May 7, 2019
This is the second blog in a series on professional learning for elementary school principals. A new blog will be released every Tuesday between April 30th and May 28th.
On a Wednesday morning in January at a pre-K through fifth grade school in southwest San Antonio, Betsy Fox, director of Early Learning Partnerships at the New Teacher Center (NTC), arrived to lead the school principal through what NTC calls an “in-field support visit” or a “walk and talk.” Fox would spend the next two hours with the principal observing pre-K and early grade classrooms to help her analyze whether the instruction and learning in her school mirrors what is developmentally appropriate for young children.
While only the principal was required to join this morning, the assistant principal, math coach, and literacy coach also rearranged their schedules to tag along. First, everyone convened briefly in the principal’s office to discuss the agenda. Fox started with an ice-breaker, asking the group to share what they were doing in the year 2000. Connecting with the administrators on a personal level is key to her work, as it helps put them at ease so that they feel comfortable being open during her visit.
These visits are an opportunity for school leaders to receive one-on-one, specialized professional learning. Before entering the classrooms, Fox let the group choose what they wanted to look for. They opted for “student talk,” a school-wide initiative already in place. They hoped not to see quiet classrooms with teachers doing all the talking, but instead classrooms where children have opportunities to discuss and teach each other. Child development research shows that talk among students fosters socialization, deepens comprehension, and is part of a strong oral language environment that promotes children’s literacy.
Unfortunately, on this day, student talk and strong teacher-child interactions were missing in most of the classrooms the group observed. Both the pre-K and kindergarten teachers were using direct instruction and asking students few, if any, open-ended questions. Teachers emphasized following directions and precise responses over inquiry and back-and-forth conversation.
As we moved from classroom to classroom, there were other signs that instruction was not aligned with what research says is best for young children. We saw almost no dramatic play areas in the pre-K or kindergarten classrooms. Instead, children were filling in worksheets, and kindergarteners were working on crafts where the stated goal was to make sure the project turned out just like the teacher’s model. A poster on the wall in one classroom described “good coloring” as “coloring with the real color.” Opportunities for creativity, exploration, and student talk seemed limited.
During the “walk and talk,” Fox’s role was to develop the administrative team as instructional leaders, helping them to identify both effective teaching moments and areas for improvement. She debriefed quickly with them after each classroom and then more deeply at the end of the two hours. Fox let the administrators take the lead in the debrief, asking what they saw. When their observations did not align with developmentally appropriate practice, she nudged them on their thinking.
The team noted the opportunities for student talk they did see and discussed how to encourage teachers to incorporate more inquiry questions in their lessons. They decided to prioritize this during grade-level meetings. Fox encouraged administrators to be up-front and open about what they knew and didn’t know. She reassured the group by saying, “you are not alone in struggling with these issues.” The administrators also requested feedback on how to talk to their teachers. With Fox’s advice, they agreed to start by simply moving away from the term “monitoring” to “supporting” with teachers to change the way they view feedback. She offered to send them a series of resources following the meeting to help them implement the changes they discussed.
This was Fox’s second time at this elementary school for a “walk and talk” with this principal. She had also interacted with her two other days the same week: that Monday, the principal joined a dozen others from her district a neighboring district for a “learning walk” where they observed classrooms as a group at another elementary school. That Tuesday, all elementary school principals or assistant principals from both districts participated in a half-day seminar on early math instruction and coaching practices.
These are all components of NTC’s Early Learning Leadership Program (ELLP), a year-long opportunity to help principals “see differently” in pre-K and the early grades. Principals learn early learning pedagogy and how to support teacher improvement. The curriculum is based on the National Association for Elementary School Principals’ core competencies. The NTC model typically requires all principals in a district to participate and strongly encourages other district leaders to attend the seminars. In this case there are 27 elementary school principals between the two districts. Fox says that “this is really key to get people in the room who normally do not think about early childhood education. But it can also make for some challenging participants who don't actively support early learning at their schools.”
This professional learning opportunity is funded through a local grant from Pre-K 4 San Antonio, a citywide pre-K program. In 2012, San Antonio voters approved a 1/8th of a cent increase in the city’s sales tax to fund the program. Grants to San Antonio districts for professional learning are just one aspect of the Pre-K 4 San Antonio program.
These San Antonio districts are two of eight districts throughout the country in which NTC has offered ELLP. NTC contextualizes the program to each district. For example, Long Beach Unified School District asked for more content on social-emotional learning and executive function, so NTC made that a priority. Four new districts have shown interest in participating next year.
NTC’s program is more time- and resource-intensive than many others around the country, largely because of the individual school visits. But following Fox over the course of three days, it is easy to see how valuable these are to altering teacher practice, which is the ultimate goal. It’s one thing for principals to hear in a seminar what early learning should look like; it’s different to be able to critique teaching and learning in their own schools. NTC’s program prioritizes depth over breadth: it is focused on elementary schools (but may include a district’s early learning leaders), and has an emphasis on pre-K and kindergarten, though the lessons can apply to first through third grade.
Evaluations of NTC’s work show that its approach is effective. While it doesn’t have an evaluation of this project, data from its i3 Scale-Up Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which focused on mentoring and induction for beginning teachers, found that “regardless of district context, when teacher mentors receive NTC’s high-quality, consistent professional learning, the teachers they mentor are more effective and their students learn more.” This project employed professional learning methods similar to those Fox uses with elementary school principals in ELLP. NTC also collects data on participants’ growth throughout their programs. Participants complete extensive evaluations about their experience at the end of each seminar. They also rate their own proficiency on the various content areas covered during the series at the beginning and end of the program.
Fox believes that to improve practice you need three things: “effective early childhood education coaches, then principal and district leadership, and then teacher training.” Her goal is to be a thought partner with principals and district leaders. One benefit of coming from outside of the state or district is that she isn’t their boss; she cannot be punitive, but simply help principals improve. Fox says it’s important to her that during visits they are “laughing, sharing stories, and creating trust and rapport.”
At the end of Fox’s visit with the leaders at this San Antonio elementary school, she asked them for feedback on the morning and how the experience changed their thinking. The principal said wholeheartedly, “I feel your support.” Fox returned to San Antonio and followed up with this principal in person one additional time this year, and the district recently has asked her to return next year to facilitate additional forums and visit each school.
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