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Fall 2004
Tufts M.A.T. teacher-intern Fabienne Mondesir
Paving the Way
for Teachers to Stay

A Tufts program brings new ideas to the challenging job of training, and keeping, urban teachers

Fourth floor, Malden High School: Cinderblock hallways painted pale yellow, doorways bright orange or Astroturf green. In the science classroom, three walls are lined with lab stations outfitted with black counters, gas spigots, wooden stools. A steady buzz of aerators feeds oxygen to crabs, snails, and mussels in six tanks, and a
life-size skeleton hangs from the ceiling with a sign around its neck: “HELLO! MY NAME IS SHERMIE.”

It’s a cold day in March, and 23-year-old Tufts student Fabienne Mondesir is at the front of a science classroom at Malden High School, injecting water into Play-Doh mice—the students have to figure out why some of the faux rodents go belly-up. The class is one of three that she teaches at the urban school as part of her degree work for a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.). She operates under the eye of her mentor, Charles Low, a 37-year-old biology teacher, but although technically he is in charge of the classroom and technically she is an intern, Mondesir has been running her classes since January.

With cornrow braids down to her lower back and a brilliant smile, the 23-year-old Mondesir explains after class how she adapts her lessons for her city students. “There was an example in my book about Jim and Jane breeding rabbits in a pet store,” she says. “They were looking for dominant genes, which ones show and which ones don’t. So I crossed out the names and picked two names of my students—Gustavo and Amanda—and changed the rabbits to pit bulls, because you see them in all the music videos, and all the kids own one or know someone on their street who owns one. And they know which colors are favorable— the receptive ones, which are all-white pit bulls, with green eyes. So I changed the scenario: You’ve got a white pit bull and a grey one, and when you breed them the offspring all look grey—and you have to figure out why.”

A first-generation Haitian-American, Mondesir grew up in Cambridge and attended high school at Cambridge Rindge & Latin, a city school much like Malden in both the types of classes it offers and the makeup of its classrooms. “Fifty percent of the students at Malden are minority, which is like Cambridge Rindge when I was there,” she says.

Mondesir started spending five days a week in Malden’s science classrooms the previous September, an immersion that is heavier and more time-intensive than the traditional teacher-trainee practice. It’s an immersion that is central to the way Tufts is now training students like Mondesir to be teachers in urban schools.

Tufts regularly has 40–50 students in its one-year M.A.T. program (which actually runs about 16 months: summer-fall-spring-summer). In 1999, the school established a subsidiary program within the degree called the Urban Teacher Training Collaborative, or UTTC. It’s based on two premises. First, that if you offer a specialty in urban teaching, you’ll attract teaching candidates who already come from urban neighborhoods. And second, that if you train students directly in city schools, they’ll be better prepared for the special challenges of those classrooms and have more training in the skills that will help them stay for the long term.

The context for the initiative is as simple to understand as it is difficult to solve. In the nation’s poorest urban communities, getting teachers and then keeping them is a huge challenge. One widely cited statistic from 1996 reports that almost 50 percent of urban teachers leave the profession after five years. At the same time, the number of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians enrolled in teacher-education programs nationally dropped in the 1990s.

Those were challenges that Tufts decided it should take on.

“When I came to the teaching program [in 1997], it was very much a traditional model, with most of the students placed in suburban schools for their practice-teaching,” says Linda Beardsley, the director of Teacher Education and School Partnerships at Tufts and director of the Urban Teacher Training Collaborative. “Only two percent of our students were people of color. And we knew that you can’t have authentic discussions about race in academic courses unless you really have those voices represented in those courses. We decided what we really had to do was increase the number of M.A.T. candidates who identify themselves as people of color. And in order to do that, we had to attract them with the kinds of programs and settings to do their practice teaching that matched their own passions. That’s when we really talked about developing closer collaborations with our urban-school partners.”

While teaming up with schools in the Boston area, Tufts also reached out to traditionally black colleges and organizations such as Recruiting New Teachers (www.rnt.org) to broaden its candidate pool. The effort has worked dramatically: from just two percent in 1997, fully 26 percent of M.A.T. candidates at Tufts in 2004 are people of color.

It’s a huge leap, says Beardsley, “and it’s really been, I think, because we’ve been very attentive to what our students’ dreams and ideals are about going into education.”

That focus is what brought Mondesir to Tufts. “I don’t want to work in suburban schools,” she says. “I don’t want to work in private schools. I only want to work in urban schools. It was a must for me—there was no negotiation on that.”

She jumped right into the fray of what’s good and what’s difficult about urban teaching when she was placed at Malden. She was assigned both honors biology students and a “standard” class. “In my standard class,” she says, “I have a lot of kids who are on special-education plans. I have a student who is autistic, I have a few students who are ADD, a few who are ADHD, and a few who are recently released from juvenile hall, from jail—students who have had trouble with the law.”

Still, there are magic moments, like when a young man who has been struggling gets a test back and sees he has gotten even the extra-credit question correct. “That’s 101? So I’m definitely going to pass?” he asks. Mondesir nods yes, and he gives her a quick smile. This type of classroom feels comfortable for her, a place where she feels she can make a difference.

“Coming from an urban setting and being young, I feel that students relate to me better,” Mondesir says. “And I think it’s really important because I catch a lot of things—I know a lot of slang words, code words, and I know when they’re talking about things they shouldn’t be inside a classroom, things that are illegal. Like if they’re talking about a ‘gram of yayo,’ it’s a measurement of crack that they’re going to sell. They don’t try that in my class anymore, because they found out very quickly that I know what they’re talking about.”

The UTTC is a self-selecting program: teaching students apply for it and are accepted only after interviews with Beardsley and the program heads at the participating high schools.

Students in the UTTC program take the same course load as the other teacher-trainees—eight course credits in education and two to four courses in their academic field—but they have a heavier time commitment in the fall semester to classroom work. Instead of spending one or two days a week at a school, like their colleagues who are training in suburban schools do, the teacher-trainees in urban schools spend all five days a week in the classroom. (In the spring semester, everyone is full time in their schools.) The principle is that teenagers in urban schools are cagier about forming connections with new teachers, and the extra time is essential.

“It was best explained to me by the headmaster at the Fenway High School,” another urban school that Tufts partners with, says Beardsley. “He said that the students and teachers in an urban school really need to be able to look each other in the eye and trust one another. So that when a teacher says to a young student, ‘You’re ready for calculus,’ they can believe that they are ready to tackle the rigors of calculus, and that the teacher won’t give up on them, that the teacher will really make sure that they get it.”

This extra effort, she says, is particularly important for students who have had feelings of alienation at some point in their learning experience. “That’s very often the case for urban students—somewhere along the line they have not felt good about themselves as learners, or they have not felt that education is for them. And so being able to establish those relationships becomes critical, and it takes a while. You can’t go in and out of a young adolescent’s life in an urban setting. They have to see you as someone who is there, who is there for them, who is going to be consistent.”

Meanwhile, over at the Fenway School, students are trying to figure out who murdered a school administrator. A science teacher is one suspect; there’s some potentially tell-tale dirt on his shoe, and rumor has it that he and the administrator had had a falling out. At the same time, Frances Farrell, a Tufts M.A.T. teacher-intern, also is under suspicion: she had dirt on her shoes, too, and had recently been complaining about the work foisted on to her by the victim.

Tufts M.A.T. teacher-intern Joseph Cheung with mentor Garret Virchik

The “Murder at Fenway High” is an imaginative exercise designed by another Tufts M.A.T. teacher-intern, Joseph Cheung. He is having his science students prepare coroner’s reports based on analysis of dirt samples, white powder at the crime scene (it’s baking soda), fingerprint analysis, and DNA samples (strips of paper with sequences of code such as ATTCCAG and TCGTTCCATA). They perform experiments on the evidence, and package their findings into spiffy reports. (Too bad for Ms. Farrell: she was pegged for the crime.)

When he first started his internship last fall, Cheung team-taught with his mentor, 50-year-old Garret Virchick, helping seniors who were working on projects for a science fair. During the teaching module that followed, Cheung observed Virchick. After that, he was on his own in front of the classroom.

“I thought that of all the students in the M.A.T. program, those of us in the Collaborative were much more prepared and much more comfortable in that second semester,” says Cheung. Part of it came from being able to more quickly apply the material he was learning in the Tufts classrooms in the first semester. “When we were talking about things like classroom management, we already had so much firsthand experience, and we could listen to what the professors were saying and apply it to the classroom right then.” The other part was the people. “Even beyond just the amount of time we spent there, I think our program made it so that we forged much closer relationships with the faculty at the school, so that by the second semester I already had a close relationship with my cooperating teacher, and other people at the school and in the department. I never had that sense that I felt alone.”

Cheung had an enthusiastic mentor in Virchick, who came to the high school science classroom as a second career in 1986 after working in a hospital laboratory. The Fenway School, he says, has been a good home for him and for working with motivated students like Cheung because of its history of innovation; he came to the school, he says, because “I was looking for a high school that was progressive. I’ve been a member of the National Coalition of Education Activists for more than 15 years, and an activist around educational issues as a parent and as a teacher, focused on building anti-racist schools that look to promote social justice.” (The principles of the Coalition, according to Virchick, are that “small schools work better than large schools, and learning needs to be authentic—it’s not just about rote memorization. So in science, for instance, we do a lot of project-based learning.”)

Last fall was Virchick’s first experience with a Tufts intern, and he says that because of the UTTC’s intensive first semester, “I think the student-teachers really get a better understanding of how a school functions, because they’ve been full time from the beginning.”

From his perspective, the program combats what makes teaching so difficult: the isolation that new teachers face, the challenge of figuring out how to be a good teacher and not just a cool teacher, and the continual questions about the best ways to challenge bright students and the best ways to handle challenging students.

In a classroom that has posters of the periodic table of elements and the human genome alongside handwritten signs that say “No Shame Blame or Attack” and “It’s OK to Disagree,” Virchick explains the special complexities of teaching in urban schools.

“The big thing is the enormity of the task, given that we’re dealing with a lot of children who have lived in poverty,” he says. “Some kids have more responsibility outside of school—maybe they have to take a sibling to school in the morning because their parents are working long hours, or maybe they have a single-parent family. Extra responsibilities maybe keep them from having time to do all their studies. And there are issues of access to other educational experiences outside of school. Kids in suburban schools might vacation in Europe, and there’s a whole educational experience that goes with that that kids who come from more working-class or poor backgrounds don’t get. With computers, we’re almost at the point where most kids have a computer at home, and more and more have Internet access. But, you know, it’s not 100 percent, and if you went to schools that had a higher level of poverty it’s still pretty low—certainly lower than in suburban schools.”

Mentor teachers like Virchick are compensated for working with Tufts students with free courses at Tufts, which can be used to fulfill continuing education expectations, and with cash. Charles Low, the 57-year-old biology teacher who oversees Fabienne Mondesir at Malden, says that he’s in it for the satisfaction of passing on what he knows. “It’s nice because I’ve started coming down to retirement—[that will be] in three or four years. It’s nice to have the opportunity to train a bunch of people who will go off and become replacements, because all of us old-timers are retiring in the next few years, and it will be an enormous change.”

Before coming to Tufts as director of Teacher Education and School Partnerships, Linda Beardsley worked in the Massachusetts state education system. It was there, she says, that “I came to understand that the pulse of how well you’re doing is measured in the urban school. I believe that unless we can educate students in all schools, we’re not doing our jobs.” In 1998, a year after she arrived at Tufts, the university put its departments through diversity workshops. “And that,” says Beardsley, “led to powerful discussion about commitments to diversity in race, class, and gender.”

So how will Tufts measure the success of its own program, the UTTC? “I always say you can’t claim you have a good teacher-education program until you talk to your folks three years out,” says Beardsley. The first-year graduates from the UTTC are being tracked by the school. “We had a grant [in 2003] from MetLife, and Jobs for the Future followed our graduates into their first year of teaching,” she says. The new teachers kept journals and developed professional development plans of what they wanted to be able to do and what resources they would need. Tufts held two conferences for the grads and kept a connection open, which seemed to provide some sustenance during that tough first year.

What about five years out, or ten years out? “Yup, you really have to be willing to do that due diligence work,” says Beardsley. She plans to keep following how the UTTC teachers’ careers unfold. “In my own mind, it makes me reflect on where the responsibility of the teacher-education program dissolves—are we always responsible, in the real sense of alma mater? Do we always have a relationship with those people who are out in the field?”

Her dream, she says, is to see UTTC grads mentoring current Tufts students. “I think that’s the true measure of whether they feel good about themselves as professionals: when they’re willing to share that with prospective teachers. That would be very exciting to see.”