Longmont-area schools get benefit of 'game-changers'
By Pam Mellskog for the Times-Call
Though she arrived with the "permed and big" hair many other 21-year-old women wore in the early 1990s, Patty Hagan dressed up in a blouse, slacks, and heels when student teaching high school English to look older and possibly wiser.
A VHS tape of her then helped her both appreciate her emerging poise and iron out that annoying "um" that cropped up too many times when she lectured.
Hagan, now 46, graduated in 1992 with a master's degree in the subject prepared to succeed in the profession until she finished her first year with a withering case of disillusionment.
"I was done. I was out of there," she said. "... That is why coaching beyond student teaching is essential."
Somehow, Hagan managed to stick it out, learn on the job, and grow into an accomplished veteran teacher hired five years ago by the St. Vrain Valley School District as a professional learning coach.
She joined a team of five other learning coaches focused on helping rookie teachers districtwide to expect the phases most first year teachers must weather between August and May: anticipation, survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation, and reflection, according to the National Education Association.
Though the district reports an "extremely low" annual attrition rate between 1 percent and 2 percent, recruiting faculty dogs school districts statewide, given the five-year decline in teachers graduating from Colorado schools, according to the 2016 Legislative Educator Preparation Report.
The report shows that number dropped 2.2 percent in 2015 and 24.4 percent since 2010.
To attract and retain high-quality teachers, the SVVSD's learning coaches every August offer what they hope will be a game changer for all new hires — not just first year teachers — through something called Induction Academy.
Stuffy as that sounds, Hagan likens the 2 ½-day orientation to a wedding reception for how they celebrate the new school year with good food and small groups to discuss the big things that make or break a teacher's track record and, ultimately, a student's learning experience and performance.
"In the past, we did more pedagogy (instructional methods). But some teachers were like, 'We've already had this in college.' So, this year, we moved from being pedagogy-focused to reflection focused on best practices," she said.
To that end, the district's learning coaches promise every first-year teacher with no previous teaching experience a minimum of 24 hours of one-on-one coaching.
A powerful tool in that process can be videotaping both the teacher teaching and the class responding, Hagan said.
"We always want our teachers looking at the data and using that to set goals," she said.
But instead of just viewing the recording and gleaning something from obvious weaknesses and strengths as Hagan did 24 years ago, the coaching team encourages teachers to use EdThena (www.edthena.com). The video platform helps teachers reflect more critically on their teaching performance in terms of the ratio of positive to negative interaction; on-task time; student engagement; turn-and-talk student discussion time; and total student participation percentages.
"The goal in all of this is to keep every student engaged in learning. The old-fashioned method of students raising their hands means that the same kids raise their hands. So, we encourage using what we call cold calling because it is one of the most effective techniques," Hagan continued.
"First-year teachers are afraid to use it in my experience because they didn't like it when they were students. But it shouldn't be a gotcha. If we build a culture where cold calling is just expected and it's a safe environment to do that, they won't bristle."
Much like athletic coaches videotaping players to provide helpful feedback, the learning coaches hope teachers who elect to use EdThena will gain the kind of post game day reflection that motivates best practices in the profession and leads to "master teacher" status.
Yet, the real power learning coaches impart comes from the relationship they forge with new teachers, Madi (Strimbu) Drake said.
She started teaching "specials" — technology, science, and literacy — to various grade levels at Thunder Valley K-8 in Frederick as a fresh college graduate during the 2015/2016 school year. The district paired her with learning coach Rychie Rhodes.
"There's so much to learn about the community and how the district works. The coaches do so much in helping you to not feel lost," she said.
Rhodes often observed Drake, 23, in the classroom two or three times a week, and the two of them would process that teaching experience together after students left.
That reflection time gave Drake insights about giving children choices in learning; communicating expectations and directions clearly; and connecting with each student.
"Sometimes kids don't do what you want because your instructions weren't clear, and they don't want to ask you again because it makes them look dumb. So, they just act out," she explained. "With Rychie there, I just was able to reconsider what space the student might be in and to give them some cooling off time before pushing back. ... But she never came into the classroom as an evaluator. She was my coach. And she reminded me that a teacher isn't coming from this place of being high and mighty, but from the place of someone still learning."
To deepen this sense of learning along with the students, the group of new hires that met in August for orientation meets once a month during the school year for a two-hour training over dinner at the district's main office in Longmont at 395 S. Pratt Parkway, Diane Lauer, Assistant Superintendent of Priority Programs and Academic Support, said.
"We may have 50 brand-spanking new teachers in the district. But they may be the only new teachers at their school. It can be a lonely year. So, these monthly meetings are a great way to get teachers talking to other teachers, to discuss challenges and solutions," Lauer, who manages the learning coaches, added.
But the learning coaches don't limit their interaction with teachers to new hires alone. They lead in-school trainings for faculty, help principals set goals, and coach teachers short-term who get stuck overcoming a challenge.
Such was the case for Sam Ackerman, a first year language arts teacher at Longmont's Skyline High School in need of intensive coaching to translate the design process thinking of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curriculum to his students.
He wanted his students to understand rhetoric — persuasive writing and speaking — better, through a project that examined how to"fix the justice system."
His students came to the subject with very different skill levels and knowledge bases, he said.
During one December meeting between his classes, Hagan sat beside the desk of the lanky young man in pressed blue jeans, and they reflected on how to scaffold students well enough to keep all of them engaged and moving forward.
"If there was a fly on the wall looking down on your classroom working on this project on any given day, what would you want to see through that fly's eyes?" she said.
Ackerman explained that he wanted them to develop good habits -- to suspend judgments as they brainstormed an idea; to be skeptical of some Googled sources; to use facts to appeal to logic and emotion; to consider the audience.
"But it is hard to give generalized instruction when the kids are in all different places," he said. "Ultimately, I just want them to identify the problem and solve the problem."
Hagan repeated what she heard and encouraged him to break down his approach into what she termed mini lessons or mini focal points.
"And what do you do when it doesn't go according to the plan?" she said. "This is an important piece of learning independence — identifying their own struggle and working through it with them."