New Teachers in Urban Contexts: Creating Bridges with Teach For America Teachers
Like all new teachers, Teach For America corps members need support and training as they take their first steps into challenging classrooms.
Teach For America (TFA), a national nonprofit organization, recruits thousands of young leaders to teach in under-resourced urban and rural schools for two years. To help prepare these new teachers, the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education offers a summer bridge course that follows a TFA-sponsored five-week summer institute and practicum in Philadelphia’s public school district.
The course was developed through a tight partnership between Teach For America, the Philadelphia Writing Project, and the university. Their purpose was to link theory, practice, and inquiry to form the basic tenets of a new teacher preparation program that would offer multiple ways of approaching the hard work of the classroom.
The goal of the course is for TFA corps members to begin to see their program as a conversation between and among various educational philosophies rather than as a competition—and to see that an inquiry stance on classroom practice enhances the practices of teachers.
(Re) Introducing New Teachers to Urban Teaching
The bridge course’s focus on understanding student identities, building classroom community, developing reflective practice, and planning for the first days of school is both timely and important for these new teachers because they have just a few weeks before they enter their own classrooms in some of the toughest schools in the city of Philadelphia.
Consequently, every moment of this intensive preparation is critical.
In their previous training, TFA teachers have learned some of the basics of teaching, such as writing lesson plans and managing a classroom, while sharing teaching responsibilities with two or three other corps members in a summer school classroom. The bridge course complements and builds upon what they’ve learned by using collaborative action inquiry and reflection to further develop the skills, expertise, and broad perspectives they will need to be successful in their schools.
Teacher-consultants Carol Rose, Christina Puntel, and Margo Ackerman have served as the bridge’s coordinators during its four-year history on the campus, working collaboratively each year with a team consisting of ten to twelve teacher-consultants and teaching assistants and two faculty members. They have used four themes to frame the yearly collaborative work of teams:
- Race and Identity
- Building Classroom Communities of Learners
- Reflective Inquiry–Based Practices in Classrooms
- First Days of School.
The themes are used to help the team plan around several goals and key inquiry questions:
- Learn strategies for building community and relationships in classrooms
- Learn from and about diverse students and communities
- Learn to see urban students and communities through a resource lens, rather than a deficit lens
- Learn with and from experienced teachers
- Learn to live with some discomfort.
1. Who are our students?
- How do we learn about them and what they bring to the classroom in terms of knowledge, skills, resources, cultural contexts, issues of power, urban issues, and identities?
2. How do we see ourselves as teachers?
- What knowledge, skills, resources, cultural contexts, issues of power, and identities do teachers bring to the classroom, and how do these affect our choices as teachers?
- How can we learn from other teachers?
The Course: The Bridge to Teaching
The weeklong course is organized around a three-part structure of whole-group lectures, small-group work, and content-specific workshops.
A key component of the those groupings is the involvement of five to six facilitation teams, each made up of two teacher-consultants and up to two former TFA corps members. Each team is assigned as many as twenty new corps members, who form a small group for work during the week. The model for preparing the facilitation teams grew out of an Urban Sites Network minigrant project, “The Pedagogy of Facilitation.”
The coordinators, with the help of the facilitation teams, have created a successful mix of lecture, small and large group meetings, interactive and reflective processes, theoretical and practitioner inquiry and teacher research, and content area model lessons and discussions.
These combinations are refined each year as a result of a close review of final reflections by participants and team members. However, the basic model stays the same.
1. Whole-group lectures
Two whole-group sessions at the beginning and middle of the week include talks by two professors from the Graduate School of Education, Howard Stevenson and Sharon Ravitch. Their lectures help to frame the work of the small groups.
Howard Stevenson focuses his talk on understanding race, culture, identity, and power in urban schools and classrooms, and encourages new teachers to be prepared to understand their own stories and cultural identification and to hear and know students’ stories and the ways in which these are important pieces of classroom interactions.
Sharon Ravitch focuses her talk on building a “conceptual toolkit” for some of the challenges facing new teachers. This includes:
- Taking a “critical equity stance”
- Understanding our society’s pervasive deficit orientation toward urban students and communities
- Interrogating privilege and developing a sociopolitical understanding to make sense of what they will experience.
2. Small groups
The facilitation teams work intensively with their small groups for the remaining three days and attend the whole-group lectures alongside their small-group corps members. The facilitation teams usually include teacher-consultants with similar content area backgrounds. This along with a combination of readings on teacher research helps each team create the much-needed balance between meeting the new teachers’ perceived need to create practical tools for their classrooms and guiding them to develop an inquiry-based practice.
3. Content-specific workshops
One day is devoted to intensive workshops related to the new teachers’ first days of teaching in their specific content area. Instructors for the year-round methods courses facilitate these content area workshops and focus on successful strategies for the first days of school in schools that are typically low-performing and characterized by the challenges of absenteeism, inadequate resources, mandated curricula, and scripted test-preparation programs.
Outcomes and Evaluation
At the conclusion of the course, facilitators came together to discuss the assigned papers students have written and provide final reflections on the work. Each group completes an archive that includes daily reflections by participants, all materials and handouts, and final reflections by the facilitators.
These final reflections include some of the things that really stand out for facilitators, the challenges they have faced, and what they have learned. The reflections become resources for future planning by facilitation teams. Other Philadelphia Writing Project facilitators also have access to the archives during the year and are encouraged to make use of the work to inform inservice and continuity planning with new and veteran teachers working in similar contexts as TFA corps members.
A final evaluation covers all aspects of the course. Corps members reflect on what they take away from the course.
“I need to accept and understand my students’ backgrounds and take that into account with my teaching choices,” wrote one corps member.
“I know the importance of reflecting and knowing who I am before I can even start to learn about my students,” said another corps member.
Others mentioned that they developed a new perspective on the ways in which race and culture shape both their own identities and those of their students; that teachers need to be aware of difference, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist; and that they’ve picked up specific strategies and techniques for their classrooms.
In the process of facilitation, facilitation team members are engaged in learning about their own teaching and the ways in which they can support new teachers. By incorporating the reflections into subsequent planning for the summer bridge course, we are learning together about how to better prepare new urban teachers.
Implications for Replication of This Work
The bridge course provides an example of how one university works with both a local Writing Project site and an alternative certification program to prepare new urban teachers. The collaboration with the university continues to challenge the Philadelphia Writing Project to look deeply at its beliefs and practices in the area of teaching and learning.
Consequently, the site is still raising a range of questions for itself and for the facilitation teams who carry out this important work:
- How do we build partnerships (and with whom) to improve urban teaching?
- How do we address the diversity of opinions and ideas about education with our partners and partnership organizations?
- How do we continue to address issues of race, class, and gender in ways that will support new teachers, and in particular, new teachers who must confront new communities of learners?
- What role does teacher inquiry play in developing and sustaining teachers?
- How do we support new teachers while they are teaching as well as find ways to keep them in the profession?