The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 102 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
GONZALEZ: For educators, the quest for professional growth never seems to be satisfied. In our work, we have dozens of different ways we can grow, and there’s really no limit to how much better we can get.
So it’s no wonder there are so many different models of professional development available to us. In episode 90, I went through nine fresh alternatives to the traditional sit-and-get model of PD. If you haven’t listened to it yet, it’s the one that starts with “OMG Becky.” All of those different constructs are really excellent, so I would recommend you go listen to that episode–episode 90–after this.
Today, I’d like to look more closely at one more option, something a little more advanced that is only offered in a few places right now but that could be replicated all over the place. I’ll be calling it the “fellowship model.” Often funded and managed by a larger organization (often a non-profit), a fellowship program accepts participants through a rigorous application process. Once accepted into a cohort, the teachers are given regular opportunities to collaborate with each other and pursue their professional growth.
If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. In this episode, we’re going to take a close look at one specific teacher fellowship program to see how it works. The organization that runs this program is called Math for America, or MfA for short. MfA awards four-year fellowships to accomplished math and science teachers. My guests are Megan Roberts, MfA’s Executive Director, and Ashraya Gupta, who is currently in her second fellowship as an MfA Master Teacher.
If you’re not a math or science teacher, you should keep listening. We’re not really talking about math or science in this episode. I wanted to profile this program because I really think it’s something that could be done anywhere, for any specialty area. And the people at MfA want to see that happen: They would love to see more organizations do what they’re doing, and they are prepared to help, because their model for professional growth truly respects teachers as professionals: There’s no required documentation, no heavy paperwork, no mining student data for evidence that it works. They simply choose excellent teachers, give them time, space, and funding to learn and grow together, and trust that this will naturally result in better teaching.
Doesn’t that sound awesome?
So when you’re listening, think about how you might be able to make this kind of program happen in your area–it might not be something you do personally; maybe you just get this podcast into the right person’s hands and they pull the resources together. We’re living in a time when a whole lot of people are trying to figure out how to improve education and make sure we keep excellent people in the classroom. Math for America has figured out one way to make that happen, so let’s see how they do it.
Before I play the interview, I’d like to thank you for the reviews you’ve left for the podcast on iTunes. If you’ve been listening and you’ve never left a review, but you think other people would like the show, take a few minutes to go over to iTunes and leave a review. Thanks so much.
Support for today’s show comes from Microsoft Teams for Education – the digital hub bringing assignments, conversations, and content all together in one place. Plan, share, and connect with students, staff, and fellow teachers across your school. Whether you’re grading and providing feedback to your student’s history project or sharing your next big idea for a lesson with your department, Teams for Education can help you and your school achieve even more. Teams for Education – making classrooms collaborative and saving time for teaching. Visit microsoft.com/education to learn more.
Support for this episode also comes from 3Doodler. The 3Doodler is a really neat tool—it works just like a 3D printer, except the “printing” comes out of a pen. With the 3Doodler, students can create, design, and build, transforming abstract concepts into physical models, making those concepts easier to understand. 3Doodler EDU learning packs were designed with teachers, so they truly encompass the needs of classrooms at any grade level. With 3D pens, accessories, lesson plans and more all packed into one kit, you’re ready to start learning as soon as you open the box. As a Cult of Pedagogy listener, you can try your first 3Doodler Learning Pack with a special 10% discount by visiting cultofpedagogy.com/3doodler.
Now here’s my conversation with Megan Roberts and Ashraya Gupta from Math for America.
GONZALEZ: Just tell us a little bit about the work you do.
GUPTA: I can start us off. I’m Ashraya Gupta. I’m one of the master teachers at Math for America. I am in my second fellowship there. I’ve been teaching for nine years, about to start my 10th. I teach chemistry at Harvest Collegiate High School. I’m also the UFT delegate there, and here at Math for America I’ve done a number of different courses, mostly with a focus on how to bring in engineering and putting art into STEM classes, is sort of my beat here.
ROBERTS: I’m Megan Roberts. I am the, I have the privilege of being the executive director of Math for American and I think Jenn you’ll probably ask us questions about the specific work that we do as we go through this conversation, but my general sort of work here is to sort of support and nurture and organize and oversee both our fellowship programming, which is all of the ways in which we engage teachers as well as some of our sort of outward-facing work and really trying to think about how we can take the community of a thousand teachers who work in our organization and have them have a positive impact on tens of thousands of other teachers who are not in our organization across the city.
GONZALEZ: Interesting. And so the reason that we are all here talking together is because I thought my listeners would be really interested to learn how this program works. I know that professional development in general is really sort of imperfect in a lot of places, and a lot of teachers just don’t love the PD that they’re getting. And it seems like you all have figured out a model that teachers who are involved in it are excited about. They’re not just, you know, going through it begrudgingly. They’re really, really into it, and I just really wanted to find out what your secret sauce was and how you’re doing this. So the, go ahead and describe for me what exactly is Math for America, what is the fellowship model that you have developed?
ROBERTS: Sure, I’ll start, and then Ashraya, you want to jump in for the things that I forget or you want to say better than I will probably? So you said it sort of right, Jenn. We are a fellowship model, and I say that because we don’t think of ourselves as a PD program.
ROBERTS: Though much of what we do here is in the spirit of teachers continuing along their journey of professional learning. And so we’re an organization that awards fellowships. We have more than one type of fellowship, but the largesse of those teachers are in what’s called a Master Teacher Fellowship, and that fellowship is contrary to lots of other PD programs or initiatives in education. We take teachers who are already highly experienced and award fellowships to them, and I say that to say we’re not a teacher training program and we’re not a fellowship that takes teachers, people who are interested in becoming teachers, and tries to convince them to join the teaching profession. Quite the opposite. We believe strongly in excellence, and we think that one of the biggest challenges we have nationally is a challenge of retention as well as one of the profession having enough respect. So our mission is really to take the teachers who are already highly accomplished, both mathematics and science, develop a really strong community of them, and nurture things that they’re already good at and put forth in front of them some really cutting edge, progressive opportunities to continue their own learning and continue their own leading ultimately in what we call a fellowship. So that’s sort of the way up high in the clouds piece of it. Would you add anything to that?
GUPTA: Yeah, and then for me I think, I mean the word that sort of stayed for me from the way you phrased your question was this idea of things being begrudgingly done. I think that’s the exact opposite of what happens here at Math for America. There’s real faith put into the teachers to lead the work, and I think that, for me, has been one of the invaluable parts of the fellowship is the leadership roles that we get to take on. I mean all of the PLTs are run by other master teachers, and we do TED talk-like thing every fall called MT2, there are Thursday Thinks, which are these regular sessions we have that are kind of open lectures and discussion series. So all of these things I think allow us as teachers to really take the lead in developing our practice, and just even our inquiry, right, just in general treating the profession as an intellectual endeavor.
ROBERTS: Yeah. And Jenn you asked about the secret sauce, so my guess, a) I think our sauce is spicy, thank you very much. But I think that, I can break down a little bit for you sort of what that looks like on the ground a little bit from an implementation perspective.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, I think what I’d love to know is sort of, I guess, how does one become a master teacher, and then what happens once they are one? Like what are they told, where do they go, and yeah, what are they tasked with doing?
ROBERTS: I think the word on the street is that they get the keys to the Cadillac once they accept it. I’ve heard that more times than not.
Applying to Become a Master Teacher
ROBERTS: I’ll give you a very quick overview of our process for admissions, and you can tell me if you want me to explain more or less to you. So it’s a highly competitive fellowship to apply to. No one joins, it’s not a membership organization, right? It’s a rigorous application that takes teachers months to put together, and it’s got a multi-faceted set of components, everything from they write essays, they submit — it’s not quite a lesson plan — but they write something that sort of helps us understand their concept and thinking around lesson design, they submit references, they take a Praxis test, which is, I think you guys use that in Kentucky as well, it’s a national content examination.
GUPTA: One part of the application I really appreciated was also one of the references is from a student, which I thought was really meaningful. We don’t do that anymore.
ROBERTS: We do, for some pieces, yeah.
ROBERTS: They get references from all different types of constituents. So it’s almost like applying to graduate school, if you can just sort of have a mental model of that, and then hundreds and hundreds of teachers apply and then a subset of those teachers, after we review their application, are invited in to interview. But we feel really strongly about that interview component, and I often say if we’ve done the interview process well in and of itself that daylong experience is a form of professional development. Because the teachers come to the interview, and it’s broken down into three components, and this is really where we can better understand teachers as professionals. One piece of it is that they prepare a presentation that they share and present to other applicants. Another is they have group conversation with other applicants about content and pedagogy and knowledge of students, and three, they have a one-on-one interview. But the fascinating part about all three of those components is they interview with a panel of interviewees, so our interviewees are groups of three people always, and one of them is a content expert, one of them is a pedagogical expert, and the other one is a current teacher in our fellowship. So it’s a daylong interview process that’s really a day of reflection and community-building, and then from that we accept a subset of folks.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So let me ask you this, because that sounds really —
ROBERTS: Like a lot of work?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, but I’m thinking by doing that, you are automatically weeding out people who probably aren’t going to have a lot of commitment to the process later on.
ROBERTS: Correct, that’s right.
GONZALEZ: When you’re doing a lot of this face-to-face stuff though, because I’m curious, one of the lenses I’m looking at this through is of a person who is listening to this maybe in Arkansas or Montana and thinking, “I’d like to do something like this.” So I’m thinking when you’re doing these interviews, what are you really looking for? Because you’ve already seen everything on paper that they can do, so the face-to-face, what are the qualities you’re really seeking out?
ROBERTS: Yeah, I think you can’t find everything out in a two-dimensional way about a three-dimensional person, so I don’t actually think that we find out everything we can about someone in two dimensions. I think there are things that we can see on paper that are precise and definite, for sure, which is part of the importance of a written application. I think we’re sort of looking for different things during the interview process, there are things that tell us about a person. For example, we’re really interested in seeing how a teacher collaborates with other teachers. We are very much a community organization and you know, I mean I don’t know if you’ll edit out pieces of this where it makes sense for your viewers, but everybody who’s listening and everybody in this room right here has been in a group setting where they’re looking to the left and going, “Oh my gosh, I never want to be in a room with you again. You think you’re the smartest person in the room, and you chew gum really loud, and you won’t stop talking, and how did you get here?” Right? And then you might look to the right and be like, “Why have I never met you before? You could change my professional life. How do I just spend more time with you? How did you get here?”
ROBERTS: And then there’s this thing that as teachers, and then in any profession, once someone reaches, as you become more professionally mature, you become more professionally humble, which makes you professionally more professional. And I think, I used that word a lot just then, but I think we are really interested in the truest sense of peer-to-peer collaboration, and you can’t see that on paper. And so having teachers engage with other, both applicants as well as just other people and professionals, tells us a lot about how they would behave in a four-year group setting with a lot of really smart, talented people.
GUPTA: And the interview process also mirrors the work that we actually wind up doing here, right? So professional learning teams are a huge part of how things work at Math for America, even just interest groups that we have on a regular basis. So this idea that as a teacher, part of what you do in a fellowship like this is communicate and learn from other teachers all the time in both a supportive and vulnerable way.
ROBERTS: And you have to be open to that, you have to be open that you have something to learn. Yeah.
GONZALEZ: That’s the vulnerable piece of right, yeah. Okay. And so it sounds to me, because this whole time that I’ve been looking at a lot of your materials, I keep thinking, “But what?” So much of this sort of sounds on paper like maybe what you might see in another school, and I’m thinking, “But why is it working so well?” And it sounds like a big key is choosing people who are going to really handle it in this humble kind of a way, and they’re going to have the kind of attitude that’s going to help them to really grow and collaborate, and that’s a huge piece of it.
ROBERTS: Yeah, and I would say we talk a lot about the ability and willingness to lead and learn, right? Like you know Jose, Jenn. Not a humble guy, brilliant guy, but also wants to learn. Right? He is a born leader, he spends a lot of time leading, but he also wants to learn. So I would argue that not everybody here’s humble, I probably said that, but I think everybody has a sense of professional humility, and they’ve matured into that, because we all have something to learn.
GONZALEZ: Right. Well and also just, if Jose happens to be listening, I have also seen him own up —
ROBERTS: Hi, Jose.
GONZALEZ: — I’ve seen him own up to his faults many, many times. I will see him write about all of the stumbling that he does.
ROBERTS: Yeah, that’s what makes him a great professional.
GONZALEZ: He’s certainly willing to be vulnerable, yes.
What the Program Looks Like
GONZALEZ: Okay. So you get your people and you get your cohorts in, and then what do they do once they’re, once they’re there? What does the actual program look like from that point on?
ROBERTS: So again, I’ll try to give you some nuts and bolts, because I think you’re interested in the secret sauce for your viewers who might want to think about doing something like this in their own way. So we operate often very much like a mini university I say a lot, where we put out a catalogue every semester. But what’s unique about that catalogue, and Jenn, you might have been able to see some of the courses on our website. We actually list smatterings of those courses. But the difference about the catalogue is we go through a process like this: We say to a thousand teachers, let’s say in the spring, “What kinds of courses do you want to be in next year?” And we ask them that question in three ways. We say, “What content, or pedagogy, or what is it you want to learn?” Column A. And the second column is, “Do you want to be the one to teach that to others?” And Column 3 is, “No, but I know someone who can or I have no idea who can. Please find someone.”
GUPTA: This is how, so I taught one this spring on silk screening, which came about because I think maybe the first year of my fellowship I had said, “I don’t know anything about silk screening, but I took this cool thing that we already did with Pratt on making pigments. And I’m a chemistry teacher, and I want to know more ways to put art into my classroom. So I want to learn about silk screening.” And I said this to them ages ago.
GUPTA: And then they put me in touch with another master teacher who was already doing that in her classroom, and then together we put a course together just this past spring. So it was a process, and it was —
ROBERTS: It’s a real process, right? So we take all of those requests and raising hands of wanting to lead and raising hands of things that they’re interested in learning, and we spin that in a big bucket, and then we end up with this catalogue, and let’s just use 200 as the number of courses that are put out about every semester. And Ashraya mentioned something called a professional learning team. I won’t go into all the specifics of courses unless you want us to, but there’s about seven or eight different types of courses that we’ve designed, and they’re different depending on the kinds of things — you really like mini courses. I know you do.
GUPTA: Mini courses are the ones that I tend sign up for.
ROBERTS: Some courses are more pedagogical focused and sort of sharing of practice. Some courses are more hard core content. Some courses only happen once. Some happen all year. So there’s lots of different formats, but the teachers tell us that they think this content fits into this type of course structure, and so about 60 percent, sometimes more, of the courses in that catalogue that semester are actually taught by the teachers in the fellowship, and then the other, let’s call it 40 percent, Math for America makes it our responsibility to find the experts who can teach that thing that the teachers say they want to learn. Sometimes it’s university folks, sometimes it’s mathematicians or scientists or experts in the field, and so that catalogue that we put out is very much our secret sauce, but it’s very much in how we build that catalogue, how that catalogue is messaged to the community, and I don’t think, I think any teacher who’s ever led a course here or any teacher who’s been here for maybe a year or two feels like it’s their catalogue. I don’t think that people feel like it’s MFA’s catalogue. And then there’s lots and lots and lots of other community-building activities that we do. We do monthly lectures and seminars and TED talks and summer conferences and all sorts of things around this idea of professional community, but that’s the general gist of it, right?
ROBERTS: Yeah, there’s a lot.
GUPTA: I can add, I can list all of my favorites if that’s relevant for your listeners…
GONZALEZ: Yeah, well I’m really curious now about the mini courses.
GONZALEZ: Since Ashraya’s talking about how much she loves those that you could just gives us an example of what those look like.
GUPTA: Yeah, I can talk a little bit about those. So mini courses are usually three or four sessions, and they do a deep dive into a particular —
ROBERTS: Can I say one thing about sessions?
ROBERTS: They’re all, Jenn, all of our courses are offered in the evening.
ROBERTS: After school. Teachers don’t miss school to take our courses, and they’re always from, they’re two hours.
GUPTA: And there’s always pizza.
ROBERTS: And there’s always pizza. And salad!
GONZALEZ: There’s your secret sauce right there.
GUPTA: So one of the mini courses that I took, I think, the very first year of my fellowship year was this course at Pratt that we’ve been doing for a while called chemistry in art. And it was essentially just a lab experience, right, and so I as a science teacher who went into teaching straight out of undergrad, I didn’t actually have a whole lot of field or lab experience, and now here I am basically responsible for running a lab at my school. And I think one thing that was really great about this mini course is it gave me that kind of experience, even though I was someone who was, you know, I think at that point I was six years into my teaching practice, but I hadn’t had that experience yet. And so doing a fellowship like this meant that I was in a professional lab setting, we got to make a bunch of pigments, we did a thing on dyes, we did a thing with cyanotype prints, it was all really, really exciting and then I used that to come up with a curriculum.
ROBERTS: Can I put context around why that course, so Jenn, the idea of mini courses is this idea that, particularly science teachers like chemistry teachers, need exposure and opportunities to actually do science. And so while Ashraya spends time talking pedagogy with her colleagues and PLTs and at her school and lots of other communities that she’s a part of, we’ve structured mini courses as mini opportunities for really advanced teachers, for lack of a better term, to dip their toe into advanced content that they may or may not have access to before in a real-life science setting. So that’s the idea of the mini course.
GONZALEZ: They’re students in those scenarios, they’re not teaching the courses.
GONZALEZ: They’re yeah, okay.
ROBERTS: Sometimes they teach courses.
GUPTA: Sometimes. I took one on aviation that was co-taught by a teacher who was already doing some of that work in his classroom, and then they partnered with, I think it was NASA —
GUPTA: So I mean it, I think teachers still take a leadership role there, but like me as a fellow who signed up for the course, I was fully in learning mode.
GONZALEZ: In the role of the student.
GONZALEZ: Is there a spoken or just unspoken expectation that everyone will at some point teach or lead a course?
ROBERTS: Good question, Jenn.
GONZALEZ: Thank you.
ROBERTS: So we have no rules around that, per se. We generally discourage teachers in their first year of the fellowship to lead. I think most teachers tell us it takes a year, sometimes two, to get your feet down, and sort of —
GUPTA: I honestly felt like I wasn’t good enough yet.
ROBERTS: It’s a pretty intimidating community to come into, and all of a sudden like raise your hand to lead. So we generally discourage first-year fellows from leading. We generally expect teachers to have led something by their fourth year with a million exceptions in between, I’ll leave it at that. But there’s no rules.
GONZALEZ: How many active master teachers are there at any given time?
ROBERTS: It depends how many babies are happening at that time, because there’s lots of babies in our lives, both adopted and people taking care of babies, but it hovers a little over 800.
GONZALEZ: Eight hundred, so, because it’s a four-year fellowship.
ROBERTS: That’s renewable, and it’s renewable.
GONZALEZ: Oh, okay, okay. And so at any point in time, any one of these 800 people can be signing up for different courses together and mix and match and that sort of thing?
ROBERTS: Yeah, and they’re doing it in two weeks, so our catalogue, right now that’s what my day’s been like, proofreading the catalogue. And it’s pretty crazy what happens, right? So picture this for a second: We send out the catalogue, it’s done in two ways, it’s sent as this beautiful PDF catalogue that’s like look like it should be in a community bookstore. We really love it. It’s shiny with cool pictures of teachers in it. But then we also have like a back room, Facebook-type blog, not even a blog, it’s our LMS, but teachers register for these courses. So they get to read it for a week, or two weeks this year, you’re going to get a little longer to read it this week. So what we, we call it a launch, and they read it for two weeks, and they can bookmark things, and they can ignore it, or they can pour over it with coffee, they can do whatever they want, and then we have this crazy race where we launch registration. And we have not perfected the science, but courses close in like eight seconds, 14 seconds.
GONZALEZ: Because they fill up that fast?
ROBERTS: Yeah, because they have such a reputation, some of them, you know. Like these are courses that, like I remembered just this past semester people like set their alarms, like people’s families know what time the registration opens, and it’s a really fun energy, but sometimes it also still makes me sad, because you want teachers to be able to take every course that they want.
GUPTA: It’s also secretly why you should also lead some of the courses, because then you get to be in the course.
ROBERTS: Yeah, exactly. Oh, is that it? That’s a really good idea. But we keep, our courses are really small, Jenn, intentionally. I think PLTs often hovered around 14 teachers, and that’s the way we like it, because you can’t really de-privatize what you’re saying and do what you do if there’s 36 people in a room. But then remember there’s also a little over 200 teachers who are in a different fellowship that can take any course they want with the master teachers. It’s the early career fellowship, which is teachers who have shown extraordinary promise who are within their second or fourth year of teaching. So it’s a real mix of teachers who spend time together.
Stipends and other Funding
GONZALEZ: Okay. In the notes that we sort of took together, I saw the word “stipend,” and I don’t know if that was accidental or if master teachers do actually receive a stipend.
GUPTA: Oh, we do.
ROBERTS: Yeah. Did you hear what she just said? She’s like, “Oh, we do.”
GUPTA: I wasn’t close enough to the mic. I apologize.
ROBERTS: Do it, start it. Tell Jenn what stipends are.
GUPTA: Yeah, we get a stipend. We also get flexible funding. Should I say?
ROBERTS: No, say whatever you want.
GUPTA: Okay. I mean, so we get both, right? So we get a stipend to, I mean my understanding of it is to incentivize continuing to stay in the classroom, right? There are lots and lots of things that keep us there, and there are lots and lots of things that seem to pull us out, and this is one of the things that keeps me here, keeps me committed to being in the classroom.
ROBERTS: They get $15,000 a year, let’s just be public about that number.
GONZALEZ: Wow, that’s a good chunk of change, yeah.
ROBERTS: It’s a real chunk of change. I think of it as a differential between being a, what are you, a 10-year teacher?
ROBERTS: The difference between a nine and 11-year teacher and a first-year assistant principal. It’s about a $15,000 difference in pay. At least in New York it is. I don’t know if it is in Kentucky.
GUPTA: And full disclosure, I also did a leadership program the year before I applied, and this is what’s kept, I —
ROBERTS: So yeah, there’s a lot of teachers —
GUPTA: It keeps me here, right? Like I, there were these other things that I could have done if that’s what, and this, it fully keeps me grounded in the classroom.
ROBERTS: Yeah. So this $15,000 is, you know, New York, $15,000 is different than Kentucky $15,000, right?
GONZALEZ: Oh yeah.
ROBERTS: Nevertheless, it really is five digits and it’s real money, but it is, we, in New York City, and in many urban cities across the country, teachers in their seventh, eighth year, the research shows, are the ones who become assistant principals or principals, and we don’t want, I mean I was a principal. I think all great principals have been great teachers. I think that it’s the best trajectory there can be, but our mission is to really keep those great teachers as leaders in their own classrooms, staying as teachers. And so that $15,000 is in some ways enough to dis-incentivize them from going into administration if they were going to an administration for the increase in pay. There are many great teachers who are cut out to be administrators, and I think that’s great, and I think we need those folks. But if great teachers are only thinking about admin because it’s about a $15,000 raise, having a fellowship with Math for America takes that need off the table, and you’re welcome.
GONZALEZ: But you said there was funding on top of that though, correct?
GUPTA: Oh yeah, there’s also something called flexible funds, which you can use to purchase things for use in your classroom or in your teaching practice.
GONZALEZ: In your classroom. Okay.
ROBERTS: Two thousand dollars.
GONZALEZ: Okay. And is there just sort of a, that’s $2,000 per teacher?
ROBERTS: No, for four years.
ROBERTS: But they get that, and then they can also apply for things called impact grants to travel to conferences. So here’s our thing, Jenn. We believe strongly in teachers, and we respect them and think that they’re the best professionals there are, and I think that the federal structures for teacher funding, whether it’s salaries or resources or money to sort of continue along their professional journey is just not in line items, and so we spend about two-thirds of our entire organizational budget goes directly into the pockets of teachers. And so Ashraya and I could sit here for an hour and tell you all the different ways that there’s money. There’s like parties for them, there’s curriculum money for them, there’s travel money for them for grants, there’s, what other money is there? I mean we buy their dinner every time they’re here for classes.
GUPTA: Absolutely, all that pizza.
ROBERTS: There’s swag, I mean it’s really what we enjoy doing the most. It’s like how can we make Ashraya feel like a more professional teacher, to make her feel more fulfilled intellectually and also just less stressed and also less isolated. And we know, from the research, that so many of the great teachers leave because either they don’t make enough money or they’re isolated or they don’t have enough people to collaborate with. Or there was just something in the papers yesterday that was something about teachers and how much money they spent on their own in order to make their classrooms go. And so we’re like, let’s take that out of the equation.
ROBERTS: So that’s really —
GUPTA: But it’s radically different from a grant program or something like that, right? Because it’s, yes there’s all this money, but the other thing is that it’s a community that you’re becoming a part of, and that, I think, differentiates it from some of these other ways. Because absolutely, I could, you know, fill out a gazillion proposals for funding to do a lot of the things that I’ve used my MFA funds to do. And I think the stipend, absolutely, is an incredibly valuable part of how this organization works, but for me what makes it different from a grant-based sort of program is the community, and the connections with —
GONZALEZ: Right, right. Because you’re doing this with a group of other people.
ROBERTS: Yeah, in many ways, I mean I know you have lots of people here you spend time with, but one of the things that I think teachers tell us all the time is like Ashraya can do it with other chemistry teachers, and of course you can do it with other teachers as well, but you know, I mean this happens in schools, particularly in suburban settings and rural settings, but even very much in urban settings where you’re a power of one in your school or a power of two in your school in your content area, so you might have opportunities to collaborate in your school community around issues around your students, particular students or school-based initiatives, but you feel very isolated in what it is you teach and with whom you collaborate, and I think that’s what teachers tell us all the time. Like I think we have, I don’t know, Scott might know, if we can get him to talk, but I think we have like 140 chemistry teachers here, right? So in what other world does an excellent chemistry teacher get to hang out with 130 other chemistry teachers in order to feel not alone?
GONZALEZ: Well and they’ve been hand-picked too. These aren’t just any chemistry teachers.
ROBERTS: No, they’re not. And we’re super aware of that, right?
ROBERTS: We’re aware. It’s a closed ecosystem, for sure.
GONZALEZ: But that’s, I mean that’s a really great, oh gosh, that’s a great learning opportunity right there. Okay, I’ve got two separate questions, and they’re completely different, so I’m going to footnote one of them, because I want to ask you a little bit about funding, because I’m sure people listening are going to be like, “That sounds great if you have all that money,” so I’m wondering where the funding comes from.
Requirements for Master Teachers
GONZALEZ: And then the other question is something completely different, which is about is there anything on the fellows, the master teachers, to produce evidence of reaching their professional goals? Do they have to, apart from taking the courses and attending the events, do they need to document or reflect in some sort of a public way? So answer whichever one you want.
ROBERTS: I’ll answer the funding one, I’ll start the second one, and then Ashraya you can — So about 98 percent of our funding is private. I’m super aware of that. That said, last year, there’s a new, you know, ESSA, which I’m sure you know a bit about, and I’m sure a lot of your listeners do as well, passed an act that allows, I think it’s Title II funding, to be used for master teacher programs nationally, which we were super involved in and are really excited about, and it was a lot of sweat equity to get it there. And so yes, most of our funding is private. Yes we are absolutely aware of that. Yes it makes it easier to do things. That said, one of the big parts of our organization, aside from the fellowships, is to advocate for master teacher programs across the country, and we do that a lot, and we are working diligently on that. Now, I’ll give you one example. Four years ago we worked with New York state, unrelated at all to MFA, unrelated at all to New York City, and helps them, not with funding, but helps them advocate with their legislation to line item a master teacher program across the state. So currently we’re four years in, New York state has a master teacher program modeled on MFA with all of the things that we’ve been talking about in place that Cuomo pays for.
ROBERTS: That’s part of their federal public money. And so that’s just one example of other states and other jurisdictions. This can be done with public money. This can be done.
ROBERTS: Part of what makes our program so expensive, quite honestly, is New York real estate. But once you take away real estate, it does not need to be expensive to trust teachers. It doesn’t need to be expensive to bring them together in flat convenings where they lead and learn with each other. It doesn’t, $15,000 here, in Kentucky I don’t know the equation, but your numbers could be smaller for the same level of respect and, you know.
ROBERTS: So our numbers are big because we’re in New York City, but this can and should be done across the country in public settings, and that’s really what we want to have happen.
ROBERTS: And we have staff and we have expertise. We will, we do and we will go anywhere to help someone think about starting a program like ours, whether it’s a prototype or a pilot. We won’t pay for it, but we won’t ask for anything in return. We don’t want identity, we don’t want IP, we don’t want kickbacks. We just want more great teachers to stay in the classroom across the country, and we are willing to do anything we can to make that happen.
GONZALEZ: Fantastic. That actually answers my other question, which is if somebody, OK, hold on. Now let’s do the, I’m going to probably end up chopping this all up later, but let’s do the piece about whether teachers have to sort of document and produce some sort of evidence.
ROBERTS: Nothing. They need to produce nothing.
GONZALEZ: Nothing, oh. Okay. That’s simple enough.
ROBERTS: We survey them.
GONZALEZ: You just trust that, okay.
ROBERTS: Yeah. We do surveys.
GUPTA: We have to go to things.
ROBERTS: Yeah. There’s attendance requirements.
GUPTA: We have to talk about the things that we’ve gone to, but there’s not, it’s not one of those programs where you’re supposed to, you know, show evidence of your growth, because the outcome is supposed to be that you have gone from this point to that point, right? It’s not an evaluative program in that sense.
ROBERTS: Well and it’s also not a program, right?
ROBERTS: I mean people often think of programs as having a beginning, a middle, and an end, where you start something, you do something, you learn something, and then this thing happens, and we shun that whole mindset. So Ashraya learns what she wants to learn, when she wants to learn it, how she wants to learn it. That’s it. We are incredibly interested in what that impact is on her. We’re also incredibly interested in what her professional goals are, all of them are validated, all of them are good. We have a research department here, and we spend a lot of time looking at what the impact is of these teachers, but none of those are reflection of evaluating her or what’s expected of her.
GUPTA: And all of that relies on trust, right?
GUPTA: So there’s a lot of trust.
GUPTA: And that’s engendered by the fact that we get to lead this stuff, right?
GUPTA: I feel trusted in this community.
ROBERTS: And you feel accountability too.
GUPTA: Yeah, exactly. And so I think there’s trust on both parts, right? The organization trusts teachers to be the ones to lead this work, and teachers trust the organization to —
ROBERTS: Let them do it.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well then let’s talk a little bit, first of all, it’s sad to me that that is such a revolutionary concept, but it is. It is. And so I’m excited to share this model with people. But I wasn’t aware that you had people really studying impact, so maybe you could talk a little bit about that, about what you’ve discovered about the impact of the fellowship on the classroom.
ROBERTS: Yeah, well it’s not even just on the classroom. I think that it’s a challenge, right? I mean I think there’s lots of things we know for sure, lots of things we wonder about, and a lot of things we don’t know. And I think things that we know for sure around impact is, and this is probably not going to be a shocker, because we are an application-based organization, but the retention of teachers in MFA is over 40 percent more than it is in the rest of New York City and arguably across the country, depending on the year, right? Like of course retention’s high. We get it. We took highly accomplished, highly successful people, brought them together in ways that they’ve really wanted to get together, and pay them a significant amount of money. This is not rocket science, right? But nevertheless, it’s our goal.
ROBERTS: So fantastic. Whatever it takes. So that’s one thing we know.
GUPTA: It also seems important that that’s the goal.
GUPTA: Because I think a lot of when people discuss supporting teachers or developing teachers, so often it seems like the goal is all of these other metrics —
ROBERTS: Student outcomes —
GUPTA: Yeah. And here it feels like the outcome is primarily focused on making sure the experienced teachers stay in the classroom.
GUPTA: And that to me, as a teacher, is a really valuable goal and that in itself makes me feel more invested in Math for American as an organization that I want to be a part of.
ROBERTS: And so you will never see us talk about student outcomes as a measure of success of our fellowship, ever. We know from the research, and I’m sure you know from the research, that there is a huge field of research that says unequivocally that students do better when they have a more experienced teacher in the classroom.
ROBERTS: And so that to us is the implicit understanding of why retention is so important.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
ROBERTS: We are also equally interested in professional efficacy, and we look very deeply at do teachers become more job satisfied over their fellowship, and they do. I would say sometimes we are, where we are now in our research agenda is we know that that’s the case. We’ve learned that over the years. We’re seeing different pockets of efficacy depending on the size of school, which is really interesting, which we’re really interested in looking at this coming year, because New York City is an urban city, and this is probably not as true in your suburban listeners’ worlds, but our schools are shaped and sized so incredibly differently. We have schools in New York City that have 5,000 students, and we have schools in New York City that have 200 students, and teacher professional efficacy varies widely in those types of schools, at least in the STEM teaching communities that we serve. And so we’re wondering about that at this point, and we’re sort of looking to see if our fellowship is penetrating any of that. And then we also know that the retention of MFA teachers, see if you can follow this logic, the retention of schools where there is a critical mass of teachers who have our fellowships, the retention is higher at those schools.
GONZALEZ: Even with teachers that are not part of —
GONZALEZ: Oh, gotcha.
ROBERTS: Right, yeah. So now our next phase of our research agenda is to try to figure out if we have anything to do with that.
ROBERTS: Or look at the causation, correlation, right?
GONZALEZ: Exactly, yeah.
ROBERTS: So there are schools where we have eight teachers out of 40, and the retention rates of that entire school are much higher than similar schools where there are not any master teachers with MFA. And so we see these parallels and it’s a fascinating read. We’re not naive enough to be like, “And that’s because of MFA.”
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
ROBERTS: But we’re curious enough to think that there’s something there that we want to learn more about. So there’s a lot of those sorts of things, and we’re also, what we also know about impact is teachers find and implement new practices in their classrooms that they would not feel the safety, or they’re more risk averse if they hadn’t had the experiences here to try new things in their classrooms. So more teachers try new things after having taken courses at MFA than they did before they were at MFA.
GONZALEZ: That’s great. So okay. If I’m listening in another state, I’m listening to this. This is very specific, it’s STEM-related, it’s New York City. So if I wanted to start a similar fellowship program in my area, what would be some steps that I could take to start?
ROBERTS: You were an ELA teacher, right Jenn? Wouldn’t you have loved to have had this when you were an English teacher?
ROBERTS: Right? I know.
GONZALEZ: Yes, yes.
ROBERTS: I would say, it doesn’t have to be STEM. It could be content agnostic. Every great teacher should have their peers to spend time with. Right?
ROBERTS: Wouldn’t that be a better world? Can we just start again and fix that? So what would you do? I mean I think you’re more than welcome to contact us, first of all. We are happy to have folks on our staff do whatever needs to be done. We would very much encourage people, your listeners, first of all you can go to our website and look at resources, but talk to your district offices, talk to your school leaders, depending on who your audiences are, and really advocate for trying something new. I think that we are happy to support any district, any state, any school. Some of the principles of what we do here can happen at the school level without any money. And people can go to our website to find out how to do those. We actually write a lot of step-by-steps.
ROBERTS: And then some of those things, if people are interested in a larger sort of district- or city-level, they can talk to their elected officials, they can talk to us, they can try to disseminate and share the importance of community, and I think there’s probably a million more things to that, but I don’t know if I’m forgetting them. What would you add?
GUPTA: I mean as a teacher myself, right, what would I do if this hadn’t been an option for me? I think some of the things that you can do is figure out other ways that you can also meet with teachers on a regular basis, right? Because I think one of the things that we’ve already established in this conversation is that so much of this is about teachers being the ones who are doing the work, right?
GUPTA: So it can’t be that someone is telling you to show up to this meeting that you’re supposed to have regularly to talk about using POGIL discussion in your classroom or whatever it might be. It has to be that you yourself are like, “Hey, I read about this thing, and I’m kind of interested in talking about it with somebody.” Right? So it’s doing things like that. I think if you can get funding to do that, amazing. If you can convince someone at your school to be like, “Oh, yeah. I’ll give you professional time to do that,” or whatever it might be, however it works in your district. The other thing is here at MFA you can also find resources on our website. There are a number of videos and things that we’ve put together for teachers to take a look at, if they’re interested in looking at some of those resources.
ROBERTS: Yeah. And people can just, if it’s teachers who are listening or even if it’s principals, find out how their district is spending their ESSA dollars. Because there’s money there for master teacher programs. So some sleuthing is probably an interesting place to start if they’re not sure how the money that’s been allocated to their school, their district is being spent for professional development.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it. Let us know where people can find you online.
GUPTA: Sure. You can find us at mathforamerica.org. Another way I like to, follow us on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #mfaproud. So that’s a way to find us online.
ROBERTS: And Scott would be mad if we didn’t tell you that we’re also on Facebook.
GUPTA: Oh yes.
GONZALEZ: Got it. Yes, and I’ll provide people with links to all of those —
ROBERTS: No you said mathforamerica.org.
GUPTA: I said the hashtag.
ROBERTS: No wait —
GONZALEZ: The hashtag — you didn’t mention the Facebook community itself, so I’ve got the Facebook page that I’ll give people a link to that too.
GUPTA: You’ll be able to find us.
ROBERTS: You’ll be able to find us.
GONZALEZ: I just, I’m really excited about this program. I’m kind of doubly impressed by the power and simplicity of it, and so I’m just really excited to share this with people. I hope that there are going to be little pop-up imitation programs like this all over the place.
ROBERTS: Thanks, Jenn. So do we. If you’re ever in New York, come visit us.
GONZALEZ: Okay, I will, and I’ll take the F train.
ROBERTS and GUPTA: Don’t take the F train —
GUPTA: — is what I found out today.
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