LaMarr Darnell Shields, Ph.D., always felt like teaching was his calling. He moved to Baltimore in the late 1990s after being recruited to teach at Baltimore City College High School through Teach for America. Originally from Chicago, he loves being on the East Coast and in Baltimore.
After nearly 20 years as a teacher, Shields became concerned about the revolving door of teachers leaving the profession each year. “Teachers have the highest turnover rate of almost any profession,” Shields notes, citing research that shows nearly 8 percent of teachers leave each year. And the turnover is even higher among new teachers and in high-minority schools. “It costs public school systems billions of dollars every year.”
One proven strategy to help keep new teachers in the classroom is to connect them to quality mentors and coaches in their first year or two of teaching. The Teacher Exchange is an innovative strategy to engage young people in their own education by having them act as coaches to new teachers. “We never ask students what it takes to engage them,” Shields says. “They may or may not always understand the lesson, but they do understand relationships.”
When Shields was a new teacher at City College, a sophomore student named Henry Brim took him under his wing, coaching him to become what Shields calls an “ubuntu” teacher. Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu word that roughly translates to “human kindness.” The larger concept behind ubuntu expresses a belief in a universal bond connecting all humanity, which Shields applies to cultural sensitivity and teaching. Brim helped him understand the language and culture of Baltimore, which was different than in Chicago. Sometimes, he even offered words of encouragement when Shields was having a bad day. The relationship had a profound impact on both men, and Brim was the inspiration for the Teacher Exchange.
“Oprah, Barak Obama, all these successful people all had a coach,” Shields points out. “Don’t teachers also deserve a coach? Someone who will give them some really honest feedback? And these young people are going to be honest.”
For the program’s first year, Shields will recruit 15 students who are interested in teaching or social work, train them and pair them with five first- and second-year teachers at ConneXions, a Community Based Arts School. ConneXions is a public charter school located in West Baltimore that focuses on arts and leadership. There is a high rate of teacher turnover among the school’s non-minority beginning teachers. The leadership at the school was excited to partner with Shields and gain extra support for their new teachers.
In the Teacher Exchange, the goal for the teachers is to support them early in their careers, provide career coaching and teach them the culture of the students. For the students, they will learn about teaching pedagogy, classroom management, relationship management, writing and public speaking skills and leadership. Shields also hopes the program will help recruit new talent to the profession, inspiring young people to become teachers after college.
“It’s an exchange of ideas, of culture, of positions,” says Shields, as both students and teachers will find themselves teaching and learning from each other.
In a pilot of the program at City College last year, Shields worked with two students for a few weeks to develop a professional development lesson for a group of about seven teachers. “They knocked it out of the park,” Shields says. He is excited to be able to focus on the Teacher Exchange full time under the OSI Community Fellowship. Ultimately, he hopes to replicate the program at additional schools so that more teachers decide to stay in the profession and more young people feel that their voices are heard in and out of the classroom.