Rain beats against the windows of a downtown New York City building on a soporific Friday morning. A high school teacher is reading out loud from a sample recommendation letter when she notices a few students fidgeting and texting.
"I'm not seeing all eyes ..." she says, her voice trailing off.
Naama Wrightman, who is coaching the teacher, jumps in.
"All right, pause. It's the right correction. How can you frame it positively? ... Take out the 'not.' "
"All eyes on me?"
"Exactly, give that quick scan again."
The teacher starts reading, pauses, looks around, and says, "All eyes on me, up here?" but it sounds more like a question.
"I'm going to pause you again," says Wrightman. "I want you to say it with that confidence."
"Yes, there it is!"
For student teachers in their first year at Relay Graduate School of Education, Friday mornings are all about sweating the small stuff — down to the intonation of a single word.
Relay set out nearly a decade ago to prepare a new generation of teachers for the nitty-gritty of the classroom in the way, critics have long charged, traditional graduate schools of education do not.
A now famous 2006 report found that 62 percent of new teachers said they didn't feel prepared for the reality of today's classrooms. Its author, Arthur Levine, was then president of Teachers College, Columbia University and became a member of Relay's board.
Focusing on that real-world preparation is what Relay's leaders say is fueling its growing popularity. "There are a lot of teachers, schools and districts hungry for a really practical approach to teacher prep," says the school's dean, Mayme Hostetter.
The school's goal is to provide "as authentic a practice experience" as possible, she adds.
At a time when enrollment in teacher-prep programs is declining — a factor in teacher shortages nationwide — Relay is marking a 40 percent increase year over year in its teacher and principal training programs. And it is expanding its geographic reach: This fall's teacher class has 2,000 students, most in New York and the rest spread over 12 sites from Newark to New Orleans. New this year are Denver; Nashville, Tenn.; Baton Rouge, La., and the school is seeking approval to open in California and Connecticut.
At a time of concern that the nation's teacher workforce is overwhelmingly white, Hostetter notes, Relay is dramatically more diverse than traditional teaching programs. In the 2015-16 school year, about two-thirds of Relay's candidates identified as people of color; by contrast, about 4 in 5 classroom teachers are white.
One factor that might make Relay attractive to a wider range of candidates is that students can earn a salary while studying. Plus, in some cities the AmeriCorps national service program will cover the cost.
Relay is part of a new generation of alternative certification programs, which are now preparing about 1 in 4 teachers. But it's no quickie bootcamp.
The school offers a one-year certificate and a two-year, part-time, regionally accredited master's degree in teaching.
Its curriculum has one guiding principle: practice, practice, practice.
"It's all about practice at the end of the day," says Wrightman, the director of Relay's New York City residency program. In her days as a teacher in Washington, D.C., and New York, she says, "I would have benefited tremendously from a practice-based approach and a residency program."
In their first year, Relay students are already in the classroom — as interns, paraprofessionals or assistants with provisional certification. By their second year, they are often the teachers of record.
But what, exactly, are they practicing?
Relay's curriculum starts with classroom management, before moving on to content-specific strategies. Students are assigned readings on cognitive science, design thinking, and culturally responsive teaching, and classics like Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
But the school's approach is most strongly identified with a controversial teaching method common to high-performing charter schools, based on Doug Lemov's book, Teach Like a Champion.
This is no coincidence. What is now called Relay was founded as Teacher U in 2007 by three prominent national charter school networks: Achievement First, KIPP and Uncommon Schools (where Lemov developed his method).
In 2011, Relay was relaunched as an independently accredited graduate school, and it has attracted funding from a long list of prominent philanthropies (two of which, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, also support coverage of education at NPR).
The initial mission was primarily to prepare teachers for those founding charter networks, says Hofstetter. Though she says they have a goal of "working with more districts," only 16 percent of teacher candidates worked in district schools last year.
Lemov argues that teachers can close achievement gaps in high-need schools by following a fixed "taxonomy" of specific, concrete techniques. Teach Like A Champion has been both celebrated as highly effective classroom management and stigmatized as highly controlling "no excuses" teaching that produces higher test scores at the expense of emotional well-being.
In the three hours I spend with them on a Friday morning, the teaching students are concentrating on how to project a "Warm and Demanding" persona.
In one corner, an animated young woman is trying to teach the parts of the face in Spanish. Her fellow students, impersonating second graders, pull each other's hair and ask to go to the bathroom. Some have been given a back story to act out: " 'Dylan' and 'Cam' are having a particularly difficult day."
On the other side of the room, a middle school teacher uses the acronym "SLANT," common in KIPP classrooms, to prescribe students' postures : Sit up, Lean forward, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head and Track the speaker.
She gives "shine" — wiggling her fingers to the students who offer a right answer. At other times she moves in close to murmur a correction out of earshot of the other students. Or she even does it silently, with a hand on a student's shoulder or back. All these techniques are taught at Relay.
"I'm going to give you a couple of pushes," says her coach, using the school's jargon for critique. "... Make sure you are teaching from different points of the room. Make sure your radar is on: There was some funny business happening over here with these two and you didn't see it. ... Make your directions more concise."
In another room, a high school chemistry teacher singles out individual students who are doing the right thing: "Patsy's color-coding her labels, that's great!" "Thank you, Harish, for getting started right away."
The principle on display here? "Warm and demanding" teachers try to speak positively as much as possible, a technique called "precise praise."
Like a presidential candidate in debate prep, the teachers are reminded to maintain "emotional constancy." Basically, that means not letting students see you sweat, maintaining steady eye contact, keeping a level tone of voice and smiling whenever appropriate.
It seems like a lot to remember, on top of actual lessons.
At the end of the morning the students gathered in a circle to share feedback. One, a young man in a hoodie, told the group: "Sometimes at the beginning of Relay I was feeling like an actor and like a puppet. Lately I've been implementing what I'm learning and putting my own style to it."
"Teaching itself is inherently challenging. It's asking you to think in the past, present, future all simultaneously," says Connor Fox, a first-year student at Relay who is in his second year as a teaching assistant at a high school in the Bronx. "There's never a moment in these deliberate practice sessions when you're not being challenged to think about your perspectives and actions and how powerfully every moment in the classroom counts."
Indeed, I heard teachers exhorted to give directions with 30-second countdowns.
"The muscle memory is a big piece," says Quioni Phillips, a Relay student who teaches English-Language Arts to seventh-graders at a charter school in Harlem. "It feels uncomfortable the first time you do it. But with teaching in general, it's a constant learning curve if you're trying to get better."
Relay teachers are praised for expressing authenticity and building strong relationships with students, but it all takes place within a prescribed framework.
Aileen Tejeda, a senior instructional fellow on the New York City residency team, compares the method to "a combination of sports and theater. There's a structure and a process that new teachers can get behind, even if they're struggling."
Wrightman has seen many teachers move up the curve. "It takes time to get used to the method," she says. "At first they don't feel like themselves. But the more they get the opportunity to practice it the more comfortable they become."
Judging students to judge teachers
Does Relay really build better teachers?
The Department of Education singled out Relay in its recent announcement of new rules intended to improve all teacher-prep programs. Those rules require states to hold schools of education accountable, in part by reporting the learning outcomes of their novice teachers' students.
As a requirement of graduation, Relay requires that its teachers show that their students can make progress on standardized tests. The school says that generally the children taught by its students do much better than that, showing on average 1.3 years of growth in reading in a single year.
But one researcher who has studied the Relay model argues that these data are not convincing.
"There is not a single independently conducted study (peer reviewed or not) that shows the effectiveness of Relay graduates even according to the very narrow criterion of raising test scores," Kenneth Zeichner, a professor of education at the University of Washington, wrote in a recent report.
Zeichner says "alternative certification" is really nothing new. "What is new," he tells NPR Ed, "is the tremendous amount of resources and energy in the last 10 or 15 years being put into what's referred to as 'disrupting' the current system in favor of alternative certification, by philanthropy, think tanks, advocacy groups and the U.S. Department of Education."
This disruption, he says, is being carried out in the absence of real evidence that new, independent programs like Relay are any better than what they're replacing.
In a September report published by the National Education Policy Center, which tends to be critical of charter schools, Zeichner took a look at the existing claims made about Relay and other new alternative programs.
All are independent of universities, and they share an emphasis on the mechanics of lesson delivery and classroom management rather than theories of education, research or subject-matter expertise.
In sum: "There's no credible, independently vetted evidence" that this approach is an improvement, says Zeichner.
States and the federal government seem to be sparring over the proper requirements for preparing new teachers.
In July, Pennsylvania's Department of Education recommended that Relay's application to offer master's degrees in that state be denied. In a letter, the state's secretary of education cited the program's lack of an "adequate research component," as well as inadequate academic qualifications for faculty members. The deadline for an appeal by Relay is October 31.
The federal government, however, seems to be leaning the other way: These are the very rules that states are free to ignore under a new federal provision, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, to create "teacher preparation academies."
George Drake is among many members of Pennsylvania's ed school establishment who spoke out in opposition to Relay's bid. He's dean of the college of education at Millersville University.
"The model of prep that Relay brings to the table is not as rigorous and as effective for prospective teachers as the higher education model," he said in an interview. "In my opinion, Relay is coming into all these locations to spread the charter school version of higher education. It's designed to address a very narrow set of issues related to test scores in urban school districts."
He dismisses Relay's capstone projects, which focus on applying student data to instruction, as "arithmetic" compared with the high-level research design and statistical analyses required in his graduate program.
Norman Atkins, Relay's co-founder and president, says Drake and other leaders of traditional institutions are probably "anxious" about needed changes that are taking place in "a field that has not made a lot of progress in a very long time."
"I would love it if all of our [faculty] had doctorates in a wide variety of subjects," Atkins said. "But at the end of the day teachers are craving other teachers and not researchers to help them practice, learn and develop."
Atkins added that in 25 years of observing classrooms, "I've rarely seen a novice teacher say, 'Oh, if only I had had more Vygotsky and more theory, I'd know just what to do now.' "
In the end, whether you view the expansion of Relay and similar teacher-prep models with approbation or alarm depends on whether you think of teaching as more an academic pursuit or more of a full-contact sport. Or perhaps, there is room for both models to coexist.
Levine, who has left Relay's board and is now working on his own ed school startup in cooperation with MIT, says "the problem is, nontraditional programs like Relay have tended to be so practice-oriented. They teach teachers what they need for tomorrow. Traditional universities do the opposite — they teach a lot of theory and much less practice. What we need is a merger of the two." He adds that while "Relay is great, it's not for everybody."
Even Zeichner, the Relay critic, says, "I'm not defending the status quo" in teacher preparation. "We do need substantive and significant change, and we need to engage with each other around what the goals should be and how we know if we're reaching them."