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Urban Teachers Fellows Return to Class with More Experience and Insight

“It takes time to learn the skills you need to be an effective teacher,” said Urban Teachers Executive Director Jacqueline Greer. The four-year program is an intense experience that combines earning a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University with full-time, hands-on experience in the classroom. IDEA is fortunate to have three Urban Teachers Fellows—Nicholas Daney-Cuffie, Adam Gilbert, and Evan Herr—in our classrooms this year, in their second year as Fellows.

The first year of an Urban Teachers Fellowship, Fellows are like apprentice teachers. During the school day, they work closely with experienced teachers, leading small groups and teaching occasional lessons. “They might start teaching one day a week, then one week a month, and then they’re teaching whole classes by the end of the year,” explained Greer.

Evenings are spent doing coursework at Johns Hopkins’ DC campus. Urban Teachers Fellows earn a master’s degree in education as well as certification in special education. Fellows also take courses in equity and trauma-informed practice.

The second year of the fellowship is spent teaching full-time and taking classes part-time. By their third year, Fellows have earned their master’s degrees, are continuing to teach full time, and are finishing up their certification and licensing requirements. The fourth and final year of the program, they can focus entirely on teaching.

According to Greer, the Urban Teachers Fellowship is practical. “They’re learning intervention strategies, diagnostic strategies, and getting coaching from faculty members who are experienced urban educators. Their coaches make sure the fellows’ teaching practice is on target. If you have 80% of kids on task, how do you reach the rest of them? They sit down together and look at lesson plans and figure out how to improve.”

IDEA is only one of 80 schools in DC where Urban Teacher Fellows are in the classroom. The organization started in 2010 with cohorts in Baltimore and DC and have expanded to more local schools as well as in Dallas, Texas.

Evan Herr saw Urban Teachers as a way to restart his career path. Herr had earned his bachelor’s degree in physics but wasn’t working in the field. Instead he had started his own landscaping and moving business, but he couldn’t envision long-term success in that kind of work. “I had done some student teaching in college, so I started tutoring and substituting, looking into what a future in education would look like,” he said. “I liked that with Urban Teachers I would immediately be working in the field and also taking classes. I’m teaching geometry and I’m earning a master’s in secondary mathematics and special education.”

“We’ve learned at Urban Teachers that you’re usually teaching special education, whether it’s labeled that or not,” Herr said. “You can use those skills with all students, and you will always have students with particular needs. In lesson planning, you always make sure your lesson plan is very accessible.”

Nicholas Daney-Cuffie is an Urban Teachers Fellow who teaches English at IDEA. “The biggest takeaway I’ve had this year is learning how to work one-on-one or in small groups with students with disabilities,” he explained. “I’ve learned what triggers students to act out and how to stay away from the triggers. I’ve learned how to be patient when students come into the classroom at a level below what you’re expecting. It’s up to us to bridge the gap between where they are and where they’re supposed to be.”

“A lot of people throw words around and aren’t really concerned about the effects those words have on students or how they shape their mentality,” said Urban Teacher Fellow Adam Gilbert. “I’ve been learning what to do and what not to do, getting great insights from my coworkers about how to have these conversations. I’ve learned how to talk with students whose peers are criticizing them. I’ve learned how to talk with parents and teachers in a positive way about a student who is underperforming. I emphasize the strengths of the scholar and areas of growth instead of focusing on weaknesses.”

Gilbert began the year teaching geometry and calculus and added algebra late in the year to fill in for another teacher. “It’s been helpful that I’m co-teaching and I’ve had a team,” he said. “I was blessed to have Heidi Simonsen, Reginald Boyce, Trevor Tummings, and Teika Thompson as mentors. They’re really good at what they do. 

Mastering the vocabulary of special education and understanding how to talk with students, parents, and colleagues about the students’ challenges and strengths was also essential in Daney-Cuffie’s first year at IDEA. “It requires a lot of patience,” he said. “You can’t even expect it to happen in one year. These students are learning a lot of different things.”

His most effective teaching strategy has been making sure his students can rely on him. “My biggest thing is being there for the students,” he said. “I let them know that whether they’re late or they miss class, or they get something wrong or they perform poorly, I’m still going to give them the same attention and the same help every time I see them. They learn they can trust me and that makes them work a little harder.”

Daney-Cuffie and Gilbert have also realized that many students are not behind in every area of math or every area of English. Sometimes they’re on grade level for some concepts but struggle with others. That’s where using assessment data is particularly helpful, so teachers can identify specific areas of need for students and focus on teaching or reteaching those. All of IDEA’s Urban Teachers Fellows have developed strategies for keeping scholars engaged.

“If you make it enjoyable for them to be here and working with you, cracking jokes, being yourself, sharing stories, they’re more willing to be present, which is step one,” explained Gilbert. “Step two is having them see success and gaining a feeling of self-worth. The more they’re present in the classroom, the more successful they’ll be.”

This school year, Daney-Cuffie will run reading intervention groups for ninth and tenth graders. As scholars make progress up to or close to their assigned grade level, they will exit the groups and start attending regular English classes. On top of academics, Daney-Cuffie will be teaching a leadership class for juniors and launching a mock trial club for students.

Emphasizing the importance of effort and growth has been key for Daney-Cuffie. “They may come in to ninth grade reading at a third-grade level, but if, by the end of the year, they’ve moved up to a fourth- or fifth- or sixth -or seventh-grade level, that’s improvement for that student. Sometimes we modify lessons but the goal is to teach them the same standards so they can grow alongside their peers.”

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