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Suppose a person training as a teacher got the same kind of preparation as new doctors who spent long hours in hospitals. People have talked up that idea for years, and it could be the future of teaching. A handful of teacher residency programs already exist, including one in Boston. And we have more this morning from NPR's Claudio Sanchez.
EMILY WATSON: My name's Emily Watson. This is how I start my day. I'm walking to my ninth-grade physics class, which is at the end of the hallway. Morning, Mariana.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Welcome to Emily Watson's world: Fenway High School, where she's training to be a teacher.
WATSON: And here we are in class.
SANCHEZ: Emily, freckled with curly dark brown hair, doesn't look 28, which is an advantage when you're trying to connect with students half your age, like the sullen ninth-grader in Emily's first period physics class who's buried his head on his desk. He's upset because he's sure he flunked his last test. Emily leans in and softly reassures him.
WATSON: You didn't fail.
Unidentified Man: Really?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SANCHEZ: Emily has already seen his score. He passed, but he doesn't believe her. Getting some of these kids to believe in themselves is hard enough. So one has to wonder: Where does a first-year teacher like Emily, who may not be all that confident herself, learn to teach physics or any other subject to moody, unmotivated teenagers?
This is the question the teaching profession is grappling with, in part because colleges of education aren't preparing teachers very well.
TOM PAYZANT: Most of the teacher training institutions focus more on content and less on practice and how people teach.
SANCHEZ: That's Tom Payzant, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Back in 2003, when he was superintendent of Boston's Public Schools, Payzant wondered: Why can't schools be more like teaching hospitals, with seasoned teachers, just like seasoned doctors, responsible for the induction and training of the next generation of teachers?
PAYZANT: So that was the idea, to expand in a dramatic way the clinic practice which is central to the whole design of the residency program.
SANCHEZ: And so the Boston Teacher Residency Program was born. It's run jointly with the Boston Public Schools. Its funding comes from both private and government sources. It enrolls 75 residents per year. They take a full load of courses from nearby colleges that offer a master's degrees in education.
PAYZANT: And then four days a week, in a classroom with an accomplished teacher in a Boston public school, getting that experience of what it's like to be in a big city school classroom.
SANCHEZ: It's like boot camp, says Payzant. It draws lots of applications, mostly from people in their mid to late-20s, all with work experience and college degrees in the areas they're going to teach.
Emily Watson was writing for a medical journal when she first heard about BTR.
WATSON: Yeah, I studied medicine as an undergrad, but I just wasn't ready for medical school. In fact, people encouraged me to be a teacher before I realized that it was something I wanted to do.
SANCHEZ: At Fenway High School, Emily was paired with Juliana Thompson, a microbiologist by training and an accomplished teacher with a reputation for being tough, fair and blunt.
JULIANA THOMPSON: You can just kind of tell when someone is cut out for teaching or not.
SANCHEZ: Juliana says Emily is cut out for teaching - which is not to say that she was immediately impressed. Emily's first day teaching solo was a disaster.
WATSON: I remember it. I'm never going to forget what I learned that day.
SANCHEZ: So what happened, exactly? Well, Emily says everything seemed to be going just fine. The kids were behaving. She was talking about isotopes and trying to explain the difference between atomic mass and atomic weight.
WATSON: And suddenly, I realized that, like, nobody knows what I'm saying. And I just keep talking. I just tried to talk my way out of it. And I just confused people more and more, until I realized that, like, an hour and 15 minutes had gone by, and they're all sitting there like, what?
THOMPSON: I did not step in, because that's just a classic teaching moment.
SANCHEZ: Juliana says teaching is not just about preparation. It's about thinking on your feet.
THOMPSON: You suddenly realize that's not going to work. And in a matter of seconds, everything you had planned for the past week has to be changed, and that is very hard to do.
SANCHEZ: Juliana meticulously examines everything Emily does in the classroom, then breaks it all down and looks at her weaknesses and strengths. But Emily says that what's most valuable to her are the weekly meetings she has with the five other residents at Fenway High. They get together just like a group of young doctors would to figure out what's making a patient sick, except in this case, the doctors are the patients.
WATSON: And we talk about everything. You're embarrassed and you're scared and you're excited, and so it's really helpful to have them there so you can run and be like, oh, my God. Guess what happened?
SANCHEZ: Jesse Solomon, the director of the Boston Teacher Residency program, says he's been there. He taught high school math for 10 years.
JESSE SOLOMON: What I quickly learned when I started teaching was that I didn't know how to teach.
SANCHEZ: Solomon says it's not just the clinical approach that makes BTR's training so much better than what most teachers experience. The program has placed more minority teachers in the Boston city schools, especially in hard- to-fill positions like math, science and special education. And unlike most new teachers who leave the classroom within two to three years, Solomon says, 85 percent of BTR's graduates stay in the classroom longer.
The secret to the longevity, says Solomon, is a really strong support system and lots of camaraderie, which is usually on display at BTR's mandatory monthly meetings.
SOLOMON: I just want to say one thing about this mic that's right here. You're allowed to say no to the mic. So...
SANCHEZ: Tonight, Solomon gives residents a pep talk. But this is really an opportunity for people to share war stories, encourage each other and vent.
SOLOMON: What's been frustrating for me about this project is to be asked to figure out what a year's growth is and how to measure it.
SANCHEZ: How you measure student's progress and whether they're learning or not puzzles everybody, Solomon responds. In fact, BTR itself does not have any solid evidence yet that it's having an impact on student achievement. Harvard researchers and the U.S. Education Department are both looking into it.
But if the teacher residency model proves it is helping raise student performance, then the question will be - can this model work elsewhere and should it become the standard for training all new teachers?
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.