Marsha Francis

Recognized for Leadership in Teacher Support

On a Mission to Help Student-Teachers Thrive

By Madeline Will   |   February 19, 2020

A bad student-teaching experience still haunts Marsha Francis. It also has fueled her work to reimagine what student-teaching can be.

When Francis worked at a college of education, a young, promising teacher-candidate came to her office in tears, feeling overwhelmed after a chaotic semester in the classroom, where her students didn’t listen to her and her mentor teacher offered no support. The candidate’s mentor, unhappy and burned out, had told her she didn’t know why anyone wanted to go into teaching—and that she herself was planning on leaving to become a dental hygienist.

The candidate, Briana Houston, told Francis that she no longer wanted to be a teacher, either.

“She felt like that experience was so repulsive, it was just so damaging that she did not want to do that,” said Francis, who went on to help overhaul how Atlanta’s Fulton County school system approaches student-teaching. “We don’t have a whole bunch of folks that are rushing into the profession. We have folks that are choosing this—how do we make sure we’re nurturing them instead of running them away from, yes, a challenging profession, but a rewarding one as well.”

Lessons from the Leader

With Fulton County’s GO First STEP program, college students are no longer placed in schools haphazardly, with the district office having no way to track the fidelity of their experiences. Instead, under Francis’ watch, teacher-candidates are matched with a high-performing teacher for a full school year.

The candidate receives frequent observations from his or her mentor teacher, professional development, a $3,000 stipend, and the guarantee of a teaching job upon graduation. The cooperating teacher receives a $1,200 stipend and coaching support. And Fulton gets a pipeline of teachers who are familiar with the district and increased odds that they’ll stay.

The model is only in its second year, but so far, about 80 percent of the teacher-candidates with the improved training now work in the district. This year, there are 62 interns who came from six local colleges and universities. Next year, Francis hopes to bring the program to full capacity at 100 interns.

Getting student-teaching right has been among the most nettlesome issues facing teacher prep. There are a ton of logistics and personalities to manage, and the mismatch between book learning and reality can scare off even the most talented of recruits. Francis’ vision points a way forward.

“When the interns talk about the program, … they don’t mention the stipend,” she said. “It’s really, ‘I feel like a professional already. I’m part of this school. I love that my cooperating teacher’s treating me as a co-teacher, not as someone that’s just here to file papers.’ ”

—Melissa Golden for Education Week

Francis, 35, started her career as an elementary teacher in Atlanta Public Schools at the height of the district’s high-profile cheating scandal. Nearly 180 educators—including two of Francis’ principals—were implicated for their role in trying to inflate student test scores on standardized tests, and it left Francis feeling disillusioned with school leadership.

“There were instances where I was encouraged to cut a corner,” she said. “I pride myself in the fact that I wasn’t that person—I taught my tail off.”

She left the classroom to earn her Ph.D. in educational theory and practice from the University of Georgia. Now, Francis is the sole person in the Fulton County district’s office working on the First STEP program. She’s in charge of making the matches between the interns and the schools, a delicate process that considers both the principals’ needs and an intern’s ability to get to a school, since not all of them have cars. She also tries to place at least two interns in the same school, so they and their cooperating teachers have a support network.

And Francis selects the cooperating teachers, who must have at least three years of teaching experience and have earned an effective or highly effective rating on their evaluations. They also must be recommended by their principal, and have completed training modules on how to be a good mentor.

Then, Francis works to make sure the year goes smoothly for all parties. She surveys the interns three times a year to gauge their evolving comfort with teaching. The cooperating teachers are required to observe the interns six times a year, while Francis compiles that data and monitors it for any red flags. She also develops professional development for the interns, as well as additional training and support for the cooperating teachers.

“There’s a lot of people you have to consider: the interns’ needs, the [cooperating teachers’] concerns, the principals’ concerns, and then whatever you’re hearing from the university partners,” she said. “I spend a lot of time just listening and hearing and then trying to problem-solve what makes the most sense.”

Francis talks with First STEP teacher-intern John Buning at Riverwood International Charter School in Sandy Springs, Ga. The program seeks to ensure the success and retention of teacher-candidates.
—Melissa Golden for Education Week

The 93,500-student district stretches across more than 70 miles, so Francis spends large chunks of time driving from school to school. Sometimes, she listens to podcasts (she’s a fan of true crime), but often, she goes over problems in her head. How can she support the student-teacher who confided that he didn’t feel like he was doing enough teaching? What should she do about the intern whose supervising teacher doesn’t think is progressing quickly enough? How can she make sure that school leaders and university partners are both kept in the loop when it comes to the interns’ progress?

The job needs “someone who knows that every ball has to be in the air,” said Ronnie Wade, the chief talent officer for the Fulton County district who oversees Francis’ work. “The juggling comes with the territory. … [You need] a strategy in how to juggle efficiently and effectively, and that’s what she’s been able to do.”

It helps that Francis worked at the education department of her alma mater, Spelman College, as an instructor and coordinator for the edTPA performance assessment, and is also a site visitor for the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which oversees teacher-preparation programs: She knows the language and the needs of higher education.

And to better understand the concerns and needs of school leaders, Francis is also going through the Beginning Principals Academy, a leadership training program for new principals run by Georgia State University. She’s the only non-principal in the cohort.

Her attention to the perspective of varying stakeholders has been critical. Revamping student- teaching in the district required a radical shift in doing things. A few years ago, there were about 240 student- teachers in the Fulton County district, and schools were only hiring about 10 percent of them, Wade said.

Something had to change, so the district cut ties with most of the university partners and accepted just 20 student-teachers. That proved to be too much, too fast for both principals and the colleges of education.

“We did go on what we jokingly call an apology tour,” Francis said. “We had to talk to each one of our former partners and say, ‘We messed up, we moved too quickly.’ … So after having these conversations, some of the guards went down, and some of the universities wanted to listen a little differently and see what could be possible from this new part of the work.”

After all, it’s hard not to get swept up in Francis’ enthusiasm. She believes strongly in not settling for the status quo, in making education the best it can be for teachers and students.

Some of that determination stems from her experiences during the Atlanta cheating scandal. Administrators prioritized student performance on tests above all else, and teachers were shamed and punished for not meeting the goals. School felt like “such an abrasive, angry space,” Francis said.

“Now when I go into schools [in Fulton County], I love being in schools,” she said. “I love working and thinking and talking with building leaders that do bring that joy to their building, and they have kids that are learning, and they have teachers that are thriving.”

First STEP allows Francis to focus on making sure aspiring teachers feel supported.

“I appreciate how student-focused she is, not only for the K-12 students in her district, but for the college students,” said Robyn Huss, an associate professor at the University of West Georgia, which is a partner university in the First STEP program. “When I’ve had students have an issue, she has taken it upon herself to go to the school, rather than send an email or schedule a phone conference.”

At Centennial High School in Roswell, Ga., on a November afternoon, students were debating whether Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were robber barons or captains of industry. Lawrence McGillicuddy and Meggin Rosner were moderating the conversation, interjecting with side observations. (“What they did helped steer us to where we are today, and there’s good and bad with that,” McGillicuddy noted.)

Rosner has taught for more than 20 years. McGillicuddy is a student-teacher. But in front of the students, they seemed like equals. And that’s intentional.

“When you get a student-teacher, my job is to work with them and protect them and try to help them in any way I can to become the best version of themselves,” Rosner said. “If the kids ask me a question, I’m like, ‘No, ask him.’ … That way, he feels like he’s managing the students and working with them, and the kids feel like he’s an equal teacher in the classroom.”

I spend a lot of time just listening and hearing and then trying to problem-solve … .

McGillicuddy observes Rosner’s classroom management style and instructional tactics, and has adapted them to fit his own teaching style.

“I’m learning how to finesse that and find what’s going to work for my students,” he said. “I’m able to see a lot of different things, and getting the opportunity to teach with someone there to give me feedback and stuff like that—it’s really good.”

After all, the relationship between the cooperating teacher and the intern is a crucial part of the program’s success. At Asa G. Hilliard Elementary, a high-poverty school in Atlanta, the two student-teachers there have developed such strong partnerships with their mentor teachers that Principal Maureen Lilly hopes to keep them on the 2nd grade team next year.

“I’m watching these two young ladies bloom into amazing teachers,” she said. “At a school that’s hard to staff, if I can get somebody to come in and spend a year with us, and then if I can keep them, that’s phenomenal.”

Building community is important to Francis. She plans a match-day party for the incoming interns in the summer, and a midyear celebration where the interns are presented with the first half of their stipend. Last fall, she sent a care package that included a $5 Starbucks gift card, candy, and a pack of dry-erase markers to the First STEP alumni now in their first year teaching. It’s a way to tell them they still matter to the district.

“This is relationship work,” Francis said. “It is a lot to be on the road this much, but I think it matters. Especially for the interns, when I come in their schools, and they smile, ‘Oh, somebody’s here! OK, you came to see me?’ and I really ask, ‘How’s it going?’—it matters.”

And Briana Houston, who had the traumatic student-teaching experience that inspired so much of this work? She’s now a kindergarten teacher in Fulton County.

That experience “definitely rocked my confidence,” Houston said. “I was like, ‘Can I even do this? Will these children respect me? … Am I built for this?’ ”

But Francis, who was her adviser at Spelman, helped her switch to a more supportive placement for her spring semester. Houston didn’t become a teacher immediately, but years later, she went to a career fair for the Fulton County district—and ran into Francis.

“Without that [student-teaching] experience, positive and negative, without Dr. Francis and my other professors advocating for me, I wouldn’t be here,” she said, sitting in her classroom with its cheerful drawings plastered on the walls. “I know I wouldn’t.”