Top Atlanta Teachers Put Good Teaching on Display

Students sitting in English class

Eighth graders in Naja Freeman’s English language arts class practice their debating skills.
Credit: Reform Support Network

Demonstration classroom teachers help peers improve their instruction.

On a recent morning in Atlanta, eighth-grade English language arts (ELA) teacher Naja Freeman sat in the media center at Bunche Middle School describing to two visiting teachers the lesson she was about to deliver to her 27 students. Freeman told her visitors that she was going to use the Socratic Method, posing questions designed to get her students to think critically and discuss reading material aloud, while weaving in a lesson on metaphors.

“I don’t know what that’s going to look like,” she said as she told the others to join her in the classroom at the end of the hall. “I’m excited to see how it’s going to turn out.”

Freeman is a demonstration teacher—one of about 12  elementary, middle and high school standouts in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) who volunteered to open up their classrooms and allow colleagues to observe and learn from them. The program began in school year (SY) 2013–2014 with the costs covered by Race to the Top and district funds. The costs include a $1,500 stipend for the demonstration teachers, convening the demonstration teachers, salaries for substitute teachers filling in for the visiting teachers and, more recently, video technology to record the demonstration lessons so that more teachers can see them.

Georgia, like more than 20 States across the country, adopted more rigorous college- and career-ready standards for English language arts and mathematics. To implement the standards, teachers are providing opportunities for students to do critical thinking and problem solving, read more complex texts, and communicate their ideas. The standards require a shift in teaching practices and the demonstration classes are helping Atlanta teachers make that shift.

Typically, new teachers are afforded opportunities to watch more experienced mentors in action; however, Atlanta’s demonstration classrooms are open to all teachers, new and experienced alike.

The project showcases teachers who know the content, have a solid grasp on Georgia’s new college- and career-ready standards and are able to effectively engage students in their learning. It is one of many professional development tools the district relies on to help teachers improve their instruction, and it stands out for its innovative approach. Teachers say they like that the demonstration classrooms occur during the school day and offer them a chance to see what really works with students in a classroom led by one of their peers, instead of listening to lectures by non-teacher experts after school or on weekends.

Dr. Qualyn McIntyre, APS’ lead induction specialist, said the district chose the demonstration teachers based on interviews, recommendations, a classroom observation and their willingness to learn, even as they teach others. “We wanted reflective practitioners, because as long as you want to grow, you’ll help others grow,” she said.

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Rhode Island: Measuring Contributions Support Professionals Make to Learning

Establishing specific goals helps students and professionals make progress

Teacher and her student sitting at a desk looking over a notebook

Teacher and student go through class notes together. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Amy Manchester has worked as a speech language pathologist for 12 years. Her caseload at Richmond Elementary School in the Chariho Regional School District in Rhode Island includes students with autism, dyslexia, language disorders, and other disabilities.

Her job is to make sure her students can access the curriculum. On any given day, that could mean teaching a non-verbal student to use a speech device to ask questions and make comments during class. Or, it could mean teaching a student who is on the autism spectrum the rules of conversation and methods to interpret social cues and body language to help them participate in classroom discussions.

She knows the work she does affects her students’ learning. Until this year, however, her performance evaluation did not put a lot of emphasis on her effectiveness.

But, during school year 2013­-2014, Rhode Island piloted a process by which support professionals—library media specialists, school nurses, reading specialists, counselors, psychologists, social workers and language and speech pathologists—were evaluated based, in part, on whether their students achieved specific learning goals and outcomes.

In the past, for example, Manchester might have had a goal of helping students improve their ability to understand words as they were being spoken to them. But the amount of improvement did not affect her performance evaluation. Now, she has specific numerical targets (called student learning outcomes, or SLOs) for lowering the number of pronunciation errors a student makes and for increasing his ability to identify distinct sounds within a word. SLOs are long-term academic goals established for groups of students, which help them understand their progress and helps support professionals like Manchester understand what work still has to be done. Another of Manchester’s goals was to collaborate more with classroom teachers. “A lot of times it is easy to do our work in isolation and the collaboration piece is key [to student learning]”, she said.

Manchester and other support professionals also need to set specific targets for increasing access to student learning (called student outcome objectives, or SOOs) to measure their impact in a different way. Reducing truancy, for instance, is an SOO.

The formal title of the process is the Rhode Island Model Support Professionals Evaluation and Support System. It is an extension of the State’s redesigned teacher evaluation and support system, which puts greater emphasis on student learning and goal setting. Both systems were developed with support of the State’s Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

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Pennsylvania Trains Principals and Teachers in New Observation Method

Teachers are getting support they need to improve their practices and deepen students’ knowledge and skills

Marybeth Zlock poses with her second grade students at Corl Street Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Marybeth Zlock

Marybeth Zlock and her second graders at Corl Street Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Marybeth Zlock

James Ellis, the principal of White Deer Elementary School in New Columbia, Pennsylvania, likes the conversations he and other administrators in his district are having with teachers about what great instruction looks like.

These discussions occur after school leaders observe teachers in action and are designed to provide helpful feedback and guidance on what teachers can do to improve in their jobs, such as by better managing their classrooms or helping students make more progress. The observations are part of Pennsylvania’s new teacher evaluation system, which went into statewide use as a pilot for the first time this year. Under the old system, Ellis said he didn’t have the same deep discussions about what he saw or should have seen.

“In the past it wasn’t unheard of to put the observation [report] in the teachers’ mailboxes for them to sign, and we were done for the year,” Ellis said.

Now, he talks with the teacher before and after the observation and does a less formal, walk-thru or visit again before finalizing an evaluation. That second classroom visit can both reinforce what he saw during the formal observation and provide new insights. “Previously that wasn’t as important to me as the main observation,” said Ellis. “Now, I really try to check back,” he said.

Teachers with fewer than three years of experience are formally observed twice a year; more senior teachers only once. The classroom observations and how a teacher carries out other professional responsibilities count for half the evaluation. The other half is based on student growth data and other measures of learning.

“A Different Atmosphere”

One of the teachers Ellis observed this year was Erin Sheedy, a kindergarten and special education teacher at a neighboring school in the Milton Area School District, north of Harrisburg. Sheedy said she particularly liked the pre-and post-observation discussions she had with Ellis. Administrators like Ellis in the district conduct observations in schools besides their own.

“It’s a different atmosphere to have that kind of one-on-one attention for any teacher,” she said. “The principal used to be the man behind the door, the wizard behind the curtain. Now they’re much more visible, and it’s a conversation.”

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