Monday, March 3, 2014

Teacher development at Elm City Middle

At Elm City College Prep Middle School, as at most Achievement First schools, we spend a lot of time thinking about teacher development. As I've written before, I believe teacher development should be a school's first priority, not because we should care more about adults than we do about kids, but because the effort we expend to develop teachers leads to a much greater impact on students than a singular focus on individual students.

Our work with teachers falls into four categories, seen through the lens of a science lesson on cell division:

Before the lesson, helping teachers to do the intellectual work to prepare for a lesson. This is a time to ask questions such as "What will a truly exceptional response to this question sound like? What misconceptions do we expect students to have, and what will they sound like? How will we follow up to get students to do the thinking required? How can we create cognitive dissonance to get students to confront their own misconceptions? Where and how can we help students find the joy in this lesson?" Here's where we take an initial "mitosis creates new cells", transform it into "mitosis is an ongoing process that creates new cells through the division of existing cells, initially faster than cells are dying and later, in adulthood, at approximately the same rate as cells are dying." Then we figure out how to ask questions to get kids there when their first response to "how does the number of cells change throughout one's lifetime?" is "You get more cells."

During the lesson, helping teachers with whatever it is they're currently trying to develop in their own teaching. This ranges from classroom management (I might send a signal to scan the room to see who is on-/off- task, or remind a teacher to smile, or whisper to a teacher that they should use proximity to get students A, B, and C back on track) to the broader category of holding a high bar for student outputs (I might ask a student to revise his/her response by using two of the unit's vocabulary words or by restating the answer in a complete sentence, or I might indicate that the teacher should ask a follow-up question to ensure students are building on each other's responses - "I wonder if anyone can add to that last response by using more precise vocabulary?") This real-time coaching is a key component in making sure the intellectual work teachers did ahead of time translates into a positive learning experience for teachers and students in the classroom.

After the lesson, looking through student work to determine how the lesson went and what we can do to improve for next time. This ensures that we're being honest about the impact a lesson had - an in-depth analysis of student work highlights the true impact of the lesson on student understanding in a way that is often overshadowed in the midst of a lesson by how the room "feels." Did students actually understand not only the process of mitosis, but also its function? Can they articulate this understanding in writing, without any "rounding up" needed from us? What are our next steps based on the writing we see?

Finally, about once a week, we work on the important parts of teaching that don't fit into a single lesson. How can we develop our capacity to promote an inclusive environment in which we are understanding and affirming our kids' identities? What do these unit tests reveal about what I should re-teach and how? What are best practices for grading/giving feedback to students/calling home about homework? How can we make the most of our time at school so we're not taking hours of work home every night? How can we motivate students who we're not currently reaching? How can I develop as an instructional leader? How can I give this critical feedback to a colleague?

This may sound like a lot of meetings. First of all, this doesn't mean four meetings a week. Usually it's one or two, and we don't get to do all of this with every teacher every week. Second, I think it's strange that so many teachers in so many schools are essentially left to figure all of this out on their own. These are not the dreaded "staff meetings" with a room full of teachers listening to a presentation - they're intellectually stimulating collaborative work sessions where teachers develop their skills while planning to help students develop theirs.

It's tough to pick a favorite part of this process, but for me it's a tie between 1) seeing the joyful rigor we've planned for come to life for kids during the real-time coaching part of this process and 2) looking at student work to see what students produced. The first is wonderful because it's great to see kids smiling and learning and saying brilliant things, and the second is great because it allows us to both celebrate kids' progress and figure out what we can do to help them continue to grow. I cannot imagine a better way to spend the day.

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