By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, March 29, 2021
Coming into her final semester of college as a student at the University of Texas Permian Basin in fall 2020, Chelsey McMahan decided to forgo a traditional student teaching post, applying instead for a full-time, paid, Opportunity Culture teacher residency in a fourth-grade class in the Midland, Texas, independent school district (ISD).
Six months later, McMahan found herself—as a newly minted, full-time sixth-grade teacher at another Midland school—standing before the district’s school board extolling the benefits of her residency.
“I cannot stop talking about Opportunity Culture to everybody,” McMahan said in a recent interview, “because, honestly, I love Opportunity Culture, and I think that [the residency’s] a great opportunity for novice teachers who are trying to be, like, the best teachers that they can be. …Somebody to guide you through all the messy parts of teaching like this is amazing.”
In the 2020–21 school year, Midland ISD’s residents, and those in neighboring Ector County ISD, formed the first cohort of Opportunity Culture residents in Texas, following earlier pilots in Nashville, Tennessee, and Indianapolis.
Opportunity Culture residencies use a variety of designs, but—critically—all residents serve on multi-classroom leader (MCL) teams as advanced paraprofessionals who learn how to lead a classroom while helping the MCL or team teachers extend their reach. Residents tutor students in small groups or individually; supervise students while they work on projects, skills practice, and digital learning; co-teach and teach whole classrooms; learn student data analysis; and get observation/feedback, all under the guidance of the multi-classroom leader. Their positions are easy to fit into Opportunity Culture schools, because many already have paraprofessionals known as reach associates, whose roles include similar duties in classrooms or tutoring labs.
Despite Covid-19 forcing schools online, the districts moved forward, with MCLs—including McMahan’s—crafting residencies to fit the unusual circumstances.
Most of Midland’s residents are serving in a yearlong, paid residency, but the first cohort also accepted a few students who intended to graduate from college in December. Even with the shortened timeline, and with remote teaching and learning, McMahan said she felt significantly more prepared to become a teacher than friends in traditional student teaching roles.
“I had heard horror stories about student teaching and about how you don’t really learn the realistic side of what it’s all about,” she said.
McMahan met her multi-classroom leader (MCL), Ana McIntyre, before the school year began, giving them time to learn about each other’s working styles, and to prepare McMahan to quickly begin working with their students and being part of McIntyre’s teaching team at Yarbrough Elementary.
Despite having to find their footing not only with the new residency concept, but with working together when school was completely online, the two settled into their relationship, with McIntyre treating her like a team teacher, so that their ELAR (English language arts and reading) students viewed McMahan as a regular teacher.
McMahan began to teach alongside McIntyre and teach small groups under her guidance.
In many Opportunity Culture schools, MCLs craft lessons collaboratively with the full teaching team; residencies may adapt this practice to ensure that residents participate in this collaboration and learn to write their own lessons in traditional teaching positions, if needed.
By the second month of school, McMahan was teaching the afternoon class sessions after observing her MCL teach in the morning, and the amount of time she taught on her own continued to increase.
McMahan’s teaching gave McIntyre the release time to perform the usual MCL duties, including leading the team to plan lessons, review student progress data, and keep improving instruction, and observing and coaching each team teacher.
Of course, for many teachers, the thought of fully handing a classroom over to a new resident may feel risky.
But, McMahan said. “I basically had everything that I needed to know and to do before I even started teaching on my own.”
The residencies are faster-paced, MCL McIntyre said, and for her, knowing that the district views the residency as a “grow-your-own” program gave her a sense of accountability to the district—“there’s pride in that…there’s a lot more pressure, but it’s not a bad thing.”
McIntyre “was so great, and I feel like she really like pushed me and helped me be confident in what I was doing,” McMahan said. “I had no doubts by the time I graduated—I was like ‘yes, I’m ready to move on and to be in my own classroom.’ I think that’s what it is all about, the confidence and the knowledge of this is how we plan, this is how we do data, this is how we set up groups, this is how we team-teach.”
McIntyre agrees that McMahan was set to lead her own classroom. “I hated to lose her, but she was ready—one, she’s a natural, and two, she just took everything I said and really applied. I believe she’s thriving because of the opportunity she had to be a resident.” McIntyre also noted that if she gets more residents post-pandemic, they will likely work more closely with the whole teaching team, tutoring and teaching students across the team, and planning instruction together.
Now, as a sixth-grade ELAR teacher at De Zavala Elementary, McMahan again gets the benefits of being part of an MCL team while she learns a new curriculum and adjusts to teaching middle-schoolers.
In January, McMahan told her school board: “Now that I have transitioned into teaching at De Zavala, I have come into the classroom with the urgency that I needed to ensure that my students will thrive in every facet of life not only the classroom. I am so grateful that I am a part of Opportunity Culture because I believe that this program is solely centered on providing as much equity as possible to every student, which is of extreme importance. The goal is to create lifelong learners, which I feel is possible through the reach Opportunity Culture provides.”