By Michael Staton —— Photography by Sydney Lykins ’22

Clemson’s innovative teacher residency program has raised the bar for teacher preparation in South Carolina

All you can hear is the squeak of hinges on the custodian’s push broom as it makes its way along the wide, lengthy hallway outside of William Cooper’s classroom. He’s closing out the day at Mauldin High School, sitting behind a desk cluttered with lesson plans. 

Cooper is worried about tomorrow, but he can’t wait for it. He could leave for the day, but he doesn’t. He is exhausted and giddy with joy, and he can’t stop smiling. 

Midway through his time as a resident in Clemson’s teacher residency program, Cooper has just finished the day running his own classroom. The training wheels are off, and he hasn’t gone face-first over the handlebars — if anything, he pedaled fast.

His mentor teacher, Laura Barnhill Gurley ’04, a mathematics teacher in her 19th year, rolls her eyes in good humor as he recounts how “scared” he was of taking over his own room. But while other residents were relieved to hand a class back to their mentor, Cooper didn’t want to let go. 

“I came to ask how he was doing, and he said, ‘Leave! I want my own room now!’” Gurley laughs as she delivers a decent impression of Cooper. “I had no doubt he would succeed, and it was so funny to see him go from doubting himself to almost immediately wanting to claim it as his own.”

How to Ride a Bike

Clemson started the residency program in 2017, making it the first university-led teacher residency program in South Carolina. At the heart of the residency program is the College of Education’s combined bachelor’s-to-master’s degree option for undergraduate education students, which replaces student teaching in a student’s final undergraduate semester with graduate education classes.

The following year includes a year-round residency with an experienced mentor teacher who continuously gathers data about a resident’s progress to provide targeted support and feedback. At this point, residents such as Cooper move from a collaborative, co-teaching role in the classroom to an increasingly demanding, lead-teaching role.

Like many students majoring in education at Clemson, Cooper jumped at the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years while getting an intensive full year in the classroom. 

“I just felt like that fifth year of experience — that mentor-mentee relationship — that’s something that can’t be taught in a university classroom,” Cooper says, “and knowing me, it would take years before I finally went back and got a master’s degree, if ever.”

Worrying trends in teacher recruitment and retention were the impetus to start the program and remain the primary motivator for College of Education leadership. According to data from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, the 2022-2023 school year began with 1,474 vacant positions, a 39 percent increase in teacher vacancies from the previous year.

Retention is arguably a more significant issue. This year, 1 in 7 educators did not return to a teaching or service position in their school district. An astounding 36 percent of those not returning had five or fewer years of experience, making newly minted teachers the most likely to quit the profession.

Through programs such as teacher residency, Clemson is doing its part to address these numbers. The program has grown substantially since 2017, nearly tripling from an initial cohort of 23 students to 70 slated for the 2023-2024 academic year. So far, the program has graduated more than 220 students, and 97 percent of those graduates became employed as teachers. The three-year retention rate of teacher residency graduates is 95 percent.

Clemson took a long view of the problem: intensify and lengthen preparation to have a more significant, longer-lasting effect. A high-quality clinical experience where residents spend a full year co-teaching with a mentor teacher allows residents to learn the valuable skills needed to successfully navigate the complexities of the profession. College leadership suspected that students would be better prepared and schools would be keen to hire them. Still, the architects of the program have been surprised by the positive effect the program has had on student learning, mentor teachers, schools and partner districts.

The philosophy that drives the program isn’t so different from the one Gurley and Cooper discovered they shared about effective math teaching. No checklist of items or amount of memorization leads to authentic learning. Guiding students to find the answers for themselves is true education, just as effective mentoring of a future teacher depends on making the ideal match and trusting the process that develops.

“Teaching someone to ride a bike isn’t learning bicycle parts or the history of the bicycle,” Cooper says. “True learning is having an experienced person with you who supports you and knows when they need to let go so you can pedal yourself.”

‘Old Man’ Cooper

There is no single variable that made Cooper a bad student. He likes to think of himself more as a perfect storm of underachievement.

In school, he always felt overshadowed by and compared to his older sister, who collected A’s in every subject effortlessly. His family wasn’t wealthy, which meant college was out of the question financially. He admits he may not have even recognized helping hands when they were extended to him.

“I don’t blame anyone but myself,” Cooper says. “Let’s just say I saw a college degree as a mountain I was never going to climb.”

He joined the South Carolina Army National Guard directly out of high school and was assigned as a boat operator in its bridging unit. He has been deployed in state to provide relief to communities impacted by hurricanes and floods.

After the military, he worked as a fast food store manager for three years. Smelling of fried chicken and in need of a more fulfilling career, he earned an associate degree in business administration from Spartanburg Methodist College, which set him on the transfer track to Clemson.

A self-proclaimed “old man” of 27, he wasn’t even aware of the residency program when he started at Clemson, but he was already sure education was the career he had been hunting for years.

“I realized I needed a rewarding profession and one that had purpose,” Cooper says. “I also see time as being far more valuable than money, and I was working 60 hours a week in a fast food restaurant, including weekends and holidays. The first time I heard a kid have that ‘aha’ moment, it was magical. I knew I was in the right place.”

Timing also played a part in Gurley’s Clemson story when she was an undergraduate. She started on a path to medical school but found that she was truly passionate about teaching, a career she could start well before she would ever finish medical school. She says becoming a teacher was the best decision she ever made. 

As one of the 237 educators who have trained to be mentors, Gurley has also become a leader within the residency program. She helps spearhead the weeklong summer mentor training each year, which is a requirement for mentors along with a graduate course that covers mentoring topics, such as critical conversations, timely feedback and instructional coaching related to student learning. 

Mentors and residents meet long before the beginning of the school year and compare notes on curriculum and general approach so that the experience is more “co-teaching” and collaborative right from the beginning. They start the year together and end it together, giving residents a complete picture of the school year.

The same “aha” moment that currently drives Cooper has motivated Gurley for years, and as a three-time mentor in the residency program, she has become even more inspired by the “aha” moment she sees in residents.

“It is amazing to see residents grow through this process, and I just hope I can show them how fun and important this job can be,” Gurley says. “I love having someone to share that load with, and their energy and the new things they bring straight from Clemson keep me on my toes and refresh what I do in the classroom.”

Buying In

The teacher pipeline continues to leak at both ends, with many entering and leaving the profession at an alarming rate. Recruitment and retention remain major concerns, but the situation seemed especially dire in 2017 when the residency program began.

Danny Merck has served as superintendent of the School District of Pickens County for the last decade. He counts himself and his district lucky in that they haven’t faced the severe teacher shortage that has affected so much of the state, but he wasn’t alone in thinking that extending the preparation needed for teachers seemed counterproductive.

“I thought this program might cause fewer people to go into education and give districts fewer teachers to choose from when we needed them most,” Merck says. “It was particularly concerning related to science, math and special education — positions that are a challenge to fill across the country.” 

Merck says educational leaders grow weary of new programs that crop up constantly but have no staying power. He counts the teacher residency program as something that has proven itself simply because the residents and the mentor teachers love the way it works and what it gives them, namely a second set of hands for the mentor teacher and an in-depth look at how to run a classroom for the resident.

Merck says that he sees the program as ever evolving within his district. He would like to explore the use of stipends for residents and an opportunity for early entry into the state retirement system as a perk if they are hired. Overall, he says he has become a bigger proponent of it than he was five years ago when it was just being introduced.

“No program is perfect, but the folks at Clemson and the faculty and staff in our district are committed to constantly improving it,” Merck says. “We have bought in districtwide because of the tremendous impact it has had on future teachers. Showing residents how an entire school really works for the sake of the students and, at the same time, refreshing the teaching of mentors is how you really improve the whole system.” 

Jason Lesley, principal of Spearman Elementary in Anderson County District One, also went from a mild skeptic to a true believer in the program over a few years. He said the College worked hard in the early days of the program to accommodate the needs of specific districts, but what ultimately sold him on the program was the residents’ effect on student learning, especially in the face of COVID-19.

“The pandemic either caused delays, accelerated problems or both,” Lesley says, “and we do not have enough personnel to have an interventionist in every classroom or grade level. Having another person in the room allows for smaller groups and more individual instruction, which is great all the time but has been crucial for some students over the last few years.”

Since then, Lesley has gone from allowing a few residents each year to getting as many as he possibly can. In addition to witnessing the adage “iron sharpens iron” play out in each pairing, he sees the program as the ideal pipeline for his future teachers. So far, he has hired nine teacher residents at Spearman.

Lesley says the teachers who complete their residency at Spearman have a potential leg up on other candidates because they are thoroughly prepared and have specific knowledge of the school’s students, staff and culture.

“The energy, positivity and eagerness residents bring are contagious,” Lesley says. “That positive vibe can change a grade level, which can change a hallway, which can change a school. I saw that writing on the wall pretty early, so I want as many as possible. I want Spearman Elementary to be the mecca for teacher residency.”

Merck and Lesley are also gaining an inside look at residency — Merck has a daughter in the program who is set to begin teaching next year, and Lesley has had two children in classrooms run by a teacher resident.

The Science of Matching

As director of the teacher residency program, Laura Eicher is committed to ensuring that no student sees the residency program as unattainable due to the time commitment or cost. Thanks to generous donations from College of Education principal donor Darla Moore, The Eugene T. Moore Teacher Residency Fellowships provide living stipends for underrepresented and underserved residents during yearlong placements as well as tuition reduction to mentor teachers seeking teacher leader endorsements through the program.

Eicher says the number of residents in the program has expanded greatly year to year, but the number of mentors has more than kept pace. Now, her main focus is honing the program’s approach to matching residents and mentor teachers.

Eicher developed a matching process that increases the likelihood of those with complementary dispositions and teaching philosophies ending up together, which enhances the mentor-resident relationship. She administers surveys that help reveal the dispositions of residents and mentor teachers that may facilitate a more cohesive working relationship. 

Eicher performs follow-up research with residents and mentor teachers about their match. She has found that qualities such as openness and adaptability are critical to a good pairing; mentors with these qualities enjoy learning new things, tend to make the most out of learning opportunities, and are creative and open-minded. 

“The dual focus on the mentor-resident relationship and on turning highly effective teachers into highly effective mentors has been the key to the program’s success,” Eicher says. “I believe that is why teacher residency has gone from an innovative-but-untested idea to something that truly does what it was intended to do — and more.”

Cooper and Gurley didn’t give much thought to the matching surveys when they took them, but now they consider their accuracy “creepy.” Their first meeting among a group of Greenville County Schools pairings was a little awkward at first, but before the end of that two-hour session, they began to realize how similar they were in personality and approach to students.

Within the first week of the placement, they also began to recognize how they differed from one another in a complementary way. Cooper describes Gurley’s “mastery” of the flow of a lesson plan compared to how he finds his way a little bit at a time. Gurley can mull and stew over an idea, while Cooper wants to get started on an activity or plan immediately. The only exception to this rule was that fateful day Cooper finally had to take over the class with Gurley not present.

“I procrastinated there for sure,” Cooper says. “I was saying, ‘Ummm, maybe not today’ and finding silly excuses. But when I finally did take over, it was great. I was in front of the kids and screaming inside to myself, ‘Hey, you’re doing this, they’re loving it, and it’s working!’”

Gurley beams with pride.

“He told me I wasn’t needed in my own classroom anymore,” Gurley says. “It made me so happy.”

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