This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and Virginia Commonwealth University says a number of its graduates deserve special thanks. They serve in the state’s poorest schools – places where resources are limited and teacher-turnover is high.
Growing up in north Chesterfield County, Andrea Garcia-Plata discovered that some kids in America go to great schools and others are stuck in places with a rotten reputation -- staffed by the least experienced and least prepared teachers.
“My high school’s nickname was Ghettobrook," she recalls. "It’s called Meadowbrook. I knew what it was like going to schools that had that bad rep.”
She thought every child deserved better and decided to enroll in a program originally known as the Richmond Teachers Residency at VCU, directed by Terry Dozier, who herself was named a National Teacher of the Year and served as a special advisor to President Clinton. The program is modeled after medical training, where students spend long hours in the hospital completing a residency.
“These are individuals who did not originally thnk they wanted to be teachers. They take anywhere from 16-21 credit hours, and then they begin their residency year with a teacher that we’ve trained to support them," Dozier says. "They start the day that teachers report back to work, and they go all the way to the end of the year.”
For those who are accepted, tuition and fees are paid along with a stipend to cover living expenses. When they finish they’ll be certified to teach, but Dozier says getting in is not so easy.
“There’s a GPA and there’s testing and that kind of stuff, but they must teach a 5-minute mini-lesson in front of students, and what we have typically done is give them feedback from their mini-lesson and ask them how they would redesign and re-teach the lesson, because we want to see if they’re coachable.”
Those who are admitted will juggle courses at VCU while teaching full-time in high-needs schools in Chesterfield or Henrico Counties, Richmond or Petersburg. Graduate Lilliana Bermejo, who now mentors other RTR teachers, says it’s intense.
“You’re in the school Monday through Thursday 8:30 until maybe 4:30 or 5:00," Bermejo explains. "Then three days out of the week you’re going from the school straight to your classes, so the days are long.”
But she loved applying what she was learning at college to her daily work in the classroom and getting one-on-one coaching from a seasoned professional.
“She taught me how to be firm but loving at the same time. Once class starts, it’s time to work!”
Garcia-Plata, who now teaches fifth grade, says the program taught her more than the nuts and bolts of teaching:
“I learned the culture of the school, the culture of the community as well as the students. I even started to develop relationships with family members.”
For two years after they begin regular teaching jobs, Dozier says, they get support from an experienced teacher like Bermejo.
“Because the research shows that the most effective teachers actually leave within the first two years," she says. "These are the individuals who have the highest expectations of themselves, so if they don’t feel they’re being effective, they’re going to leave the classroom.”
The program began with nine students hoping to teach high school. Today, it has expanded to 58 students – more than half people of color, and applicants can specialize in elementary, middle or high school as well as special ed.
“We have dispelled forever the myth that no one wants to serve in these high-needs schools," says Dozier. " In fact, every year our cohort gets larger. I read the applications, and I’m just blown away by the passion and the commitment of these individuals to serve the communities where the need is greatest.”
So far the program has trained 219 teachers who served about 15,000 kids, and a 2019 survey found principals rated graduates as more effective than other teachers with comparable experience.