Memphis’ newest teacher training school launches next week

PHOTO: Relay
A nonprofit institution, Relay Graduate School of Education serves more than 1,400 teachers in nine sites and 300 leaders nationwide.

When Memphis’ newest teacher training program opens next week, it won’t be according to its founders’ original plan.

Relay Graduate School of Education had planned to open at the University of Memphis, but that avenue closed earlier this year after faculty at the university objected. The graduate school has yet to establish a partnership with any particular charter network or district to work with its teachers, as Relay campuses in other cities have done.

So the school, the latest in a series of replicas of an innovative New York City program, is going it alone, at least at the outset. And with the first day of classes less than a week away, it is still rounding up students.

“We don’t have any partnership agreements in place with any schools,” said Brendan Egan, director of operations for the Memphis campus. “I would say we work in collaboration with schools.”

Relay aims to upend the way teachers are trained to work in urban schools. Unlike traditional programs, which have drawn criticism for poorly preparing urban teachers by prioritizing theory over practical skills, Relay focuses on hands-on practice and only enrolls teachers who already work full time in schools. It also makes graduation dependent on whether a student can prove that his or her own students have learned — something that traditional graduate programs do not do.

Relay’s repudiation of traditional teacher training has made it a target for supporters of those programs, including the University of Memphis Faculty Senate. It also means that its local success is in some ways connected to broader efforts underway to reshape the city’s long-struggling schools.

Indeed, Relay’s model — which was developed by a group of New York City charter operators — appeals to the growing cadre of Memphis leaders who say a new approach to teaching is needed if the city is to improve outcomes for its many struggling students and schools. The city is in the midst of a sweeping effort to improve its 59 “priority schools,” or schools with test scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide, and some of the same philanthropists who have donated to that push are supporting Relay, as well. Eventually, the graduate school plans to become self-sustaining from tuition alone.

“Unfortunately we have about 25,000 kids who are sitting in priority schools,” said Michelle Armstrong, who has worked as both a teacher and principal in the city and now is Relay’s dean. “When you think about Memphis Teaching Residency and Teach for America, there is plenty of room at the table for all of us to sit and figure out how we can improve things for those 25,000 kids.”

Memphis Teacher Residency places aspiring teachers as apprentices in experienced teachers’ classrooms for a year while they also study how to teach. Teach for America, the decades-old national program that sends top college graduates to high-needs schools after a summer of training, is contributing 110 new teachers to Memphis schools this year.

Relay’s two programs mirror those two nonprofits. A two-year Relay residency program, with a tuition of up to $6,5oo, will let aspiring teachers work under experienced educators, or “lead teachers,” for a year before letting them have their own classroom. And a separate program, costing up to $17,500 for two years, will allow educators who are already in the classroom to get Relay’s brand of training. If completed successfully, both programs result in state certification and a master’s degree.

In the five states where Relay has operated until now, the graduate school places residents and trains new teachers at “partner” charter networks and nonprofits. For example, all first-year teachers in the New Orleans College Prep charter network take Relay courses and work with a mentor from the charter network at the same time. In New York, the school places residents in the Achievement First charter network, KIPP NYC, and the nonprofit tutoring group Blue Engine.

The Memphis campus is working with a “handful of public schools in Memphis,” but there is no official partnership with local school districts yet, Egan said. Shelby County Schools has no money invested in working with Relay like it does with Teach for America, but the district does view the graduate school “as a pipeline to get candidates to serve in high-need areas,” said district spokesman Christian Ross.

There are instead “anchor partners,” or schools that are encouraging their teachers to apply to Relay.

“Following a model we’ve successfully implemented at our other campuses, Relay Memphis will launch this year with a few anchor school partners,” said Tim Saintsing, Relay’s chief operating officer. “Over time, we expect to grow these and other partnerships, based on the demand for our programs here in Memphis.”

What that demand will look like is unclear. Although the deadline to apply was June 10, Egan said Relay is still accepting applications and working to finalize the first cohort of 20 to 25 students — who are set to begin classes in less than a week, on July 13.

"We’re here for the long haul; we’re not just looking to do a program and leave. "Brendan Egan, Relay director of operations

And while Egan said he expects the majority of participants ultimately to come from schools in the state-run Achievement School District, which is tasked with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools, so far most of the teachers accepted work at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school under the purview of Shelby County Schools.

One challenge that could impede enrollment is that teachers in the residency program must spend half of every Friday at Relay reviewing teaching techniques and getting feedback from instructors and classmates based on video footage of their own teaching.

Allowing teachers to step away for part of the day every week could be a heavy lift for schools with staffs that already are stretched thin. But at Freedom Prep, students are dismissed early on Friday afternoons so that teachers can have additional training, making it possible for those in the residency program to work with Relay.

“Freedom Prep is a place where we have a strong culture of feedback and development,” said Roblin Webb, the school’s founder. “This provides us much more bandwidth to be able to support the new teachers in our building.”

Starting July 13, Relay students will spend that first week of classes at Freedom Prep. During the fall and spring semesters, students will meet with Armstrong twice a month in the evening, and spend one Saturday a month with an adjunct professor who teaches literacy and math. Forty percent of the curriculum is online so that students have some flexibility with their schedules, Armstrong said.

That curriculum has been in use in Relay’s five locations since the first site opened in New York in 2012.

In Tennessee, Relay received authorization in January from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to operate in Memphis as a postsecondary educational institution. Memphis will join Delaware and the Philadelphia/Camden, N.J., area as Relay’s newest sites, bringing the total number of campuses to eight. Relay now trains 1,400 teachers across its locations every year, according to its website.

The school’s trajectory has its local founders optimistic, despite their early road bumps.

“Relay is here in Tennessee, and we are excited to be here,” Egan said. “We’re here for the long haul; we’re not just looking to do a program and leave. We are a higher education institution here.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”