Across the state, about 10 percent of teachers don’t return to their jobs each year, according to the Texas Education Agency. School districts and others are trying to change that. That includes Dallas Teacher Residency, a year-long teaching program that could make the difference between a new teacher staying or quitting.
Ivory Smith is part of the residency, which pairs student teachers with mentor teachers inside urban schools for an entire school year.
Earlier in the school year, she read from a children’s picture book to a group of fifth graders at RISD Academy. The book, called "Chrysanthemum," is about a young mouse who gets teased about her name.
Smith is a teacher-in-training in this class.
"Chrysanthemum took the longest route to the school," Smith reads.
“I know why she was late,” says one of the students. "'Cause she didn’t like them to bully her name."
“Yep,” says Smith and nods in agreement.
RISD Academy, located in Dallas and part of the Richardson Independent School District, is one of the lowest-performing campuses in the district. Nearly 95 percent of students here are classified as economically disadvantaged.
Smith spends four days a week in the classroom and another day taking graduate-level courses through Texas A&M University-Commerce. Next year, she’ll get her own class.
Smith says she likes the experience because it’s more practical than what she got in school.
“When you’re in college, especially undergrad, you’re kind of secluded and you’re only around this specific dichotomy of people,” Smith says. “So you’re with adults who are either studying or you’re with adults who are teaching you.”
In this residency, Smith is learning from Vanessa Andrade, her mentor teacher. Andrade takes the lead in lesson planning, teaching the class and analyzing student testing data. But the goal, Andrade says, is to get Smith to eventually take on some of these tasks.
“A mentor is supposed to be invested in the resident’s learning,” Andrade says. “So making sure that Ivory’s needs are met and anything that she wants, any goals she wants to set for herself, that we’re meeting those goals and that she’s feeling comfortable not on a daily basis, but also in terms of her school work.”
The Dallas Teacher Residency Program, which launched in 2013, places teachers not only in Richardson, but also the Dallas and Mesquite school districts. It splits the costs with the districts and Texas A&M University-Commerce.
The residency intentionally places student teachers inside high-need schools. Rob DeHaas, co-founder and CEO of Dallas Teacher Residency, says he supports this approach because of his own experience.
As the former director of Uplift Heights Preparatory in West Dallas, DeHaas interviewed a lot of job candidates. Many of them had experience working in suburban and wealthy school districts.
“A lot of times in traditional or alternative settings, new teachers will get the keys to their classroom right away and be thrown into an incredibly challenging situation or setting with very little training,” DeHaas says. “Even if they have had training, a lot of times that training doesn’t mirror the demographic of students or the populations that they would be working with.”
That puts teachers at risk of feeling frustrated and leaving the job.
Alexandra Leavell, associate dean for educator preparation at the University of North Texas, says getting the right kind of training is critical to keeping teachers in the classroom.
“Those first two and three years, that’s where a teacher really begins to get in their groove and be able to impact students,” Leavell says. “And so if we’re losing teachers after the first two years, we’re getting the jobs filled, but we’re not keeping people in the profession, and so retention is huge.”
Back in the classroom, Ivory Smith asks kids about the book "Chrysanthemum."
“What was the point when everything turned around?” she asks.
“People started liking her name,” one of the students responds.
“Why?” Smith asks.
“Because they said it was like a flower,” says the student.
Smith says her yearlong experience in the classroom is invaluable.
“In this program, it’s like, ‘You all need to be hands on. You all need to plan this lesson. You need to teach this lesson. You're going to be observed,'" Smith says. “It kind of intensifies everything that we’re doing. That can kind of be, like, nerve-wracking, but it’s also my motivator.”
It’s motivated her to one day lead her own classroom.