BROWNING — For years, Montana education leaders have talked about the challenges of bringing in good teachers, especially in rural communities. This year, the Montana Office of Public Instruction is trying a new idea to address that need: a teacher residency program, in which future teachers spend a full year working in the classroom while continuing their studies.
Each resident teacher is partnered with a “teacher-leader,” who they work closely with in a form of apprenticeship. As the year goes on, they take on more and more of the teaching duties in the classroom. The residents receive a stipend, tuition assistance and housing, in exchange for committing to teach two years in a Montana school district.
Currently, OPI reports 11 districts across Montana are participating in the program, with 18 active residents.
At KW-Vina Elementary School in Browning, administrators say they were excited about the possibilities of the program. This year, they welcomed not just one or even two of those residential teachers, but a full five.
“I know I always talked about, when I took over my leadership role – because when I was in school, I didn't have a lot of our own people as role models – so I said, ‘Why not bring in that many?’” said principal Toni Tatsey. “And we're growing our own.”
Nearly all the participating residents and the “teacher-leaders” they’re partnered with grew up in the Browning or Blackfeet communities. Each resident is going through the “2+2” program, where they take two years from Blackfeet Community College and two from the University of Montana Western on the way to a degree.
“We're all from this community, and we are just blessed with this wonderful opportunity to be able to go to school and become educators and stay in our community,” said Brandy Bremner, an instructional coach at KW-Vina.
Bremner also works closely with the residents as an adjunct professor at Montana Western.
“I really commend all of them for what they're doing, the time that they're putting in during the day – I mean, it's a full school day,” she said. “They work the same hours the teachers work – meetings, everything – and then they go to classes in the evenings.”
Without the residency program, these prospective teachers might only spend 12 weeks as a student teacher – or in some cases start working under a provisional license without the opportunity to get experience in a classroom first. Leaders say this program offers a much more substantial support system – especially in Browning, where so many people are going through the same experiences together.
“It's nice because we can bring just the resident teachers in, and Brandy can do professional development with them on certain topics,” said Tatsey. “And then maybe there's another time they collaborate as a whole – teacher-leaders and residents – she'll bring them in here and do a different professional development.”
On one recent school day, MTN visited each pair of teachers in the classroom, to get a closer look at the experiences the resident teachers are getting.
In the morning, resident teacher Jasmine Meineke led kindergarten students in a phonics lesson, practicing syllables and letter sounds.
Meineke started in September – a few weeks later than the other resident teachers – because she was on maternity leave at the start of the school year. She said coming into the classroom was intimidating.
“I got here and then I was like, ‘Oh my God, I would have never been able to do this because they didn't teach us anything like this in school,’” she said. “In our classes we're taught lesson plans and classroom management and assessment, but you're not really taught how to deal with the things that go on with the students personally, emotionally. I mean, there's just a lot more to being a teacher than just showing up here and teaching them.”
Teacher-leader Amy DeRoche says seeing an entire school year is a valuable experience for the residents.
“They’ll get to experience from the first day from the students coming in, and by the end of the year, she's going to see a huge difference,” she said. “We get to watch them grow and become little individual, confident children. And I always tell her we set that foundation – and a lot of the time we're the child’s security, we’re with them eight hours a day.”
Resident teacher Jacy Racine read her early kindergarten class a story about gardening and unusual-looking vegetables. She and Susie Small, her teacher-leader, then gave the kids a look at – and taste of –the odd-looking dragon fruit.
Racine previously worked for 14 years at Browning Middle School, then started working toward completing her education degree. She has already taken over teaching duties for much of the day.
“I think being consistent and we're here every day – it's getting smoother,” she said.
Small was previously a teaching assistant at KW-Vina, so she spent a full year working with a single teacher and class – just like the residents are now.
“When this came up, that's what that reminded me of,” she said. “I think that helped prepare me more than anything – being in that classroom with the teacher all year long. And so I've seen a lot of similarities.”
When the first-grade immersion classroom – which incorporates more Blackfeet cultural practices – split up into small groups, resident teacher Kortni Guardipee practiced spelling with one group, while teacher-leader Marci Burd worked with other students.
“I always stress to my students, ‘You're so lucky there's two of us; you have two teachers, not one teacher,’” said Burd. “And we just really use it to our advantage. We get to help more. There's more small group time, more one on one time.”
Guardipee says, when she got the opportunity to join the teacher residency program, she jumped at it.
“Everyone says that the hardest thing about becoming a teacher is the first year of teaching, just because you have to learn how to manage your classroom, you have to just get adapted to it,” she said. “And so we're basically doing our first year of teaching now with a mentor that can help us make adjustments where needed.”
In the afternoon, resident teacher Amy Grant worked with kindergarten students on a math lesson, practicing counting and comparing objects by length.
Grant says one of the things she appreciates about working with teacher-leader Angie Pepion is her use of the Blackfeet language in the classroom. KW-Vina has put an emphasis on Blackfeet culture, even outside the immersion classrooms.
“I'm learning more and more from her and I want to continue to learn more and more from her, because she does a really good job of integrating our language in everything that we do – culture being just part of our everyday lives,” Grant said.
“I think that it's very important because a lot of our students don't get that experience at home and so a lot of it is new for them,” said Pepion. “I always ask the parents for permission before I do that, because not everybody feels the same. And so everybody is pretty happy about what their child is learning and how we're incorporating it – they're going home using it.”
In a kindergarten immersion classroom, resident teacher Angela Tatsey-McKay and teacher-leader Britney Shooter worked together, leading students in counting numbers in the Blackfeet language, then encouraging them to form themselves into a line from tallest to shortest.
Tatsey-McKay says it’s been valuable to have Shooter alongside her as she takes on more responsibility.
“I think it just gives me more confidence that knowing she's there and knowing that, like, if I needed help or if I struggled a little bit with something, that she would step in,” she said.
Shooter says it took some time for students to adjust, but they’re now used to having two teachers in the room.
“It's like we are linked together, Ms. Angela and I, and our classroom runs smoothly in the way that we work together,” she said. “It took a lot of work to get where we are, it really did, and so the rest of the year is going to go very smoothly.”
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