On Durham’s East Side, in the Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood, stands a 4,500-square-foot, 115-year-old Victorian House ﬁlled with six roommates. Their common bond: enhancing their own teaching practices and early career experiences to support the local public education system.
Together, these housemates compose Duke TeachHouse, a first-of-its-kind initiative designed to give new teachers the ongoing support, resources, and encouragement to help them navigate their first and many times challenging years as an early career teacher. It brings together experienced and newly-licensed teachers in a co-living environment where young educators support and learn from each other.
“As a former school administrator and teacher, I vividly remember the challenges of my first years of teaching, and as a school principal, there wasn’t a day that I didn’t observe and worry about the daily and ongoing stressors that impact all teachers, especially the early career teachers,” said Jan Riggsbee, Duke TeachHouse Director and faculty member in Duke’s Program in Education. “I think a program like Duke TeachHouse is critical because it provides new teachers with the support, resources, and professional and personal growth opportunities needed to build confidence and competence as developing teacher leaders within their school communities.”
With backing from Duke’s Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) and Education and Human Development Incubator (EHDi), Duke’s Program in Education, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs (DARA), Durham Public Schools (DPS), and Forward Impact, Duke TeachHouse is designed to bolster teacher recruitment and retention efforts within the local public education system.
The concept behind the initiative is simple. First-year teachers and experienced teachers—all graduates of Duke and licensed teachers—live and learn together in the same house for a two-year fellowship.
Undergraduate and graduate students who complete Duke’s teacher preparation programs and earn their professional teaching license are eligible to apply as Duke TeachHouse Fellows. Participants are selected based on their professional goals, as well as their passions about leadership and innovation. Selected graduates commit to teaching in the local schools and living in the house for their two-year fellowship.
Duke TeachHouse might not have been an idea sketched on a cocktail napkin, but it was borne out of a dinner conversation hosted by EHDi, part of SSRI. At the end of the 2015 spring semester, Riggsbee attended the SSRI dinner with members of the University and local community, including Forward Impact CEO Christopher Gergen, to discuss new initiatives and partnerships supporting K-12 education. The result was the framework for a group living-learning environment based on a similar and existing project in Raleigh—ThinkHouse, a co-living environment for young entrepreneurs.
Gergen and Riggsbee used the concept as a springboard to launch Duke TeachHouse, a supportive, problem-solving, living-learning community for early career teaching professionals who have chosen to pursue an often time-consuming, thankless job, he said. Nearly half of all first-year teachers abandon the profession within five years.
“First-year teaching is hard. These young teachers come home tired, but they really appreciate coming home to a great house with a great support network,” he said. “They can come home and be connected to a teacher who can provide perspective that’s invaluable.”
But Duke TeachHouse is more than merely a comforting place to retreat after a long day in the classroom. It’s also an incubator for enhanced teaching skills that will create stronger teachers and strengthen the local school system overall. In fulfilling that charge, the program aims to effectively coach and mentor new teachers, be a catalyst for fresh thinking in the classroom, and make a tangible impact on the Durham community by attracting and holding on to quality educators.
Attaining those goals requires a plan and significant communication, Riggsbee said, and Duke TeachHouse has a number of unique components that converge to give new teachers a needed balance of ongoing support, growth opportunities, reflection, and challenges to build and enhance their own practices and productivity.
Individual and small group conversations about teaching and learning happen often and informally as part of the Duke TeachHouse environment. Group dinners typically occur on Tuesdays when housemates gather to discuss their workweek and reflect about their own practice, said Scott Ellis, an experienced teacher and Duke graduate who serves as a TeachHouse mentor. These dinners include a segment called “Roses, Thorns, and Buds” where individuals mention positives from the week (roses), challenges (thorns), and buds (situations that could develop either way). It’s an opportunity to support each other, discuss issues and challenges, and problem solve in an organized and supportive way.
“Duke TeachHouse is important because it’s a continuation of an investment in children, a continuation of the investment in educators, and an investment in the future,” said Ellis, Trinity ’93, a 3rd- and 4th-grade blended-class teacher at Hillsborough’s Expedition School. “Nothing is more important than the investment in our prosperity, and I hope Duke TeachHouse will be a model for other schools to follow.”
In addition, Riggsbee said, through support from SSRI and Duke partners, Duke TeachHouse provides fellows with opportunities to network and engage with educators and policymakers from the local, state, and national communities. In October, fellows traveled to D.C. for dinner discussions and meetings with Laurie Calvert, Teacher Liaison at the U.S. Department of Education and Nikki Diamantes, Regional Director of Leading Educators. Fellows also meet with state and national policymakers for discussions focused around K-12 schools, reform, teacher retention, and policy. They toured D.C. classrooms to observe reforms and innovations in practice, as well as met with school faculty and administrators. Plans were in motion to solidify mentor-mentee relationships with D.C. teachers who are recognized leaders and innovators in the field.
Alongside these professional enrichment efforts, Duke TeachHouse is committed to fostering personal growth and encouraging a healthy work-life balance. Through support from the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, fellows are provided a stipend to develop their own individualized personal growth plan that can include activities such as attending community events and performances, dinners with colleagues, and special interest classes, workshops, and conferences.
While Duke TeachHouse has already positively reinforced the relationship between Duke and the local schools with its focus on recruitment and retention, the program has made an impact on individual classrooms and students.
For Ashley Pollard, a 2nd-grade teacher at Pearsontown Magnet Elementary School, living in Duke TeachHouse has helped her feel more connected to the Durham community—the city now feels like a place where she can establish roots. She doesn’t feel like an outsider in a new location, trying to navigate her first teaching year alone.
And having mentors in the house has already proven advantageous, she said. Based on state curriculum standards, she created literacy centers, known as the Daily Five. But, student interest lagged, so she turned to Ellis for advice.
“My literacy centers were set up and kind of working, but not effectively. My students haven’t been very engaged,” said Pollard, Trinity ’15. “[Ellis] and I re-worked my Daily Five and created new centers and rotations. I’m excited to see the results as they’re implemented.”
Without Duke TeachHouse, she said, this type of constructive advice wouldn’t be possible. Conversations arise organically at the end of the day and often offer incredible solutions to vexing problems or teaching tips that can be implemented in the classroom.
Interest in Duke TeachHouse is spreading rapidly, Gergen said. Conversations are already ongoing to launch a sister house for education students at Durham’s North Carolina Central University, as well as the University of North Carolina at Greensboro School of Education. Ultimately, he said, the aim is for the number of TeachHouses to continue to grow.
“Our goal is to build partnerships with universities and connect them through living and learning to the communities they love, proliferating those relationships,” he said. “We hope to grow these types of houses many times over, creating more innovators and problem-solvers in the classroom, filling our communities with thriving thinkers who can take on the world’s complex challenges.”