Fledgling teachers often intern a few months at a school they don't know, hoping to learn the ropes from a teacher they've never met. It's a system that frustrates many school leaders and would-be teachers.
But what if young teachers instead spent the entire school year in the same classroom, working alongside the same mentor, teaching the same groups of kids?
In a few Twin Cities classrooms this year, the residency idea was put to the test. Eight student teachers, placed in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools last fall, got the chance to learn under expert supervision and earn their licenses.
Seven made it through the entire year and are fully licensed. A few have scored teaching jobs. Eleven new students are lined up for residencies in the fall.
These kinds of teacher training programs have been around for more than a decade in other states, but this is a first effort in Minnesota. Early reviews are promising.
"There are a lot of things happening from September to June, and if you're only here for 12, 14, 16 weeks, you don't see any of that," said Dawn Vaerst, a veteran math teacher at St. Paul's Highland Park Middle School.
"There's a high burnout rate of teachers and I think it's because those first couple of years they weren't prepared for. And the shock is unbelievable. Making this [residencies] the next big thing, and requiring it, would change the entire dynamic."
Vaerst spent the year mentoring Joe Troszak, who'd earned his degree in math from the University of Minnesota. Troszak knew math but not teaching. The program — the Twin Cities Teacher Collaborative STEM Urban Teacher Residency — offered a path into teaching similar to what medical residents get through clinical experience with a seasoned physician close at hand.
The residency is less like traditional student teaching and more like Teach for America. Both place people without traditional teaching degrees into classrooms and enroll those rookie teachers simultaneously in their own coursework.
Teach for America teachers, though, are the only teacher in their classroom. With this residency program, veteran teachers are in the room all day. That's helped gain union support for the residency program in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Residency program director Laura Mogelson said she's heard mostly positive feedback from the first cohort of mentor teachers and residents — even the one who didn't make it the full year.
Matt Carrier, 23, had a chemistry degree and was initially placed at Humboldt Senior High in St. Paul with long-time chemistry, forensics and physics teacher Mary Hanson. For Carrier, the chemistry was easy. The teaching was eye-opening.
"I think for a while I was just very overwhelmed with the urban setting. I think it came about because of the relationship I had with my cooperating teacher and the differences we had. And I think a major reason why I ended up leaving was — I guess I didn't see myself in the big picture of education."
Carrier switched schools at one point. By the end of December, though, he had left the program and returned to his hometown in northern Wisconsin.
His original mentor teacher, Mary Hanson, also suggested that she and Carrier had struggled at times. Still, she thinks highly of the program and of Carrier.
"I sent him an email about two weeks after he left because the kids, the students, were wondering where he was and how he was doing," she said. "He emailed back and said, 'I think high school was a better fit,' and about three weeks later, he decided it wasn't a good fit ... he learned early enough in his life that education is not for him."
The program faces challenges as it heads into its second year. Teaching, especially high school teaching, tends to be more of a solo job, so it may be difficult to entice veteran instructors to teach side by side with someone for a full academic year, Mogelson said.
Diversity and money are challenges, too.
She sees the residency program as a way to help close the achievement gap between whites and students of color. So far, though, all of the admitted residents are white.
While the first four years will be paid for with about $1.4 million in grants from the federal government and the Bush Foundation, Mogelson says other revenue streams are needed. That might include someday asking lawmakers for state funding to expand the program.
In this first year, though, the residency idea is showing its staying power.
Back at Highland Park Middle School, Troszak, the apprentice, will stay on next year as Vaerst, the veteran, moves on to another St. Paul school. Troszak will take over Vaerst's old classroom.