Sub-standard education is pre-determined for many children based solely on their zip code. In response to the problem of equal education for kids in urban areas, what is now Memphis Teacher Residency started with a question: “What if we found an alternative way of recruiting and training teachers?” With 100,000 students and 220 schools already in memphis, the city didn’t really need different or new schools; they needed better teachers. The question David Montague and friend Tom Marino landed on was, “What if instead of building schools we recruited and trained teachers and put them back into the public schools?” With that, they started working on a teacher training program, and the vision for Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR) began to take shape. The first class of teachers arrived in June of 2009.
David Montague, founder and president of MTR, compares their residency to that of the medical world, “Our teachers are practicing under the guidance of a mentor, just like a medical residency. After that, you’re more prepared and able to be a more effective brain surgeon.” Urban schools have a unique set of challenges. Learning the “specialty” that is urban education seemed like a good idea before being fully responsible for a classroom of learners. MTR residents spend their first year in an internship, paired with another teacher, in addition to completing a masters in urban education. Post-residency, residents are committed to teaching in Memphis for 3 years in one of MTR’s partner neighborhoods.
MTR places a high value on creating community. Retention is a huge problem for teachers in urban school––largely because the work is difficult and they feel isolated. MTR gives training and support through a community in order to build a team and family with a common mission––working towards something that is bigger than just being a good teacher.
MTR graduate Josh Shelley came to Memphis because he was drawn to MTR’s mission and the practical opportunity for involvement in the fight for equal education. Josh and his family live in the community that he teaches in––Memphis’ Binghampton neighborhood. While living in a partner neighborhood is not a part of MTR’s mission, Josh expressed joy at knowing the people he’s serving. “One of the dangers of urban education is going in with a savior complex, thinking you’re coming in to fix some broken community. Living in the neighborhood is a good way to fight against that. I see the people and families differently because I live in the neighborhood.”
Josh and his family have embodied the CCD principle of listening to the community. They moved into their neighborhood with a heart for justice and transformation, but he said, they realized they didn’t need to start a program or try to do something big, “We just needed to be there as part of the community. We’ve found the most joy and been the best neighbors by just living and being a part of the community. Now, the joys and pains of the neighborhood also belong to our family.”
MTR is distinct as a teacher residency that is uniquely faith-based. This is the motivation for so much of MTR’s work in response to the call to love our neighbors. “The secular world is more involved in public education today,” David Montague noted. “We’re willing to acknowledge the motivation and reason why we’re doing this work. It informs how we do the work. There are deep theological issues that impact the way we view people and ourselves. This informs the way that we instruct our teachers.” Josh Kelley noted that engaging in the work of urban education with a Christian worldview has prompted him to ask how urban education is connected to the gospel and God’s heart for the world. “When it gets really hard, the gospel reminds us why we’re here.”
Another distinctive of MTR is their emphasis on targeted community engagement. In an attempt to make the greatest impact, MTR focuses on engaging in 6 particular neighborhoods. MTR teachers are funnelled into these 30 schools, endeavoring to provide students in these schools with an effective teacher every year. Education reform is a daunting task. “We need to do everything we can to at least begin with one community,” David affirmed.
Education, as an advocacy issue, will be a significant theme of the 2015 National Conference in Memphis. As we look toward the conference, David commented that the church has largely ignored the issue of equal education. He hopes that through the conference, the church will be reawakened to the need to engage in public education. “It is a gargantuan work,” David acknowledged, “Which is why it doesn’t happen. But community development has got to have an education component. Nothing empowers people more than education, and as things stand, teachers are the only chance to provide quality education in these neighborhoods.”
Programs like MTR model what is possible in urban education. With this rising tide of hopeful evidence for high quality education, regardless of zip code, Josh Shelley says, “There is no excuse for it to be anything other. We need to change the narrative of what is acceptable for kids in under-resourced communities.”