Last Wednesday morning at Olympic Hills Elementary School, Ariana Westbrook walked backward down the hall, leading a column of kindergarten and first-grade children to Room 111 for another day of teaching and learning.
Westbrook had observed how her mentor, teacher Julie Solarek, always tries to stand where she can keep an eye on the entire class.
“You’d be surprised how much happens when you have your back turned,” Solarek said. “That’s the second when a kid pees their pants or they break an arm or they slap somebody and if you don’t see it, you have to take a 5-year-old’s word for it.”
But Westbrook, who is 23, is learning more than tricks of the trade this year under Solarek’s wing — she’s learning the thousand moves that an experienced teacher makes to read the dynamic minds of her students, guide their eager but limited attention, and balance their sometimes volatile emotions from moment to moment.
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Westbrook is one of 25 apprentice teachers in the first class of the Seattle Teacher Residency, launched this fall at Olympic Hills, John Muir, Leschi and Hawthorne elementary schools and Madrona K-8.
The residencies pack intensive classroom experience and graduate-level coursework into a one-year paid apprenticeship that confers a Master of Teaching degree from the University of Washington, which counts as a teaching credential.
Residents in turn commit to teaching at least five years in the Seattle district, where successful grads are guaranteed a job and — at least for this first year — reimbursement of their tuition.
The Seattle Teacher Residency is one of the first programs in the country to include the teachers union as an equal partner, which makes it both a national model and something of a local miracle in a city often roiled by debates about education reform.
The collaboration brings together Seattle Public Schools, the UW, the Seattle Education Association and the Alliance for Education, a nonprofit representing local businesses and philanthropies that is providing the startup money.
The teachers union and the Alliance don’t see eye-to-eye about much, but they both agree that the residency is a good thing for students and teachers.
They hope it will deliver more racially diverse teachers with training customized for the district who are more likely to stick around than traditionally educated rookies.
The program had 70 applicants for its first year, interviewed about 48 and selected 25, all with college degrees and a variety of life experiences, said program director Marisa Bier.
They all have college degrees and more than half have minority backgrounds — a welcome mix for a district where teachers of color made up about a fifth of the teaching ranks, according to 2012 statistics.
By 2018, organizers hope to train 60 teachers annually — about 20 to 25 percent of each year’s new teachers.
During the apprenticeship year, residents receive a $16,500 stipend. The mentor teachers receive a stipend of $3,500.
Residents share teaching tasks with their mentors four days a week and meet with
one another on Fridays.
Many lessons and interactions with students are videotaped and analyzed.
“You learn what to notice, just like athletes might review film,” said Elham Kazemi, UW associate dean of professional learning, who helped design the program.
“We do the same thing with teachers. We break down teaching into its components so that you can see better and learn what to pay attention to.”
Residents learn how to orchestrate conversations among students, plan series of lessons that build toward a bigger idea and anticipate how students will respond.
But they also learn that sometimes even the best plans go sideways and they may suddenly find themselves looking into a lot of confused faces.
Westbrook learned that the hard way when she tried to teach a series of math problems about the equals sign that many of the students weren’t ready for yet. She realized about halfway through that they weren’t getting it and cut the lesson short.
“There was probably like one student who was getting the big idea, but as a whole it was just really confusing, so we’ve actually just tabled that lesson and I’m sure that it’s something we’ll come back to at the end of the year.”
But she learned far more from that experience than from her successes.
“She does so many things so well in the classroom that I feel like it was actually beneficial for her to have a rocky lesson,” said Solarek, who is 28 and in her sixth year of teaching. “If every lesson just nails it, you’re not reflecting.”
First-year teachers running their own classrooms often don’t have chances for that kind of guided practice and reflection.
“The amount of support and the discussions after has been tremendous and will put me in a good place next year,” Westbrook said.
The Alliance for Education is paying most of the startup costs — about $1 million a year for the first two years.
It’s one of 18 teacher residencies in the country that belong to a network overseen by Urban Teacher Residency United, which helps them get started.
Chicago had the first one in 2001, followed by Boston and the Denver area in 2003.
The network’s founder and executive director, Anissa Listak, said Seattle’s program stands out because each partner was willing to cede some control to make it work.
“We think it is among the highest-quality developed programs we have worked with in the nation,” Listak said.
It’s also the first one in the network to make the teachers union a full partner.
“It was strange bedfellows because the Alliance and the union don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things,” said Sara Morris, Alliance president and chief executive.
They had to set aside grievances that date back to 2010, when the Alliance and other organizations pushed for the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations and argued that performance should be considered in staffing decisions, including layoffs.
That also was the year that the Seattle and Federal Way school boards approved hotly debated contracts with Teach for America — a nonprofit, AmeriCorps agency that places high-performing, recent college graduates without teaching credentials in struggling schools.
Unlike the Seattle Teacher Residency, TFA instructors are the teachers of record during their first year while also earning a credential at the UW.
The president of the Seattle Education Association, Jonathan Knapp, said that the union benefits from having an active role in selecting both the residents and the mentor teachers.
“We can do traditional union advocacy and be leaders in teaching and learning at the same time,” Knapp said.
Morris said nobody is sugarcoating their differences.
“I am not naive to the political dynamics here,” Morris said. “We can disagree at breakfast and agree at lunch.”
John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or email@example.com On Twitter @jhigginsST