Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Learning to Teach Like a Champion

I made it! To summer, to gains in student achievement, to the end of my first year as a GOOD teacher. On June 22, I finished my third year of teaching, my second year in a consistent lead-teaching placement, and - in my opinion - my first year of teaching successfully. While I've got a loooong way to travel before I'm the teaching champion I want to be (nod to Doug Lemov for the phrase and his pragmatic codification of probably-necessary-but-possibly-not-sufficient conditions for becoming an excellent teacher), it was a successful year by most measures, of both the touchy-feely and cold-hard-data variety. I saw BIG jumps in my teacher effectiveness data (from DC's new IMPACT teacher evaluation system,) respectable growth in students' achievement data, and a much happier, much harder-working group of students.

I won't enumerate the ways my teaching has improved. There are many people infinitely better than me at teaching, and teaching about teaching, who can do that for a growing teacher. What I want to talk about here is: What MADE me get better? What systems were in place to make me a better teacher, and therefore improve my students' learning?

As I pondered that question this morning to the tune of percolating espresso, three major factors bubbled up: IMPACT's common language, job-embedded professional development, and work-life balance.

  • IMPACT's common language: In many ways, IMPACT, D. C. Public Schools' new teacher evaluation system, doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. Its Teaching section list 9 key practices every teacher of any grade and subject should do every day, including delivering content clearly, engaging all students, and gauging students' understanding. (Read the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework for the specifics, or look at its Strategic Documents page for an overview of the evaluation system.) As many people have noticed, DCPS's IMPACT looks a whole lot like Teach for America's Teaching as Leadership rubric. Having been trained at Teach for America's Institute two summers ago, I was fully aware of these practices, and that background knowledge make it easier for me to hit the ground running with IMPACT this year. But having the language all by myself wasn't enough to make dramatic progress as a teacher. It focused some of my thoughts and conversations with TFA colleagues, but I lacked daily, focused conversations about those key ideas. This year, sharing the language with my colleagues and school leaders (as well as another year under my belt, of course,) gave me the traction needed to effect a big change in my class. All of a sudden, I could ask the veteran teacher next door to share what made her effective at Teach 6, Maximizing Instructional Time, and we both clearly understood the question. Last year, I might have just trudged in her door, thrown up my hands, and lamented that my lessons weren't getting done, withe no clear language to pinpoint the problem. IMPACT gave us shared language to focus those conversations.

  • Job-embedded professional development: Without structured assistance around IMPACT's teaching practices, I wouldn't have gotten any better. I received 2 kinds of professional development from school leaders which helped me fix the problems IMPACT helped identify. I'll call these 2 kinds of help Triage PD and Proactive PD. The Triage PD came when a crisis was threatening all other parts of my class. A few months into the year, my classroom management took a sharp turn for the worse. I had made critical mistakes, and everyday best practices would not turn the situation around. With the extreme problems in management, I could not deliver my well-planned lessons or maximize my formerly-effective positive behavior system. At that point, the assistant principal became my management turnaround mentor. We met once a week, reviewed how management had gone, settled on 2-3 key actions to take the next week, and then reviewed the effects of those actions the next week. Ideally, no teacher would ever reach a crisis point and need Triage PD. But as a new teacher, I did, and many others will. Having leaders who are competent in teaching to meet consistently with teachers whose classes need turnaround made a huge difference for me. Once the crisis was averted and management returned to a manageable hum, I could benefit from Proactive PD. Proactive PD is, in a sense, optional: a class could have many effective components without it. But Proactive PD leverages one aspect of teaching to help make a functional class into a great class. This year, my most striking Proactive PD focused on IMPACT's Teach 5, Check for and Respond to Student Understanding. Our school's literacy coach assembled a group of teachers, none of whose classes were in crises, but all of whom could improve our monitoring of students' understanding. We met twice a week during the 30-minute morning meeting block for about 5 weeks. Our work took on a predictable rhythm, intentionally crafted by the coach. Early in the cycle, we absorbed new information on various strategies for checking for understanding, then set goals for ourselves around a few strategies we wanted to master. Midway through the cycle,combed through lessons we planned to teach and inserted checks for understanding. In the end of the cycle, we shared what was working in each of our classrooms, learning from each others' practice. One other strand of work made these cycles effective: Regular lesson observations and debriefs. When the coach was scheduled to observe me, I took extra care to try the checks for understanding we were studying. After the lesson, the coach and I debriefed on how the checks had gone, how it impacted overall lesson effectiveness, and what I wanted to try next time. I could feel and see the difference this Proactive PD made in my teaching. I started using the strategies I had studied in almost every lesson, having thought about them carefully during our meetings and practiced them gradually during the observed lessons. Notably, this PD cycle used the gradual release model I've advocated for in other posts, as well as clearly defined objectives (Improving Teach 5 practice) and measures of success (IMPACT scores before and after the PD) -- two things we know are indispensable for teaching kids but often ignore while teaching adults.

  • Work-life balance: I felt like a good teacher in September but not in October, in December but not November. I began to feel confident that I had BECOME a good teacher around January, after winter break. Early in the year, I had scrounged up energy to face classroom crises, but found the energy difficult to sustain. During winter break, I hit my personal reset button, recommitting to spiritual practice, seeing more of my friends and family, and taking time to just be. When I returned to work in January, I had already developed new classroom skills, so my energy could be spent on seasoning my practice rather than mopping up pots that had boiled over. Out of constant crisis mode, I also felt less exhausted, so I found myself able to continue the spiritual practice, keep seeing my friends, and enjoy my life outside of teaching a little. These personal practices provided the energy I needed to teach well CONSISTENTLY. I firmly believe improving my work-life balance helped me turn okay teaching into good teaching, and will sustain my efforts towards becoming the teaching champion all of our children deserve.


Bruce said...

Kia ora ( greetings) from the 'deep South'

I have enjoyed reading though your blogs and it is great to read about ideas I also share. You might like to check out my blog if you have time - just go to my website

All the best
From New Zealand
Bruce Hammonds

TeachingSerendipity said...

Thanks, Bruce! I hope you'll keep reading as I keep growing this blog.

Your blog delves into a lot of important ideas. I appreciate the focus on practice. I have added it to my GoogleReader!

Fear the Fellow said...

Congratulations on your first self-proclaimed successful year :) I hope to get to feel that feeling in a couple of years, too!

phillipmarlowe said...

Are you Lauren McAlee, a second-year kindergarten teacher at Montgomery Elementary.
You also post at the Washington Post as userserendipity.

TeachingSerendipity said...

Hi Phillip,

I keep this blog anonymous to respect the privacy of the students, families, and colleagues I work with, so I won't say yes or no to questions about my identity. I'm glad my UseSerendipity comment on the WP editorial led you here, and I hope you'll keep reading.

If anonymity rubs you the wrong way, please consider the "Why Am I Anonymous?" section of the About Me page of this blog. ( I know anonymity is weird, but I think it's the only way for teachers to share important experiences without compromising the privacy of their students. I value having a teacher voice which can share classroom experiences as they relate to policy. I bet you do too, as a citizen who clearly likes to be well-informed.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Serendipity!

EFavorite said...

Hello - I think the reason PhillipMarlowe asked about your identity is that Washington Post reporter Mike Debonis used a quote in one of his article from Lauren McAlee that sounded a lot like you.

I don’t think anonymity is weird, but if you truly want to remain anonymous, it seems odd to talk on the record to a reporter in a way that gives major clues to your blog identity.

Meanwhile, if you are Lauren, I wish you had also talked with DeBonis about your Teach-for-America afiliation and that it’s only after three years that you feel like a successful teacher. Given the high numbers of TFA recruits in DCPS, I think that’s just as relevant as your positive experience with IMPACT. Maybe you did mention your TFA connection and DeBonis just left it out. I will check with him to see and at any rate, will ask him to mention it in another article, in the interest of presenting all the relevant facts.

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