Category Archives: Teacher Effectiveness

ICYMI: #BWTalksTalent Week

Ten bloggers. Nine posts. One week.

At Bellwether, we spent last week talking about teachers and school leaders for our #BWTalksTalent series.  We shared insights from staff who’ve led classrooms, schools, and organizations. And we shared opinions, research, and personal experiences on how to create a robust ecosystem of adults to better serve students.

Topics ranged from trauma-informed teaching, to principal satisfaction, to retaining teachers of color.

If you missed it, here’s a recap of our conversation:

You can read the whole series here!

Defining the “Pipeline” in “Teacher and Leader Pipelines”

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

Talk of teacher and leader pipelines has been a mainstay in our field. “We need to grow high-quality, diverse pipelines of new teachers.” “We need to build a pipeline of future leaders from our current pool of teachers.” But what exactly is a pipeline? Where does it start, and where does it end? Our Bellwether team set out to find a simple visual answer to these questions and didn’t find a comprehensive solution, so we created our own. If you’ve seen something great and are willing to share, please email me.

As we see it, a teacher pipeline begins with supply: new teachers entering the field, prepared through both traditional and alternative programs. Once teachers are “in,” they head into the development stage, as they are recruited and selected into schools and systems, onboarded to ensure at least basic proficiency in the classroom, and then continuously developed to deepen effectiveness and enable retention. Continue reading

I Wish I Had Learned About the Science of the Brain and Toxic Stress

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

The first time I met Martin*, his fellow kindergartners were at the rug listening to a book, and he was under a chair. I was a first-year teacher visiting the students who would be in my first grade class the next year. I watched as Martin noisily crawled under desks while the teacher read aloud; she had clearly reached her limit and decided to attempt to ignore the behavior for the time being. Like me, her teacher training had not prepared her for what to do in the “child-under-desk” scenario.

I resolved that when Martin joined my class the next year, I would make sure that he participated in class activities. I spent the summer reading up on classroom management and student engagement. What I didn’t know until many years later is that there is a body of knowledge on the science of the brain and stress that would have made me a much more effective teacher to Martin — and many of the other students in my class.

The author at the graduation ceremony for her teacher preparation master’s program.

Martin, a stocky, apple-cheeked boy with a winning grin, turned out to be one of my most rewarding and challenging students. Each day that he was in my class, I braced myself for some kind of outburst or confrontation. He threw tantrums, as well as the occasional backpack, book, or pencil. He had a hard time sitting still. He picked fights. He became quickly frustrated and often refused to do work. On the other hand, he regularly made me and his classmates laugh. He relished my praise and listened attentively when I sat down with him one on one. He was so proud and delighted when he finally started to read.

I thought of Martin many times this summer as I read The Deepest Well by renowned pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris. In the book, Harris lays out in detail how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have a profound impact on children’s and adults’ physical and mental health. She describes her journey to understand and incorporate into her medical practice lessons from a seminal study, published in 1998, that found longterm health effects related to ten specific ACEs: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; loss of a parent to death or separation; a parent who is alcoholic, depressed, or mentally ill; or witnessing a mother being abused. Continue reading

Traditional and Teach For America Preparation: One Teacher’s Experience

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

While Teach For America (TFA) welcomes fully certified teachers from traditional programs at institutes of higher education, most of their corps members come in and attend TFA’s summer sessions without prior teacher training. Fully certified teachers might wonder if there is a place for them in TFA, and TFA-trained teachers might question what they missed by not having teacher preparation as an undergraduate.

I interviewed one educator who completed both pathways: my daughter Gabriella Nelson. She completed teacher training at Grinnell College, then enrolled in Teach For America and attended their summer institute in the Mississippi Delta region.

Gabriella is now the academic coordinator at the school she joined through TFA six years ago. In addition to overseeing curriculum, she coaches grade 6-12 ELA other subject teachers, bringing lessons from her classroom experience and dual preparation to shape and encourage her colleagues. In our conversation below, we touch on the reason for her choices, the differences in each type of preparation, and what she finds most helpful to prepare teachers.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you choose a college for your teacher preparation?
I looked for colleges with good educational programs where I could get my license in four or four and a half years. I picked Grinnell College because I knew that they put you in the classroom earlier than the student teaching programs in other schools. I was in a classroom beginning the second or third semester of college. I also liked that education wasn’t a major — you had to major in a subject, and I felt that was better content than what I perceived some “education major” coursework included.

Grinnell created a strong foundation for knowing how to plan my classes — they did a good job of preparing us in that respect. But the program didn’t talk a lot about classroom management. Another weakness (not their fault) was that learning how to teach in rural Iowa is not necessarily the most translatable experience to where I ended up teaching.

You also chose to participate in Teach For America (TFA) after graduation and attended their summer institute. Tell me about that choice.
I chose TFA in part because they sent me an email in October of my senior year inviting me to meet with them and apply. At that time, I was unsure of where to go teach and I knew their process would help me make that choice. Also, educational inequality was something I wanted to focus on: to be around people who valued making education more equitable.

How did TFA’s summer institute training compare to your traditional training?
Grinnell had a general focus on social justice, but I didn’t get explicit preparation for teaching in diverse settings. TFA’s institute had specific sessions geared towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, we learned how to teach students who didn’t share your culture, and strategies inclusive of all learners. A lot of time was spent on building cultural competency.

You ultimately taught in Memphis with TFA. Did you feel prepared to enter your classroom on the first day?
I felt prepared and then very quickly realized I was not prepared. In theory, I knew what I was supposed to be doing and had my plans, but nothing prepares you to be the only one in the room responsible for all these students. I hadn’t really practiced for that.

In theory, teaching should be easy — best practices, best classroom management, etc. — but you are not teaching in a vacuum. The hardest thing is that you never know what is going to happen. Will there be a fire drill? What kind of attitude will the kids have? Will the school flood? There were so many different things that could happen. Constantly adapting and working through the sheer number of decisions you have to make every day was overwhelming. Responding to students, switching up a lesson, calling out a student for a uniform violation or letting it go — nothing can prepare you for how much decision making is happening all of the time. And those decisions potentially have a long-lasting effect on student outcomes. Learning how to productively manage that pressure takes a lot of practice.

What have your experiences taught you about what works in traditional and/or alternative pipelines for teachers?
More programs should follow the Grinnell-like model where you are in the classroom earlier. I wish more of them would make students really study some content – Grinnell’s academics were more rigorous than some “standard” education preparation programs.

I recommend a more rigorous and regular support system for new teachers: a combination of classroom support, checking in with teachers to make sure things are going okay, and anecdotal coaching to relate to them that you also struggled when you were new. This support is better if it is school-based rather than someone coming in from the outside because every school is different.

After serving as a classroom teacher for three years, and one year split between teaching and administrative work, I’m now a full-time K-12 academic coordinator for about 700 students and 45 – 50 teachers. The value of what I do is that I’ve been here and understand this school’s culture and can coach from that lens. Outsiders may not understand the culture and norms our teachers face. At the very least, the coach should have taught in the same city or the same general environment. A suburban teacher coaching in a Title 1 school is not effective.

What I Learned About Retaining Teachers From Having Done It Badly as a New Principal

Photo via Flickr user jeffdjevdet

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

As schools across the nation get back into gear, top of mind for principals and leaders is how to keep the teachers they’ve hired. I can tell you now: free coffee in the workroom, t-shirts during teacher appreciation week, “carrot and stick” methods, or other gimmicks by themselves don’t keep teachers. Teachers stay when they experience genuine care and investment from their school leaders and managers. Gallup’s well-known research, which led to the creation of the Q12 survey to assess employee engagement, points directly to the impact of a strong manager. Their research reiterates the common idea that “employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” Similarly, teachers don’t leave schools, they leave principals and leaders who haven’t been able to engage them. I learned this the hard way.

At the start of my first year as a principal, I hired a team of twenty one. By the end of the school year, only seventeen remained. Of the seventeen, only seven continued on into the following school year. While some of the seventeen were let go, I knew that too many of them had quit.

I felt frustrated and exhausted. I remember taking those seven remaining teachers out for dinner and asking them: “Why did you stay?” Their responses became my first leadership lesson as a new manager: They said: “We were the ones you invested in,” “we were the ones you trusted and gave leadership to,” and “we were the ones who you showed that you cared [about personally].”

This was hard to hear but true: these were the teachers who I invested in more, trusted, and encouraged, especially when they were struggling. I was thankful for this feedback. Moving forward, I tried each year to create this feeling for my whole team and not just a select few.

Here are some of the key changes I made and the ones I suggest to leaders:

Know the individuals on your team

No matter how big your school is, you need to know the individuals on your team. Know their strengths, areas of growth, interests, and aspirations. Ask about their significant others, kids, and life outside of the school — take a personal interest in them. Leverage a situational leadership style to tailor your support of them. Use your head and your heart when working with them. If you hired them, hopefully you care enough to see them not just as the teacher who teaches in room 202 but as a whole person.

Coach and develop your team

Make sure they have a coach who is providing personalized development, even if it’s not you. Ensure this is happening on a consistent and regular basis, and regularly make time to check in with them yourself on how their coaching and support is going. This includes joining coaching sessions to offer input and push the quality further. Plan professional development that is tailored and differentiated, whether that includes choice in sessions or structured pathways such as teaching fellow programs. Create stretch opportunities for them to grow in areas they may not even recognize as strengths yet.

Ask questions and listen to them

Be genuinely curious about their opinions and feedback, even if you don’t use all of it. Create the space for them to share constructive ideas and thoughts about improvement. Let them know when you have used their feedback or ideas. Gallup’s research affirms that employees who feel like significant contributors to their organization and believe their “opinion counts” experience a higher level of satisfaction in their workplace. If I had not taken my seven returners to dinner, asked them for their honest feedback, and genuinely listened to it, I would have missed out on a vital leadership growth opportunity for myself.

Be patient with them

Understand that they will make mistakes, drop balls, miss deadlines, arrive late, call out sick last minute, etc. Use these moments as a learning opportunity to reset expectations and plan for the future with them as opposed to becoming annoyed, holding a grudge, or looking for their next mistake. Keep the bar high and provide direction, support, and scaffolds to help your teachers get there.

Empower them

Create opportunities for as many team members as possible to lead and shape aspects of the school. Create opportunities for your teachers to start and lead initiatives that allow them to bring other aspects of their personal life into the school. This spreads leadership and ownership of the school while also enriching it with diverse perspectives and points of view. I remember the day my principal asked me to lead my grade-level team even though there were more experienced teachers on it. He and I didn’t know then that he had sowed the seeds of school leadership by recognizing something in me.

Show your appreciation

You should be your teachers’ biggest fan. Celebrate your teachers’ growth and accomplishments. And just like in an interpersonal relationship, don’t wait for Valentine’s Day or birthdays to show appreciation. Take a page out of the 5 Love Languages and demonstrate your appreciation in a variety of ways, like by saying “it was great watching you in action with your kids today…” or by genuinely spending time with your teachers. I fondly remember chatting it up with my teachers as they headed home after school.

Become the kind of manager our teams need us to be — our kids and communities can’t afford a revolving door of teachers.