematical concepts and not simply procedures. This vertical alignment allows teachers to identify and close gaps in student knowledge and to introduce and engage with content that paves the way for deeper study in higher course levels. Teachers also share the work of instructional planning.
For example, one person develops lesson plans for geometry and shares them with everyone else who teaches the course. Teachers of the same subject also troubleshoot struggles in instructional delivery. When a teacher realizes students have not understood his explanation of new material, he will ask another teacher how he taught the same lesson and borrow the other teacher’s words during subsequent lessons. Collaboration extends to culture as well, with teachers meeting over the summer and communicating throughout the school year to share practices for classroom procedures, rewards and consequences, and classroom community. A professor of education visiting MTR and the Melrose team commented that the professional collaboration among beginning teachers there was like nothing he had seen before. The Melrose math department is pictured above, including this year two MTR residents.
The Kingsbury schools offer another example of collaboration, with vertical teams of the same subject area encompassing teachers at both the middle school and high school, and with grade-level teams working together on culture. The collaboration between two eighth grade English teachers offers a snapshot of how teachers working together can complement each other’s strengths, alleviate some of the planning load they face, and serve as thought partners for analysis of student learning. After completing their residencies at different high schools in the district, when the two teachers were hired to teach the same grade at Kingsbury Middle School, it was natural for them to tackle the work of their first year teaching together. During that year, they debriefed each day about successes and failures and strategized abut upcoming days. They also co-planned their first novel unit of the year and sat down together to analyze student data after major assessments. The following summer, they worked together to create a long-term plan for the next year. While one teacher’s strength lies in her creativity and ability to see the big picture, the other teacher’s strength is in the details of daily lesson planning and execution. They both have gained from the other’s strengths and have felt confident- like “real English teachers,” as they put it- and their student achievement data reflect their positive impact. It is noteworthy that MTR teachers seem to feel free from the competition among teachers that can result from the intense scrutiny and evaluation characterizing the profession today and instead are eager towork together and to share responsibility for results.
Next door at Kingsbury High School, faculty in the Ninth Grade Girls Academy work together to create consistency for students and alignment among teachers about community and expectations for the students they teach. All classes in the Girls Academy have shared “Class Pillars” that name the values (like integrity and respect) that underlie their work together, and teachers also share many routines and procedures.
Collaboration within Content Areas
In addition to collaboration within neighborhoods, MTR graduates collaborate with peers across the city as well, sharing resources and ideas with teachers who teach the same course or grade level at another school. These opportunities strengthen their classroom practice and create efficiencies, while also keeping teachers connected and enabling them to avoid the feelings of isolation that many teachers experience. Often, this looks like an email to teachers of a given subject area or grade sharing information about an upcoming professional development opportunity or teacher blog, or a request for ideas or materials for teaching a particular novel.
Some teachers have formed more ongoing partnerships. For example, three Algebra 2 teachers from two different neighborhoods regularly co-plan and share resources. Two teachers of ninth grade English do so as well—much to the surprise of a student who transferred from one school to another and discovered on her first day at the new school that she was on the same chapter in The Odyssey as her new classmates. Professional collaborations like these often grow out of and reinforce friendships, as in the case of the three math teachers who took a road trip together to go to Twitter Math Camp in Oklahoma.
Forums and Platforms to Support Professional Community
After their residency year, most MTR graduates begin establishing themselves in a Memphis neighborhood. Many choose to live with other members of their cohort post residency, often gravitating near the schools where they teach. Even so, we realized the need to facilitate continued community building within and between the cohorts after residents had graduated. One respondent to the MTR Census1 called this MTR’s “community model” of “living, learning, and teaching alongside a cohort of other like-minded individuals.” Monthly graduate workdays were initiated with our second cohort, based on feedback from our first cohort who often expressed that they missed the support and company of their cohort after graduation. We realized that the community established during the residency year was vital to our teachers both professionally and personally, and we committed to actively sustaining it. Years later, graduate work days serve as a time and place with first year graduates can reconnect with other members of their cohort as well as continue to grow professionally. Email lists for each subject area, grade, and cohort facilitate communication among MTR residents and graduates, and ad hoc gatherings reflect specific professional needs and interests and continue the tradition collaboration.
STAYING TOGETHER: RETENTION AND TEACHER LEADERSHIP
MTR actively works to keep graduates involved in community throughout the post-residency years. MTR graduates and alumni serve as selectors during our Selection Weekends. They have a voice in who follows them into this work. Graduates are engaged as teaching assistants in the graduate courses and as seminar presenters for other graduates and residents. Many even serve as mentors to new residents, and several have joined MTR’s staff. In response to the MTR Census question “What do you think you’ll do after your MTR commitment? Will you stay in Memphis?” one graduate responded, “I definitely plan to stay in Memphis for at least a couple more years if not more than that. I enjoy my school, the community I have built here, and the work that is being done to reform education. Until I feel that God has something else for me, I plan to remain in Memphis. I don’t see a career change in my future though.” Another teacher shared that the professional community attracted him to MTR and was indeed important to sustaining momentum during the residency year: “I could not make it through my difficult days if it weren’t for my roommate, friends, coach, mentor, etc.” It is our hope that the community established during the residency year serves as a foundation for camaraderie, collaboration, and long-term commitment that will lead to increased teacher retention and effectiveness throughout the neighborhoods where we work.