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Teachers’ Unions Are Starting Teacher-Prep Programs. Here’s What to Know

Teachers’ unions, long defenders of the teaching profession, are now putting their own spin on an often-criticized component: teacher preparation.

The Washington Education Association is in its first year of overseeing a teacher residency program, in which aspiring teachers receive on-the-job training (and a paycheck) while they earn their teaching license. It’s the first—and so far, only—preparation program in which a union is taking the lead role in credentialing teachers, although other state unions are interested in following suit.

Teacher residencies have become increasingly popular at colleges and universities, school districts, and nonprofits, and have been supported by federal grants. Some of those efforts have partnered with teachers’ unions, but the unions had not taken a lead role until now.

But the conditions are ripe for more to follow in WEA’s footsteps: Teacher shortages in certain fields are continuing to plague schools; new sources of federal funding are available; and teachers’ unions are looking for ways to bolster their own membership.

“Unions have been trying to find ways to engage members, and to innovate, and I think this is a natural avenue to pursue,” said Bradley Marianno, an associate professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He expects to see more state teachers’ unions adapt the residency model, either by themselves or with a university partner.

After all, this can double as an organizing strategy at a time when teachers’ unions have been hit with legal and legislative challenges to how they recruit and retain members, he said.

“They are in front of these new teachers and can pitch the benefits of the union,” Marianno said.

In the WEA’s residency program, the residents are union members and are covered by a collective bargaining agreement as they earn their teaching certificates.

“Being able to bargain for them, being able to make sure they get all of that bargaining power as a member when they are a resident, I think, is significant,” said Annie Lamberto, the special populations coordinator for WEA who supervises the program.

Also significant: A union-led residency program is designed for and by teachers, she said.

“Everyone that is involved in our program are current members of WEA, and they’re in the classroom,” Lamberto said. “It doesn’t have that disconnect that you can sometimes find in other teacher-prep programs. … Every single thing we do in our coursework has a direct thread to classroom activities—we don’t make them do anything in our [coursework] that they don’t actually have to perform.”

How Washington’s union-led residency got started

A couple years ago, Washington state schools began relying on record-breaking numbers of emergency substitutes, who aren’t required to have a background in education or a bachelor’s degree.

That pattern was “one of the health indicators that our system is struggling in terms of educator shortages,” said Jim Meadows, the dean of educator career pathways at the WEA.

Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent of public instruction, asked WEA to develop training and support for the emergency substitutes—and create a pathway for teacher certification, Meadows said.

Trade unions in other fields have long run programs to train future workers and supply a pipeline of dues-paying members. And teachers’ unions have long offered professional development, including the clock hours teachers need to maintain their licenses.

“As an organization, we had a strong track record for providing high-quality, relevant, practitioner-led professional learning,” Meadows said.

The WEA received $10.7 million in federal pandemic-relief money from the state, with $6.6 million of it allocated for the union to build and launch a teacher residency program. The first cohort of residents started last year and will graduate in August with their teaching certificate with a special education endorsement.

There are 16 residents in the first cohort who are working in three school districts. The WEA expects to grow to about 30 residents and nine school districts for its second cohort, which will start in June.

The residents are primarily former paraeducators and substitute teachers. They already have bachelor’s degrees, which gives WEA more flexibility: “We do not see our space as being degree-conferring,” Meadows said.

While designing the program, the WEA participated in the National Center for Teacher Residencies’ Residency Design Academy, a consulting service that included a facilitated site visit to another residency to see the work in action.

It was the first time the NCTR worked closely with a union-led teacher residency, said Kathlene Holmes Campbell, the center’s chief executive officer. There’s a lot of opportunity in this space, she said, adding that teachers’ unions are “well positioned” to run such programs, given their experience offering professional learning opportunities to their members.

But in general, it might be beneficial if unions work with an institution of higher education to offer participants a chance to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree, Campbell said. Creating a pathway to a degree can help attract more diverse candidates.

A more affordable path to the classroom

WEA residents receive a minimum $35,000 salary for the school year, plus benefits. Local teachers’ unions can negotiate for higher salaries, and since the residents are covered by the district’s collective bargaining agreement, they’re eligible for paid time off, including sick days and bereavement leave.

“If you think about the barriers for new teachers, a [collective bargaining agreement] is life-changing in terms of removing those barriers,” Meadows said.

Residents must pay up to $5,000 for the cost of the program, although WEA is looking into ways to reduce that cost, Meadows said. After graduating, residents commit to teaching in the district they trained in for at least three years.

One of the residents, Patrice Madrid, had become a paraeducator in the Federal Way school district in the spring of 2022 after being a stay-at-home mom for eight years. She immediately felt like she had found her calling and wanted to become a full-time teacher—but she didn’t see an immediate path forward.

“I wasn’t sure I would be able to enroll in a traditional program any time soon, because [taking on] significant student loans didn’t seem like the right decision for my family,” she said. “I was pretty disappointed.”

When she learned about WEA’s residency program, it felt like the pieces had fallen into place.

“They have figured everything out that was stopping me, and they have taken that away,” Madrid said. “It was meant to be.”

Rotations in special education settings

In Washington state, as in some others, a special education teaching certificate permits teachers to teach all ages and in all types of special education settings. Yet teachers don’t always get experience in multiple settings during traditional student-teaching.

As in a medical residency, the WEA residency program rotates residents through four nine-week-long rotations in different special education settings, including one in which they work with students with disabilities in general education classes alongside a general education teacher.

“When you become a special ed. teacher, there’s so much variety within that, and you don’t know what you don’t know,” Lamberto said. “We wanted our residents to be able to find not just what they’re good at and what their strengths are, but what they’re passionate about.”

Getting to experience this variety was part of what drew Madrid to WEA’s residency program: “I was nervous about the possibility of training in one type of environment and then becoming a teacher in something completely different,” she said.

Although the residents all have prior classroom experience, the rotations—and corresponding coursework—have ensured that they are getting a wide breadth and depth of knowledge for what it means to be a special education teacher, Lamberto said.

Some of the residents who used to be substitute teachers had never been around students with medical needs before, she said: “They just didn’t really understand what those kids’ needs would be and how they would serve them. … It was very eye-opening for them.”

Meanwhile, many of the residents who are former paraeducators had asked if they could do their first rotation in the classroom where they used to work. They wanted the comfort of familiarity, Lamberto said—but it backfired.

“For both the mentor and the resident, I think it was too easy to slip back in their role,” she said. “For cohort two, we want to start them off in a place where they’re going to have to stretch.”

How the WEA is making adjustments

In addition to working in classrooms during the day, the residents are taking classes one weeknight per week and on Saturdays, as well as completing assignments.

It’s a demanding schedule, Madrid said. Some residents have had a hard time keeping up with the program’s coursework on top of their full-time job and personal responsibilities.

A challenge for the WEA has been to figure out how to hold residents accountable to the program’s high expectations while still being supportive, Lamberto said.

“That is not something that we have any experience with that a higher ed. organization does,” she said. “What do you do if this student is not doing what they’re supposed to do?”

The WEA has started making tutors—current teachers—available to residents if they need additional support completing their coursework and assignments, Lamberto said.

Another major challenge for WEA will be making sure the program remains financially sustainable after the initial money runs out.

In addition to the pandemic-relief money, the WEA received a $3.2 million grant from the federal State Apprenticeship Expansion Formula program, which the union is using to transition its program into an apprenticeship, which will open up new sources of federal and state funding. The basic structure of the program will remain, but the WEA will make some modifications to align with Washington state’s standards for apprenticeship programs.

Apprentices need a wage progression tied to skill growth, so WEA will have to incorporate at least one pay bump over the program. Secondly, the state requires apprentices to have 2,000 on-the-job training hours. Currently, WEA residents complete around 1,450 eligible hours.

To make up the difference, residents will start the program in January instead of in June, Meadows said, and their rotations will extend to 12 weeks from nine. If the WEA gets approval to transition to an apprenticeship program, this change will take effect in 2025 for the program’s third cohort, which will overlap with the second.

Other unions are paying attention

Other teachers’ unions are watching to see how the WEA’s program continues to evolve.

Monica Byron, the vice president of Education Minnesota, visited Washington state at the start of this year to see the program in action and take notes for how a union-led preparation program could work in the North Star State.

After all, the need is there: Most Minnesota districts have reported having unfilled teacher vacancies, she said.

“We know that we need to do something to find a way to recruit and then retain educators,” Byoon said. “Knowing that Washington state has a program that’s seen as successful—we were pretty inspired.”

Education Minnesota formed a committee of educators to discuss what their residency or apprenticeship program might look like. It’s finalizing its recommendations and will present them to the governing board this summer for a vote. If approved, Byron said she hopes to have a program running at the start of the 2025-26 school year.

As union-led preparation programs get underway, though, more systematic research is needed to determine the factors that lead to whether the candidates feel well-prepared to teach, how long they then stay in their jobs, and how their students perform academically, said Jacqueline King, a consultant for research, policy, and advocacy for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

“We’re still in a period of a lot of experimentation,” she said, referring to alternative programs, both union-led and otherwise. “States are approving programs, and they’re flying blind a little in terms of what the optimal structure is for these kinds of programs.

“I think it’s fantastic that there’s a lot of creative, interesting work being done,” King added. “We need some research to help us understand which of these experiments have really good lessons to teach” the rest of the field.

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