Schooling teachers in the realities of urban education

When Jesse Solomon ’91 first started teaching at a middle school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1990s, he was overwhelmed. “I had 25 students working at eight different grade levels—some that were learning English, some that were on individual education plans,” he says. “I wasn’t prepared for that level of complexity.” Luckily, a veteran teacher was in the next room. “Every day before school, I just went and copied what she had written on her board. She would talk me through what she was going to do that day, and how to think about the whole curriculum,” he remembers. “That’s how I learned to be a teacher.”

In 2003, after teaching high school math for a decade, Solomon replicated that experience on a grander scale by cofounding the Boston Teacher Residency (BTR), which helps new teachers become effective urban educators. As executive director of the nonprofit Boston Plan for Excellence (BPE), Solomon oversees the program along with two charter schools in Roxbury, a densely populated, low-income Boston neighborhood that is highly diverse and multilingual. At the Dudley Neighborhood School (K–5) and the Dearborn STEM Academy (6–12), he leads a network of teachers, many of whom came up through BTR. “It’s not an option to be a lone wolf and be a great teacher,” Solomon says. “Building networks is a required part of the job.” 

Solomon grew up in Cambridge, where his mother, Vicki, was a school librarian and his father, Frank Solomon, was an MIT biology professor (now emeritus). At MIT, where he majored in math, an interest in urban studies inspired him to create a course on town-gown politics. Though he earned a master’s at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, he found he needed more targeted training for teaching in urban schools. 

Modeled after a medical residency, BTR guides teachers from one-on-one interactions to small group lessons to whole classes. Mentors coach them as they practice, first with other adults and then with students. 

The goal is what Solomon calls “ambitious instruction” that is both “rigorous and engaging,” so students will enjoy learning and be challenged to do their best. BTR has trained more than 700 teachers, half of them teachers of color, and helped create a network of dozens of other teacher residency programs across the country. This year, Solomon watched Dearborn’s first students graduate from college. “Explicitly or not, our country teaches that not everyone is supposed to be smart,” Solomon says. “In BTR we aim to teach a mindset that holds everybody in class accountable for being brilliant—and we support teachers on the skills needed to push for that.”

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