RTR graduate Jonathan Walker with a student.
RTR graduate Jonathan Walker with a student. Walker graduated from RTR's second cohort in 2013. (School of Education)

‘Lifting a city up from inside the classroom’: 10 years of VCU’s teacher residency program

RTR, a program at the School of Education, has helped train more than 200 new teachers over the past decade, providing qualified educators for the schools that need them most.

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Jonathan Walker views the RTR graduate teacher residency program at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education as the best teacher preparation model for educators. Walker, who graduated from the second cohort of the program in 2013, now serves as an assistant principal at Binford Middle School in Richmond.

“I was struck by RTRs mission to ‘teach for change,’” Walker said. “I wasn't really sure how I could make an impact in the world, but through sociology coursework I learned that education was really the only way we can improve our society.” 

A highly selective graduate teacher residency program, RTR recruits, trains and supports teachers for high-needs and hard-to-staff schools. “Low-income and minority students consistently get the least-prepared, least-experienced teachers, which results in a constant churning of teachers in high-need schools,” said Terry Dozier, Ed.D., RTRs executive director and an associate professor in the School of Education. 

The program, which started in 2011, is now celebrating its 10th anniversary and hosting its 10th cohort. RTR has prepared 219 new teachers, trained 151 mentor teachers, served 51 schools and reached more than 15,000 students over the past decade. The program has a 100% placement rate and accepted its largest cohort of 61 residents this year.

One factor that led RTR to go after federal funding for education under the recovery act in 2009 was a need for qualified teachers in school systems such as Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk because of high turnover, Dozier said.

Terry A. Dozier, Ed.D.
Terry A. Dozier, Ed.D.

“We wanted to come up with a different way to prepare students. You have to prepare students in the context they will be working,” she said. “The teacher residency model takes the best of traditional teacher prep and alternate route programs. You want to identify people who want to work in these challenging environments and get them prepared.”

RTR residents learn alongside top district teachers for an entire year while earning a graduate degree from VCU. The School of Education partners with and prepares teachers for high-needs public schools in Richmond, Petersburg, Chesterfield and Henrico.  

Walker learned about the program when it was just starting after meeting Dozier in Memphis. He had originally applied to the Memphis Teacher Residency program and he and Dozier were there to witness selection day. 

“She was just beginning to bring RTR to life. Being from the Richmond area, it seemed serendipitous,” Walker said.  

Addressing specific needs 

Research confirms that the classroom teacher is the most important in-school factor contributing to student success, especially for minority students, Dozier said.

“Educators in both the School of Education and RTR’s partner districts wanted to ensure that students in high-needs schools who need the best-prepared teachers got them,” she said. “They deserve no less.”

The RTR curriculum integrates the school division’s content-specific curriculum into the preparation program so residents are fully prepared to teach to Virginia and division standards on the first day they enter the classroom. 

Tuition and fees for the program are fully covered and residents receive a stipend. Science and math residents receive an additional stipend. 

The program has grown since its start. It now has an elementary track for kindergarten to fifth grade, a secondary track with content areas such as biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, English and math at the middle and high school levels, and a special education track at the elementary, middle and high school levels. 

“Each time a new pathway opens, our diversity numbers jump up,” Dozier said. “One of our commitments is to increase diversity of our residents and dispel the myth that people don’t want to work in these high-need schools.”

Educators in both the School of Education and RTR’s partner districts wanted to ensure that students in high-needs schools who need the best-prepared teachers got them. They deserve no less.

“RTR-trained teachers more closely reflect the student demographics of Richmond Public Schools than their non-RTR colleagues,” said Andrew P. Daire, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education. “In the current RTR cohort for the 2020-2021 academic year, 65% of the residents are residents of color — the highest percentage in the program’s history.” 

Participants in the RTR program are not licensed teachers during their residency year. “They are preparing to be teachers,” Dozier said. “They need to be fully prepared under the tutelage of a veteran teacher that we have carefully selected.” RTR conducts unannounced classroom observations to ensure that mentor teachers are strong role models, Dozier said. Once selected to serve as a mentor, Dozier’s team gives them intensive New Teacher Center training and provides ongoing support “as they learn how to be an effective instructional coach,” she said. 

Taylor Hill
Taylor Hill will graduate from RTR in May.

Taylor Hill will graduate from the program in May. She is currently teaching fifth grade at Miles J. Jones Elementary School in Richmond. She decided to join the program because she is passionate about social justice and wanted to have a positive impact on the lives of the students she teaches, she said.

“I am happy that the program gives its residents a mentor teacher to be with us throughout the school year who offers support, provides encouragement and is someone to go to for advice,” she said.

Hill said she’s glad she joined the program.

“I have grown so much throughout this year alone,” she said. “I would recommend the RTR program to anyone who wants to teach for change.”  

Residents gain firsthand experience

During the program, VCU faculty provide three semesters of master’s level coursework, which culminates in a master’s degree or graduate certificate. In the fall, clinical resident coaches (mentors) introduce the resident to students as a co-teacher in the classroom. In January, residents work as the lead teacher until spring break when they go back to co-teaching.

“One of the big advantages of the residency model is they start the day the teacher goes back to work so they see how they plan and set up their classrooms,” Dozier said. “They see the important rituals, routines and procedures that make the classroom work. During the school year they participate in parent-teacher conferences and prepare for SOL testing. They see how it all works.” 

RTR graduate Stephanie Lawson is working as a fifth-grade special education math and science teacher at Broad Rock Elementary School in Richmond. She also serves as a clinical resident coach to one resident. In addition, she was recently named to the RTR Advisory Board as a graduate.

RTR alum Stephanie Lawson
RTR alum Stephanie Lawson.

Lawson values her firsthand experience in a school system during her residency. 

“I got to feel the ups and downs at school. I got a lot of resources from my clinical residency coach,” she said. “I appreciate the fact that they allowed me to experience IEP (individualized education program) and department meetings. I learned a lot from my coach.”

Because of her experience, Lawson said she had a good start when she began her first year as a teacher.

“I knew what to expect from our special education department and our compliance coordinator,” she said. “It gave me a head start. It set me up to be a better teacher year after year."

In the second year of the program, residents are hired as full-time teachers, Dozier said. The program requires a three-year commitment from RTR graduates to teach at one of the program’s partner schools. 

“I believe all teachers should have this preparation where they combine theory and practice,” Dozier said. 

Two of the most important things Walker learned in the program were to get to know your students and let your students get to know you, he said.

“Teachers have the opportunity to be one of the most important people in a student's life story. You have to work hard to make the most of that opportunity,” he said.

His experience in the program shaped his life, he added. 

“I grew in every way that the RTR program promised. I became a stronger, more compassionate and more self-assured person,” he said. “Through my amazing mentor teacher, Jennifer Young, I learned what it means to show love through hard work and preparation. I failed, I reflected, and I almost walked away. Then I stuck it out, I grew, and I didn't look back.” 

A vision-based success

In a 2019 survey, principals rated 73% of RTR graduates as more effective than other teachers with comparable experience. In 2017-18, RTR first-year teachers had a 96.4% retention rate compared to 62.4% of non-RTR first-year teachers. And 98% of veteran Richmond public school teachers said that being an RTR mentor has made them a more effective teacher.

“RTR has been successful because they never lost sight of that original vision of lifting a city up from inside the classroom. RTR alumni from all over the city are proud to share their connection,” Walker said. 

Dozier is pleased that RTR graduates feel they have been well-prepared. That was the goal, she said. 

“When a parent identifies an RTR teacher and tells me how wonderful they are, that is the ultimate measure of success,” she said. “I’m proud just seeing the growth of RTR and the fact that our mission has always been that students in marginalized communities need a great teacher by design not chance. We have created a sustainable pipeline of teachers who are there because they want to be there and are well-prepared.”