Staff Turnover Disappeared at a Delaware School. Why?
This piece originally appeared on Dec. 16th, 2022, on The Rodel Foundation blog. See also a guest commentary by the same author in the Delaware State News published on Jan. 8th, 2023.
In her first year as principal of New Castle Elementary School, TeRay Ross wasn’t the only newcomer.
In fact, on that first day in 2017, 12 of the 22 homeroom classes inside her cavernous school—a circa 1929 former high school nicknamed “the castle”—were helmed by teachers who were also new to the building. She later learned the school turned over another 17 teacher positions the year prior to her arrival. What was going on?
“For a number of reasons people were choosing to go other places for promotions, or just kind of general retirements,” she says today. “We have kids that have a lot of needs, and some people were determining that this was not the place for them.”
Whatever the reason—it wasn’t good. Kids, especially young ones with special needs—need a sense of comfort and consistency in their educational routine.
“A lot of what we do, especially at the elementary level, is built on relationships,” says Ross. “Kids have to believe that you care about them, that you love them, and are invested in them if we’re going to get the returns that we want.”
New staff also stretches a school’s administrative team. Teachers, like any new employees, need support in their first few weeks and months on the job. And it’s hard to support 12 new people that have different levels of needs in different areas (from learning the building layout to school policy to using the laminator). “And so even if all 12 were amazing, we were stretched to capacity trying to offer the level of support that they needed,” Ross says.
Something had to change.
The staffing challenges at New Castle Elementary were echoing national trends of turnover, burnout, and vacancies.
Ross, who had undergone postgraduate training at the Relay Graduate School of Education, began working with district leaders to take advantage of Relay’s “teacher residency” program—a kind of alternative route to becoming a full-time teacher. It differs from the traditional, undergraduate approach of a teacher preparation program (though often it is embedded within these types of programs).
From our blog:
Typically, an aspiring teacher looking to enter a residency program must apply and be accepted. Once they are accepted, a resident then works as an apprentice for one year in a classroom with an expert teacher while simultaneously engaging in coursework at an affiliated college or university. Some residents receive a stipend and a scholarship during their apprenticeship year in exchange for their commitment to teach in the same district for a few years beyond the year of apprenticeship.
Principal Ross and her team took on their first resident the following school year.
“After that one, every year after that we’ve had three or four added on. They have all but one completed the program with us and they’ve all wanted to stay at New Castle,” says Ross. “That’s great. I’m so proud to say last year when all of my other principal friends were freaking out about finding teachers, I was fully staffed at May.”
Before becoming a hub for teacher residencies, New Castle and its district needed to make sure the foundation was built to last. Teachers-in-training can’t work for free, so stipends for the initial waves of residents were paid for by yearly, competitive Department of Education grants.
So beginning in the fall of 2021, Colonial School District and Relay began an intensive design process focused on creating a more sustainable residency program that would not require additional state grant dollars to run. Over the course of six months they identified their biggest areas of need, created plans for recruiting and supporting new residents, and rethought their funding and unit allocations to identify untapped dollars to cover resident stipends.
Rodel helped to fund US PREP, a national technical assistance provider, who brought the hub concept to Delaware and led the design and facilitation between Relay and Colonial.
For Ross, it’s been a happy marriage. And that’s good news for the 413 kindergarten through fifth graders at her school—many of whom come from low-income families in the surrounding neighborhoods of New Castle.
As we wrote last year: Teacher residency programs look to address a multitude of problems that exist in the teaching profession. States across the country face teacher shortages, high turnover rates, and many struggle to recruit and retrain teachers of color. This can negatively impact students.
Local districts primarily recruit from local universities – most prominently from University of Delaware, Delaware State University, and Wilmington University. Since 2010, however, enrollment in traditional teacher preparation programs has decreased, making the applicant pool smaller each year.
Meanwhile, teacher residency programs “create a vehicle to recruit teachers for high-needs fields and locations; offer candidates strong content and clinical preparation specifically for the kinds of schools in which they will teach. The approach facilitates early career mentoring that keeps teachers in the profession while providing financial incentives that will keep teachers in the districts that have invested in them.”
Some consider residency models the gold standard for teacher prep models, as they often lead to “higher retention of teachers in the field, greater demographic diversity among teachers prepared through residency programs, and the potential to increase student achievement.”
Says Ross of her current crop of residents: “Next year when they need a job, they want to be with us, this is now their school, they know how things work, they know the kids, they know the people. And so this is where they want to be. And we’re already starting to have those conversations of, ‘I don’t know what openings I’ll have next year. So let me start to think about where else you might be successful.’”
Part of why residencies work is their immersive nature. Unlike traditional student teachers, residents are also inside the classroom from the very beginning to the very end. “So they participate in all of the professional development. They get to set up classrooms, welcome kids. They get invited to all the happy hours. They go through the teacher’s entire schedule all year long. So they are building these relationships and gaining knowledge to a depth where student teachers just don’t.”
And through their ongoing coursework at Relay, residents can learn and tweak their techniques while they learn.
“The residency is kind like having training wheels,” says Tameka Wingo, a former resident and today a resident advisor, who hosts a new resident in her classroom. “When you’re just being thrown into a classroom, you’re baptized by fire, whereas you feel more supported with the residency program. You’re more likely to try different things and then ask for help a little bit more because you have help there with you and it puts you at ease. It gives you that pathway to being able to master your craft.”
All those tiers of support and communication can lead to a better overall school culture. Kindergarten teacher Tracy McKinney, who hosts a Relay resident, has seen it firsthand.
“The teachers that are here want to be here and they work so well together,” she says. “My first year here, it was not that way. There were some people that were just burned out, didn’t care. Didn’t want to be here. But ultimately, everyone I can say that I know and interact with, they are here for the kids. And that’s a really nice thing.”
The oldest of 14 siblings, Taneia Coleman always had a knack for taking care of others. But she wasn’t sure it’s what she wanted to do for a career until she landed a job at a childcare center to help cover college tuition. “I was like, Oh my god. This is really for me,” she says.
Coleman eventually found a position as a paraprofessional at nearby Carrie Downie Elementary School, where she worked for four years. When it came to figuring out a pathway toward a full-time teaching gig, she considered other alternate routes to certification, but was ultimately drawn to the paid stipend and support that teacher residents receive.
Since she isn’t the typical resident and no stranger to a kindergarten classroom, she’s instead relishing the opportunity to dig deeper into approaches like Responsive Classroom, a student-centered and evidence-based approach to teaching and discipline employed at New Castle Elementary. That—and the strong school culture.
“My first few days here, I was in culture shock because I’m like, this is too good to be true,” she says. “Everybody here is just so helpful.”
Dian Williams, a resident who shares Tameka Wingo’s classroom, knows what that support feels like.
“When it all falls, Ms. Ross and Ms. Wingo knows the program inside and out,” he says. “They know what comes with the program. They know that you have real life outside of the program, and those components play a major factor in how well you’ll do in the program and in the school.”
Williams understands he is a rarity—a Black male elementary school teacher, and he doesn’t take the duty lightly to show Black students the opportunities they have in education.
“From the first day of school when they’ve noticed me standing there and they see that I was in the classroom. Some of these boys that weren’t too studious last year, I see them, when I talk to them, they say, Oh, Mr. Will, we learned about this today in my class.”