Photos by Scott Buschman
Yas-Meen West is teaching sixth-graders how to find the least common multiple in a math class at Cesar E. Chavez Middle School, but her lesson is accomplishing much more. She is also teaching new teachers how to integrate technology with the new standards, foster student engagement, and reinforce positive behavior.
With 34 students at their desks — and 11 teachers sitting on the sidelines — West has two audiences packed into a single room, plus a reporter and a photographer. Teaching in this environment is a balancing act, but she doesn’t miss a beat.
Fun, interactive exercises on the Smart Board actively engage students and stimulate frenzied notetaking by the adult observers. After some collaboration time for problem-solving, West praises students who come up with the correct answers, and offers encouragement to others such as “Thank you for trying” and “Thank you for being a risk-taker.” It’s her way of letting new teachers know it’s OK to take risks and try something new in their classrooms.
West is one of 34 “demonstration teachers” sharing exemplary teaching practices with colleagues in San Bernardino City Unified School District’s 50 elementary schools, 11 middle schools, 10 high schools and four adult or alternative schools. The thinking is that the traditional professional development model — lecture and demonstrations — pales in comparison to seeing the real thing with students.
“I love it,” says West, a San Bernardino Teachers Association (SBTA) member. “I wanted to help adults, but I didn’t want to leave the classroom to become a coach. For me, being a demonstration teacher is the best of both worlds.”
“Observing other teachers makes everyone a better teacher. We have amazing resources who have a passion to share their skills and knowledge. It makes sense to take advantage of that expertise.” — Morgan Pellettera, San Bernardino Teachers Association and lead teacher in the Demonstration teacher program
Opening the classroom doors
Teaching often occurs behind closed doors in isolation from other adults. And teacher coaching is often done in private. Throwing open the classroom doors and inviting everyone in is something that rarely happens. In fact, it can make some teachers nervous.
But San Bernardino educators are determined to change that mindset.
“We realized that observing other teachers makes everyone a better teacher,” says Morgan Pellettera, SBTA member and lead teacher for the Demonstration Teacher Program (DTP). “We have all these amazing resources right in our own backyard — teachers, with a passion to share their skills and knowledge of Common Core State Standards [CCSS] and Next Generation Science Standards [NGSS] instruction. It makes sense to take advantage of all that expertise.”
Krista Richardson, an induction mentor for the district and SBTA member, says the new teachers are indeed learning from the experts every time they walk through the doors of a demonstration classroom.
“New teachers sometimes struggle with just getting students to sit down and line up without talking,” she explains. “They think they are the only ones who are struggling. But when they see how other teachers are creating a positive environment and staying organized, it’s really helpful.”
The DTP is a collaboration of SBTA members, CSU San Bernardino College of Education faculty, and the district, whose director of employee development, Mary Pierce, set things in motion for the program to launch in 2014.
Beginning with just eight demonstration teachers, the program has expanded to 34. Teachers must apply to be demonstration teachers. The rigorous process includes an interview, observation, and a recommendation from the teacher’s evaluator or principal to the superintendent.
Once selected, they continue to teach their current classes, but are available for individual or group teacher visits, followed by a question and answer session. Demonstration teachers are considered “teaching program specialists,” and receive a 5 percent salary increase. The district hires substitute teachers to take over for the classes of observing teachers.
Some of the demonstration teachers, including Pellettera, have been involved with CTA’s Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC), a project in partnership with the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford University. ILC is at the cutting edge of teacher-driven professional development. Pellettera is also a National Board Certified Teacher, and is supporting a group of demonstration teachers who are working toward that goal.
Since 2015, teachers and principals from every site have participated in districtwide “Instructional Rounds,” focusing on best practices in demonstration classrooms. More than 750 educators, including new and veteran teachers, have visited the classrooms to learn and observe.
Videos expand audience
To share examples of good teaching with a wider audience, the DTP films lessons. The district hired an instructional videographer, who produces about 15 videos per year, each between three and nine minutes.
“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have mastered, you will never grow. Being a demonstration teacher is not for the faint of heart. But I had some incredible mentors when I began my career, and I wanted to pay it forward.” — Tracy Diekmann-Acuña, San Bernardino Teachers Association
So far there are more than 65 videos, several of which are featured on the California Department of Education’s website as an exemplary resource for teachers. They are also being used by AVID in their professional development conferences. The videos have had nearly 130,000 views and have been shown in 49 countries.
The online videos and word of mouth have prompted other districts to visit San Bernardino. Some districts, such as Ontario-Montclair, have expressed interest in implementing a similar program.
In addition to modeling lessons and starring in videos, demonstration teachers present at conferences, use social media to increase awareness of DTP, share and publish lesson plans, and provide in-service training to keep colleagues abreast of new CCSS and NGSS developments. The district also provides each demonstration teacher with $2,000 a year to spend on the conferences of their choice, so they can stay at the forefront of educational best practices.
It’s a big responsibility but worth it, says demonstration teacher Tracy Diekmann-Acuña, a third-grade teacher at Emmerton Elementary who was recently named San Bernardino County Teacher of the Year.
“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have mastered, you will never grow,” says Diekmann-Acuña, an SBTA member. “Being a demonstration teacher is not for the faint of heart. At times it can be uncomfortable. But I had some incredible mentors when I began my career, and I wanted to pay it forward.”
Visiting teachers debrief
West’s lesson on least common multiples comes to an end, and the visiting teachers gather with her and their induction mentors to review what they observed.
“I really like the way Yas-Meen incorporates technology into the lesson,” comments Gabby Rodriguez, a second-year sixth-grade teacher at Gomez Elementary School. “I want to use technology as openers in my lessons.”
Carmen Sterling, a second-year sixth-grade teacher at Muscoy Elementary, says she loves the routine students follow.
“The kids come in and know exactly what to do,” she says with admiration. “I love how she does call and response with claps to keep them engaged and focused, and she broke up the technology part of the class with table talk and collaboration to check their understanding.”
Nubia Ortega, a second-year fourth-grade teacher at Hunt Elementary, says she admires the “student growth mindset” that motivates students to keep trying for the right answer. “I love how she encourages risk-takers and makes them feel comfortable. I will be doing that in my classroom.”
For West, having visitors around keeps things interesting and makes her job more rewarding.
“Hearing them say ‘Thank you’ and hearing that I’ve helped them makes everything worthwhile.”
The Demonstration Teacher Program
See a short video on the program, which includes interviews with three demonstration teachers including Tracy Diekmann-Acuña, at tinyurl.com/ SBDemonstrationTeacherProgram. For videos of demonstration teachers conducting lessons, see vimeo.com/sanbdocityschools/videos.