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December 2010 Vol. 18. No. 3 Focus on Teachers and Reform

Theme articles

Improving on their practice

To succeed in the classroom, teachers look for supports both in and outside the District.

By by Margaret Ernst and Wendy Harris on Dec 1, 2010 12:21 PM
Photo: Patrick Gailey
Brendon Jobs of Girls’ High said the District’s induction program offered little value, but that a professional development program on American history “changed my life as a teacher.”

While many new teachers find it difficult to take on more than the daily rigors of the classroom, Girls' High history teacher Brendon Jobs signed on to be the sophomore class advisor in his second year of teaching. He promised to stick with that class until they graduated.

I like being able to be that stable figure who sees them through their high school career," said Jobs, now in his fourth year. In his advisor role, Jobs meets regularly with a group of student council girls – all while teaching, coaching the tennis team, and completing his master's thesis.

But when it comes to getting what he needs to improve his craft, Jobs said, the District has fallen short.

Like all new teachers, Jobs attended a state-mandated five-week induction program to get oriented to the school system and his responsibilities.

But when Jobs entered the program, he said, fellow teachers called it an "abduction" rather than induction. His instructor seemed to rush the process rather than actually discuss teaching, so "it felt like it was just something to get through," Jobs said.

Last summer the District, in partnership with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), overhauled the program.

Jobs is far from alone when it comes to feeling unsupported. In districts like Philadelphia – where teacher retention is only 50 percent after three years – many new teachers abandon the classroom early on. Veteran teachers may flounder too, and may resort to shutting their doors when problems arise, especially if the school culture is weak in providing resources for improvement.

Teachers need more than paper and pencils to do their jobs. Many say they want better ongoing supports that provide targeted professional development, promote a culture of collaboration, and create opportunities for idea-sharing with their peers.

Some teachers say their schools do promote a positive teacher culture. For its part, the District has increased professional development opportunities, introduced new teacher coaches at its Empowerment Schools and Promise Academies, launched the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program to assist new and struggling teachers, and opened the Office of Teacher Affairs.

But other educators say they get more from out-of-District teacher networks like the Philadelphia Writing Project and Teachers Learning Cooperative.

Education scholar Deborah Meier encourages teachers to look outside for supportive communities to serve as a "sustaining source."

She said it can be challenging within a district to build the trusting relationships needed for effective teacher support when there is pressure from a top-down structure focused on meeting academic targets. But it can happen.

"Teachers need to be in a place where they can explore ideas with their colleagues, in addition to their students," Meier said.

A helping hand

Jim Hardy, a fourth-year teacher at Kensington Culinary Arts High School, says most of his first-year support came "from talking to teachers in the teachers' lounge." But he was also assigned a new teacher coach, who checked in regularly.

"It was nice to have someone who sought me out," Hardy said.

Today, new teachers working at Empowerment Schools and Promise Academies get a new teacher coach to help them with lesson planning, content, and teaching methods. The District currently has 23 coaches for new teachers, maintaining a teacher-to-coach ratio of 22:1 for first- and second-year teachers.

Dina Portnoy, who taught 24 years in the District, said new teacher coaches can be counterproductive if they don't know a teacher's subject area.

"Where there is a new teacher coach who is prepared to support teachers in their content area, then I think there's some ongoing support [that's worthwhile]," said Portnoy, who directs the University of Pennsylvania's Teach for America training program.

Teachers at each of the Empowerment Schools have support from a school-based instructional specialist (SBIS), who helps coordinate staff development and assists with the implementation of the new scripted curriculum.

The District's newest teacher support program – to be phased in over the next three years – is called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR). Launched in partnership with the PFT in September, PAR aims to help both new teachers and veteran teachers rated unsatisfactory with everything from classroom management to how to collect homework.

"We've always thought about how to support new and veteran teachers in a more effective way," said Dee Phillips, special assistant to the PFT president.

New teachers working in 45 Empowerment Schools automatically went into PAR. Struggling veteran teachers across all District schools also entered PAR this school year. There are currently 311 participating teachers and 14 consulting teachers.

Consulting teachers work with participating teachers for an entire school year, setting goals based on areas of need and documenting observations about progress. They visit four to six schools daily. At the end of the school year, they make a recommendation to retain, terminate, or provide additional support for the teacher.

Meier said coaching and mentoring can be effective, but only when there's a level of trust.

"I don't think that's true with most coaches. They're monitors, not coaches," she said. "It's just another level of distrust."

One District effort to improve its relationships with teachers is through the new Office of Teacher Affairs (OTA).

"They can come here and have that hand holding that's needed whether they are new or tenured or they just have a difficult situation," said Nancy Daly, one of two OTA teacher affairs specialists.

The OTA, which opened in May at 440 N. Broad St., offers all teachers workshops, focus groups, and professional learning opportunities. It does not address contractual, disciplinary, or employee relations matters.

Jobs, who hasn't visited the office, hopes it can serve as a place where the District will listen to teachers, but he worries about its location since colleagues have said "they don't have the time to make it to '440.'"

Going outside the District

When Portnoy started teaching, she found "a sustained community of support and intellectual engagement" not in the District, but through the Philadelphia Writing Project, a network of educators dedicated to improving how they teach writing.

"I wouldn't have been able to carry on for 24 years without [a community where] I could continue to learn how to be a better teacher," she said.

Hardy connected with another of the city's teacher networks, the Teachers Learning Cooperative, a nexus of teachers who meet after school twice a month to share resources, discuss student work and hone their craft. What's so helpful about the group, Hardy said, is that "it's not somewhere where someone's going to lecture at you."

Many elementary teachers get help through the Children's Literacy Initiative (CLI), a nonprofit that trains pre-K through third grade teachers in effective literacy instruction through workshops and children's book collections, providing one-on-one coaching to help them incorporate strategies in the classroom.

Kelly Hunter, CLI's director of professional development, said CLI contracts with districts or funders to provide professional development at struggling schools, and sets up "model classrooms" in them.

CLI has set up model classrooms in 20 District elementary schools and recently received $22 million in federal funding to work with 10 additional schools.

Building on successful models

Teachers have clear ideas about supports they need moving forward and suggest building on what already works.

Common planning time – a period that gives same-grade-level teachers time to share instruction ideas, discuss approaches for individual students, and provide support for each other – is just one area they'd like to grow. Right now it happens regularly only at comprehensive high schools.

Local teachers also say they want more targeted professional development.

"I think that a lot of our professional development is too general. The entire school might be at the training, and everybody's expected in a few hours to take away something meaningful," Hunter of CLI said.

Jobs recalled how Teaching American History, a content-based program offered through the District, helped him and other history teachers develop strategies for engaging students in the subject.

The program "changed my life as a teacher," Jobs said.

The District has opened two new professional development centers at High School of the Future and Fels High School, offering free courses in a variety of subjects.

According to Linda Chen, deputy chief of the Office of Teaching and Learning, the District has also started working with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to increase online professional development opportunities. By the end of the year, the District will have connected PDE's video library with SchoolNet, giving teachers access to more grade-specific lessons.

While these are good examples of critical resources, Jobs said, "The key to a positive teacher culture is clear communication, transparency, and trust." He added, "Much of that has to come from the top."

About the Author

Margaret Ernst is a Notebook intern and Bryn Mawr College senior. Notebook Managing Editor Wendy Harris can be reached at wendyh@thenotebook.org.

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