Teacher Residencies in the Early Childhood Space: A Q&A With Kelly Riling of AppleTree Early Learning Teacher Residency

Last summer, Justin Trinidad and I published a paper exploring the role that teacher residencies can play as a promising pathway into the classroom. We found that while interest in residencies is exploding across the field, residencies face substantial policy and practical barriers in their efforts to expand.

To better understand these barriers, I spoke to Kelly Riling, who manages the AppleTree Early Learning Teacher Residency in Washington, D.C. In our paper, we profiled AppleTree’s unique residency model, which exclusively prepares early educators; you can read more about it on page 30 here. In this conversation, I asked Kelly for more details about how they’re dealing with the common challenges that residencies face.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What are the barriers that you face in expanding the AppleTree residency?

The first thing that comes to mind is that we have a limited bench of mentor teachers. All of our residents work with a mentor teacher in the classroom. We need to make sure that the mentor teacher is highly effective and will provide a good model for the resident. We’re expanding the residency program, but we don’t have enough mentor teachers to keep up with the increased enrollment. Our hope is that people who are currently in the program will eventually be mentors, but until then, our solution is to build the capacity of current mentors by developing their leadership skills.

We also struggle with raising awareness of the program and making sure we’re recruiting the highest quality candidates to serve within our schools. 

And then finally — but maybe most obviously — we face challenges with funding. We leverage the available funding as best we can, but we need to balance funding the residency program against other AppleTree priorities. Because public funding isn’t enough to provide a high-quality program, we’re constantly making the case to philanthropists that investing in the teacher pipeline is worthwhile. We’ve had to make difficult tradeoffs: We prioritize providing a salary and benefits for our residents, as well as subsidizing tuition for their master’s degree. But in order to do that, we have a very lean administrative team actually running the program, which comes with its own challenges.

I imagine offering a full salary is particularly appealing for potential early educators, given that workforce’s dismal average salaries. What other features of your program are candidates most drawn to?

I’ve found that AppleTree’s focus on early childhood is a big draw for residents. Many of our applicants come to us because they want to work in pre-Kindergarten. 

I also believe our candidates come to us because they want to be part of something bigger. AppleTree’s research and innovation arm, the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation*, provides this opportunity. They develop our curriculum, Every Child Ready, so in working at AppleTree, teachers can be part of the research-to-practice cycle, where they’re able to implement our curriculum in the classroom, provide feedback to the curriculum developers, and see the curriculum improved in response. They have the opportunity to play a direct role in better serving students in the future. 

And again, to end on the most obvious point: We offer salary, benefits, and subsidized tuition to receive a master’s degree and teacher licensure at the end of the program, provided through Relay Graduate School of Education (GSE). Many residency programs only offer a stipend, and residents have to pay full tuition towards a master’s degree, which can be cost prohibitive. 

Right. Figuring out how to provide residents with a salary is a common challenge, given most places only have one teacher per classroom. Logistically, how did you manage that? Did you have to create new staff positions specifically for residents? 

No, we didn’t; we already had a co-teaching structure in our classrooms. Best practice in early childhood education is to have one adult for every ten children in the classroom, so we had at least two teachers in every early childhood classroom anyway. Now, one of those teachers is a resident and the other is a mentor teacher, and the resident receives a full salary for serving in that classroom. 

Given that you prepare early educators, and given the field’s focus on supporting early educators in acquiring bachelor’s degrees, have you ever considered offering a B.A.-level residency program in addition to your M.A.-level program?

Yes and no. Currently we require our residents to have attained their bachelor’s degree, so the residency program focuses specifically on getting a master’s. But we have partnerships with Trinity Washington University and the T.E.A.C.H program to support our teaching assistants to earn their bachelor’s degrees. Even though teaching assistants do clinical work in the classroom, it’s not a formalized B.A.-level residency, though it is something we’re interested in possibly providing in the future. 

There’s very little evidence that, as a field, we know how to prepare early educators effectively. How do you decide what content to provide?

Our programming is focused on preparing pre-Kindergarten teachers. As an organization, we value play-based learning and recognize the importance of social emotional development as a counterpart to academics, so our content mirrors that vision. 

Residents receive their teacher preparation content through AppleTree professional development and Relay GSE coursework. I serve as adjunct faculty at Relay, and I am the primary early childhood education content instructor. So the content that residents receive is tightly linked to their experience in AppleTree classrooms. 

How do you select candidates for the program?

We have a multi-part application process. Applicants apply online, go through a screening interview, then complete a few different activities, like reviewing and analyzing mock student data. Those activities are fairly standard. 

But where AppleTree is different is that we require applicants to come to a Selection Day. During Selection Day, the applicant goes through sessions that mirror what life as a AppleTree teacher will look like. They complete a cultural competency activity and discussion, do a teaching demonstration, and participate in a teacher dilemma fishbowl (where they’re given a student profile and have a conversation about how to best meet the student’s needs). 

We moved away from the traditional interview process because this allows us to get a more comprehensive picture of the candidate to ensure mission alignment and fit with our schools. 

How do you determine if the candidate is effective while they’re in the program, and how do you determine if you want to hire them after they complete?

Residents receive a progress report three times a year that includes an evaluation from their principal and data on their performance in the classroom, as well as information on their attendance; current standing in Relay; their Praxis score; their performance on Relay’s Gateway rubrics, which measure teacher effectiveness; and their program standing, which is basically an assessment of their hireability based on AppleTree standards. 

At the end of the year, we host a Resident Showcase, when residents present their portfolios that demonstrate growth over the past year to a panel of potential principals. These portfolios — in combination with their child outcome data, current principal recommendation, resume, and a teaching video — are all considered in their application to be hired at an AppleTree school. This is an intense process, but we emphasize to residents that their residency year is a year-long interview. 

To learn more about the AppleTree Early Teacher Residency, click here. This is the first blog post in a series about teacher residencies. Look for future posts in the #ResidentExperts series this summer. 

* AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation is a Bellwether client.