Improving learning outcomes through teacher choice

When I became executive director of high school education at Gaston County Schools three years ago, our student achievement was average when compared to other districts in North Carolina. That wasn’t good enough for us, but we also recognized that improving achievement, particularly at the high school level, is very difficult work.

We serve about 32,000 students at 55 schools, a diverse and economically challenged population in which approximately 62% qualify for free and reduced lunch. We have always had pockets of excellence happening inside our classrooms, but we needed to find a way to get those “pockets” occurring in 100% of our classrooms.

You can't keep doing the same thing and expect different results, but how do you get 700 teachers to buy into a new set of ideas? We started by taking a hard look at how we were supporting teacher development, and how we could improve.

Focusing on the best second- and third-year teachers

We have a nationally recognized Teacher Induction Program for Success (TIPS) that has been in place for the last 15 years. TIPS brings first-year teachers in before school starts for three days of professional development. New teachers meet the superintendent, the board attorney for the school system, the board of education chair and various other central decision-makers. They also work with curriculum facilitators, going over topics such as how to build a lesson, how to manage a classroom and various other components of instruction.

After the initial three-day induction, those first-year teachers attend monthly meetings for ongoing support. Monthly meetings offer support on issues facing new teachers, such as communicating with parents and participating in professional learning communities. They can partner with others who have similar concerns, share strategies and build a professional learning network across the district.

That’s been very successful, but to move the needle on student achievement, we decided to focus on second- and third-year teachers as well.

After working with education consultant Alan November during the 2016–17 school year, we chose to flip the standard approach on its head and, instead of working with teachers who were struggling, we chose to focus on those who were succeeding. At the same time, we began working with another company, Verso Learning, which offers a classroom collaboration and feedback platform and was offering instructional coaching to teachers at Horry County Schools.

We worked with 50 teachers who were among our best in each of our high schools. That set a tone that we really are interested in empowering successful teachers and investing in a different approach to achieve different results. We expanded to a second cohort of about 30 teachers last year, and this year we took a hard look at what actual practices we wanted to institutionalize.

Ongoing training in lesson design

When we began three years ago, we were pulling teachers out of their classrooms left and right, paying for substitutes to teach their classes but seeing very little follow-through on the issues we took them out to address. Now we’re offering more substantive training a few times a year but working harder to support teachers in smaller but more significant ways in between those trainings. Classroom management is a natural place for many trainers to focus their teacher PD, but we know that will take care of itself, for the most part, if the teacher builds a great lesson from start to finish and connects that to yesterday’s lesson and next week’s, building a larger unit and conceptual framework.

Another instructional strategy we focus on with our teachers is understanding what information they can gain from student learning. How do they know kids are learning what they thought they taught in that particular lesson and in that particular community? How are they assessing that on a daily basis and aligning their lesson and unit design over time? And then, most importantly, how are they responding to what that information is telling them?

It’s fairly common to assume that teachers are learning designers, but they generally are not, so we’re building their learning design skill sets. Finding the best way to design a given lesson pushes them to think of their role as teachers differently.

Teachers and students empowering each other

We’re training teachers on how to use Verso and other tech tools, but the heart of the work being done is not at all about the technology -- it’s about the design element. Technology tools support the intention, but great teachers use every tool at their disposal, whether that's a common number two pencil or a crayon or a paper plate. They make magic with whatever they know is going to get the job done.

That's why we focus on empowering the best teachers to be themselves and try new approaches to teaching and learning. It filters down to the students of our cohort of 80, too. We want those students to go into their other classrooms and put pressure on other teachers to do things that are working. That student voice is the fuel for this transformative work.

It’s exciting to see. We’ve had a few teachers who, in a very short space of time, have gone from thinking of themselves as okay at their job to thinking, “I've actually got the potential to be an incredibly good teacher.”

And once teachers have that mindset, they’re equipped to grow in ways they couldn't have done before, because they have the confidence to go to new places.

James Montgomery is the executive director of high school instruction at Gaston County Schools He and his cohort of teachers are using Verso Learning to support the work they are doing. He can be reached at jrmontgomery@gaston.k12.nc.us.

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