Education

CMS needs nearly 500 teachers. How a new program is helping find some of them.

Future teachers without teaching degrees go through a crash course on teaching

Addressing the great need for teachers in Mecklenburg County, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools' teacher residency program provides the opportunity for adults of any age without education degrees to follow their passion and get in the classroom.
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Addressing the great need for teachers in Mecklenburg County, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools' teacher residency program provides the opportunity for adults of any age without education degrees to follow their passion and get in the classroom.

About a month before students report to school, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has more than 450 teacher vacancies posted.

This summer CMS has launched a six-week crash course for career-changers and nontraditional college graduates who want to become teachers. As it draws to a close this week, 64 of the original 82 candidates remain in the running to lead their own classrooms in August, and 30 have already been hired.

“There’s a lot of job openings right now. We should be able to place all of our teachers,” said Shannon Stehmeier, the district staffer who’s leading the new CMS Teaching Residency.

As enrollment slumps in colleges of education across America, alternative paths to teaching become increasingly important. Teach For America, a national program that recruits new college graduates and also features a summer boot camp to get them ready, is probably the best known.

CMS is getting into the game as the state of North Carolina phases out its lateral entry path, an approach that used to give people hired from other fields three years to earn their teaching license. Last year the state Legislature voted to replace lateral entry with a residency path, which provides a one-year licensing route for would-be teachers while ensuring they arrive with needed training, WRAL reported.

Now recruits like Kyra Spaulding, a former hospital financial counselor, will head into the classroom with six weeks of intensive instruction under their belt. That includes daily time spent teaching CMS summer school students, as well as ongoing observations from teaching coaches who will continue to support the new teachers after school begins.

“I really feel like I’ve got a tool box full of tools,” said Spaulding, who has already passed her licensing exam and been hired to teach eighth-grade math at Kennedy Middle School.

Spaulding’s career change came partly at the urging of her twin daughters, who will be eighth-graders at a different school. She already loved math, and her daughters said she made their homework fun.

Under the old lateral entry program, she might have been hired for her math skills and her obvious enthusiasm, with hopes she’d master classroom skills on the job. But many of those teachers didn’t last long, Stehmeier said, as recruits’ initial optimism collided with the reality of today’s classrooms. North Carolina had more than 4,600 lateral entry teachers employed as of its latest teacher turnover report, and they had an 85 percent higher attrition rate than other teachers.

Spaulding said that while she loved old-fashioned math classes, with the teacher standing up front lecturing, she has learned that won’t cut it now. She has to launch small-group discussions and move among her students, prompting them to think and solve problems. She has to be warm and strict at the same time, and when students tune out she can’t just flunk them or punish them.

For instance, when she did her student teaching in a high school summer math class, she had a student who doodled on his pages instead of doing the work. Spaulding admired his drawing and asked if he had considered becoming a tattoo artist. When he said yes, she designed her next lesson to feature him, by name, getting competing job offers from two tattoo parlors. The class had to use math skills to decide which was best.

“He was up, raising his hand and asking questions,” Spaulding recalls with delight.

This year’s CMS residency program targets two areas where the need for teachers is especially dire: elementary school classrooms and middle school math. And recruiters pushed to find people like Spaulding, who is African American. More than 70 percent of CMS teachers are white, in a district where white students make up less than 30 percent of enrollment. Among the teaching residents those demographics are flipped, with people of color making up 70 percent of the class, said Crystal Hall of TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), a national nonprofit that’s working with CMS on the residency.

While CMS is working to help all teachers, including the new recruits, overcome cultural differences and unconscious bias, many say students of color learn better when they see people like them leading schools and classrooms.

Joseph Israel, a fellow recruit who is white, sees himself filling another gap: Next year he’ll be a third-grade teacher at Governor’s Village STEM Academy. He wants to be a role model for boys, at a level where most teachers are women.

Israel switched fields two years ago, leaving a corporate logistics job to work for CMS as a long-term substitute, then a teacher assistant. Recruiters for the residency program sought CMS employees and others with roots in the community, hoping to create teachers who know and understand their students — and who will stick around.

CMS’ new program builds on TEACH Charlotte, a program that trained lateral entry teachers, and is funded by a $5 million SEED grant (for Supporting Effective Educator Development). Candidates who are accepted for the residency program must already have a bachelor’s degree and pay $1,500 for the training, which CMS says is comparable to what they’d pay for the university courses they’d need.

Next year the district hopes to recruit and train more in-demand teachers, including those who teach English language arts. CMS plans to start taking 2019 residency applications in November; anyone interested can get more information at www.careersatcms.com/cms-teaching-residency.

Some of this year’s 64 remaining residents are still waiting for scores on their licensing exams and working their way through school interviews. Jobs aren’t guaranteed, but in a district that employs about 9,000 teachers and loses more than 1,000 each year, the demand is clearly there.

Many of those jobs, of course, will be filled by experienced teachers and graduates with degrees in education. But the residency is designed to help fill the gaps with people who are likely to succeed. For instance, some of the prospective math teachers were recruited from jobs in finance. And those who lack the classroom skills, even after coaches help target their weaknesses, don’t pass through to the job interviews.

On Tuesday, experienced CMS teachers Fran Mayer and Daysha Meekins talked to Spaulding and her fellow math residents about getting ready for the first day of school. Their high-energy patter modeled the techniques the new recruits hoped to master: They got the class to repeat key phrases in unison (“Relationships will save my life!”), split the class into small groups to discuss how they’d handle a persistently disruptive student and celebrated answers with finger snaps and “the power clap.”

The advice seemed overwhelming, even contradictory: Come overprepared, yet expect to be flexible (Mayer: “If you are uncomfortable being flexible you’re in the wrong profession. You need to be flexible like yoga.”) Be clear and unrelenting in laying out rules and consequences, but also be a fountain of warmth and caring. Understand that the kids who don’t get discipline at home need it the most from their teachers, and be ready to give even the most troublesome students a fresh start every day. (Meekins: “I’m not saying it will be easy.”)

Spaulding has already budgeted to earn less than she did in her old job (starting CMS teachers earn $40,600 a year). But she beamed through it all like she’d just won the lottery. She’s been imagining what it will be like to become that special teacher, the one where “when they think of Kennedy they think of me, Ms. Spaulding, the tall one.”

“There’s something precious about that look on a kid’s face when they have that light bulb moment,” Spaulding said. “Money can’t buy that moment.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms
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