By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Jennifer Kipfel mentors Samantha Abdullah at Rancho Pico Middle School in Santa Clarita in a unique program that melds Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment with Peer Assistance and Review.
Samantha Abdullah, a first-year teacher, perches on top of a desk and proudly observes while students in her eighth-grade English classroom at Rancho Pico Middle School interrogate one another and answer questions about the book they have just completed.
“Why did you try to drown Ponyboy in a fountain?” the “prosecutor” asks the “defendant” sternly as students in the class giggle during a mock trial of a character in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.
Abdullah’s mentor, Jennifer Klipfel, observes the instruction. Afterward, in a conference room, they discuss the lesson.
“It went well, but time seemed to be an issue,” says Klipfel. She suggests that next time the lesson can flow more smoothly by having students submit questions in advance. Abdullah thanks her mentor, expressing eagerness to try out her suggestions next time.
This kind of support is critical for teachers to grow. At a time when budget cuts have damaged recruitment and retention programs and made teachers’ jobs even more stressful, creating support systems is a critical way to keep teachers in the profession and help struggling teachers succeed. This support can take many forms, including Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), instructional supervisors, and professional learning communities. What do they all have in common? Teachers are supporting other teachers.
Starting off right
Abdullah is fortunate to be teaching in the William S. Hart Union High School District in Santa Clarita near Los Angeles, which offers a unique program that melds Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA), a state-funded program that pairs new teachers with veteran teachers, with Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), which generally provides peer feedback for teachers identified as struggling, to create a hybrid support system for teachers. It is operated by and for members of the Hart District Teachers Association in conjunction with administrators.
What makes Hart unique is that all teachers receive help. Teachers with a preliminary credential receive BTSA and PAR concurrently the first year, continue in BTSA the second year and continue PAR an extra year if needed. Teachers on emergency permits don’t qualify for BTSA; but instead of being left to sink or swim, they are automatically enrolled in PAR. Veteran teachers who are identified as “struggling” by administrators in evaluations also enroll in PAR, either voluntarily or at the recommendation of their administrator. Unlike other districts where mentors have classrooms of their own, Hart has four mentor teachers who offer full-time assistance.
Such individualized attention allows teachers to thrive and prevents problems down the road, says Linda Margulies, the lead consulting teacher with the PAR program and also the BTSA induction director. Even though support providers have evaluative powers, she adds, most teachers find the help constructive.
Abdullah has felt overwhelmed at times, and is grateful for the strong support.
“My mentor, Jennifer Klipfel, sees things I don’t see and how they can be improved, such as where I’m posting homework assignments in class, or lesson planning, or how I structure my daily activities,” says Abdullah. “She’s making me a much better teacher.”
Klipfel — Abdullah’s mentor for both BTSA and PAR — says the two programs sometimes flow together seamlessly, and it’s difficult to separate one from the other. To be successful, she adds, a relationship must be built based on trust and caring between the mentor and participant. She is proud to have such a relationship with Abdullah.
Leslie Littman, president of the Hart District Teachers Association, says that supporting new teachers is crucial to retention, especially in the hard-to-staff areas of special education, math and science. She estimates that half of the district’s approximately 1,000 teachers went through the PAR program, which became mandatory over a decade ago for teachers with less than three years of experience. Only a handful have left the district, she says proudly, noting that nationally nearly a third — 32 percent — of new teachers leave the profession within seven years.
In addition, several veteran teachers identified as “struggling” who have completed PAR have been rejuvenated by learning new skills and reflecting on their practice, she adds, while a few veteran teachers in PAR came to the realization that it was time to pursue another career.
Despite statewide budget cuts, the program will continue, says Littman. The district spent approximately $400,000 last year on PAR, BTSA and professional development — some of which comes from the state, but a portion also comes from the district’s general fund.
“The district chooses to fund our program because it’s a priority,” she says. “It’s because they know that it’s working.”
Instructional supervisors lend a helping hand
When Maria Rao was hired as a high school math teacher three years ago, students in her classes began behaving badly around the third week. She was taken aback and was not sure what to do. After all, this was Palo Alto High School, one of the highest-achieving schools in the nation. She sought some classroom management advice from Radu Toma, a fellow teacher who is also her “instructional supervisor.” Three years later, she continues to receive support and advice from him.
Created by Palo Alto Education Association members and administrators, the Instructional Supervision program matches mentor teachers with new teachers for one-to-one support. Veteran teachers also get support from instructional supervisors. Every English, science and math department in the district’s middle school and high schools has an instructional supervisor who teaches their own classes, but is granted relief time for coaching their peers.
Instructional supervisors also help administrators make hiring decisions for new staff, and support teachers once they are hired. Until recently, they were responsible for evaluations of all teachers, but they will now share that responsibility with administrators.
“It makes fabulous sense; it’s the reason I came to California,” says Suz Antink, a math teacher at Palo Alto High School and a former instructional supervisor for 18 years. “When you have another pair of eyes in the classroom, you can really focus on how you get your subject matter across.”
Sometimes instructional supervisors meet with teachers in advance of a lesson they will be observing. Other times they just drop in unannounced. Afterward there are meetings to talk about what was good, what can be improved, and what can be done differently.
“It’s an expensive program, but it tells us that the district values us deeply,” says Antink. “There is never any talk about cutting it. If you want teachers to grow in their craft, you have to invest in them.”
Such a program may not work in every district, says Toma, the current instructional supervisor for the math department at Palo Alto High School, but it works in Palo Alto, because teachers are receptive to constructive criticism and want students to succeed. He says instructional supervisors give support and advice that could only come from an experienced teacher in the same subject.
Rao is grateful for Toma’s help. “It makes such a difference when advice comes from someone who knows what they are talking about,” she says. “Sometimes I’m nervous, but our conversations make me feel that I’m growing as a teacher.”
Collaboration, not isolation
Collaboration is the key to success at Sparks Middle School in La Puente, a school where teachers support each other in professional learning communities. Hacienda La Puente Teachers Association members created a schedule that allows them to meet as a group in daily collaboration time on top of their standard prep period. Dani Tucker, association president, says the practice has dramatically increased student achievement and improved the culture of the school, which serves primarily low-income students.
President of Hacienda La Puente Teachers Association
“It went from being that school — where nobody wanted to be — to the school where everybody wants to be, and is now considered a hidden treasure,” says Tucker. “We may not buy into the argument that test scores are the way in which schools should be judged, but the school’s scores are now stellar (in the 800s). Teachers have earned the right to do it their way.”
Principal Sherri Franson says that the school has tried many things, but teacher support through collaboration time has made the biggest difference. “That’s why we’ve stuck with it; nothing else has made such an impact,” she says.
In addition to talking about best practices, sharing strategies, looking at data and writing common assessments, teachers constantly visit each other’s classrooms so they can see live examples of good teaching. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and isolated, they are energized, enthusiastic and a team.
“It gives me tons of support,” comments Araceli Ibara during a recent collaborative meeting of seventh-grade math teachers. Ibara, a third-year teacher, is the self-described rookie of the group. “But I’ve never felt like the new teacher,” she says. “I’ve learned to take constructive criticism well.”
Raquel Medina describes teacher collaboration as a support system where “everyone is an equal” and “nobody is above anything.” Teachers put their egos on the shelf, roll up their sleeves and get to work. In a collaborative atmosphere, teachers feel free to take risks and try new things.
“I guess it comes down to one thing,” says Medina. “By supporting each other in this way, we are thinking about the kids — and not about ourselves.”
Related Tags: Volume 15 Issue 5, Inside Educator, Educator Feature, Educator, Awareness, Classroom management, New Member Center, Professional Development, Protection, Teaching profession, Trainings, Workshops,