How I Teach

Why this award-winning teacher starts the year eating lunch with her students

PHOTO: Courtesy of Katie Baker
Katie Baker leads her third-graders in a reading exercise at Battle Academy in Chattanooga. Baker is one of 33 educators nationwide and the only Tennessee teacher to receive the 2016-17 Milken Educator Award.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Katie Baker was recently surprised with a $25,000 check — and some national attention as one of the top teachers across the nation.

The Chattanooga teacher was one of 33 educators honored this year with a 2016 award from the Milken Family Foundation — an honor that drew accolades from Tennessee’s top education official.

“At the end of the day, they love you and know you love them,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said of Baker’s students in Hamilton County Schools.

Getting that classroom environment right, though, takes a lot of work. We asked Baker to tell us more about how she gets to know her third-grade students at Battle Academy, a K-5 magnet school in downtown Chattanooga, and why she tries to start each year with a blank slate. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What’s a word or short phrase that describes your teaching style?

Calm. While that may not be how I feel about teaching all the time, that is a word I’ve heard others use to describe my teaching style.

What does your classroom look like?

The first thing you would notice is our large rug where we meet for whole group mini-lessons. I have a guided reading table in the back corner, and the students’ desks are arranged in table groups of 4-6. The goal of the rug and the table groups is to give students opportunities to work together.

I have my classroom set up to allow for as much independence as possible. If my students need something, I want them to be able to get it without having to wait on me. I have designated areas in the room where students know they can look for resources by subject.

How do you get to know your students? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

I eat lunch with my students for the first few days of school, and that gives me some time to get to know what they are like and what they are interested in outside of school. There isn’t a lot of time in the day other than lunch and recess for me to talk to my students and just get to know them.

I like to find out about their families, friends, interests and life outside of school. Forming this relationship early on really helps the sense of community in the classroom. I think it helps all of us feel more comfortable around each other so we can make the most of the time we are in the classroom.

I also greet my students at the door each day to tell them good morning individually, give them a compliment, or touch base with them on something I know is going on in their life. And I try to take some time at recess to talk with individual students if I know they’ve had something going on in their life or I notice a change in their behavior.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

It seems just about every year I have a parent or family member approach me to “warn” me about their child. I’ve had parents apologize to me, saying they are sorry that I have to have their child in my class that year. Sometimes parents will start off right away with a list of “problems” their child has had in the past with school or reasons that they feel he or she won’t be successful. “She’s a really low reader.” “He just can’t focus.” “He was in trouble a lot last year.”

I try to emphasize that this is a brand new year and how I am excited to get to know them more. I try to touch base with parents for positive reasons and to keep them updated on any changes I notice. As much as I can, I try to be proactive. For example, letting parents know that I noticed a low test grade for this student and my plans for reteaching that lesson with them or tips they can work on at home.

The first time this happened was before my very first year, on a day when the students got to come find out who their teacher was for that year. As a new teacher, this worried me and also made me sad that this student’s family had already placed such low expectations on him. I knew I would have to work hard to offset that. Since that interaction, I try to start every year with a blank slate concerning my students and to set my expectations high for everyone in my class.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I love reading books written by my favorite comedians and actresses like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Drew Barrymore and Mindy Kaling. I just finished “Scrappy Little Nobody” by Anna Kendrick.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My dad likes to remind my brother and me how “everything is temporary.” He has said it so often that we usually just laugh and roll our eyes, but I have to admit, he is absolutely right. This helps me to be a better teacher because I remind myself that this school year is temporary. I only have a few months to do everything I can for my students before they are moving on to be someone else’s students.

On the harder days, this is comforting because I know it won’t be hard forever. On the good days, this helps me to relax and enjoy the moment.

Teaching teachers

Year-long residencies for teachers are the hot new thing in teacher prep. But do they work?

For years, education advocates, policymakers and scholars have been trying to put an end to the underprepared novice teacher. The hope has been to find a training model that is just right, pairing theoretical knowledge and practical skills necessary for the messy reality of the classroom.

Now some think they’ve found an approach that works: teacher residencies.

Writing in the New York Times, three staff members of Bank Street College argued for this idea, comparing it to how doctors are trained.

“Aspiring teachers need well-designed and well-supported preparation,” wrote Shael Polakow-Suransky, Josh Thomases, and Karen DeMoss. “Year-long co-teaching residencies, where candidates work alongside an accomplished teacher while studying child development and teaching methods, offer a promising path.”

Indeed, there is consistent research showing that teachers trained through residencies are more likely to stay in the profession, potentially reducing churn in schools and costs of finding and training new teachers.

“When it’s done well, it’s kind of a solution to the teacher shortage problem that has plagued urban districts,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank that recently put out a report praising the residency model.

But preliminary new research focusing on Denver’s residency program showed that teachers trained through the program were less effective at improving student achievement in math than other novice teachers in Denver.

This echoes the findings of a study on the Boston Teacher Residency, a prominent example of the approach. In that case, residency-trained teachers also were less effective in math in their first years in the classroom — though they improved fairly quickly.

Together, the positive impacts on teacher retention and the more tepid effectiveness results might still suggest that residencies are worthwhile. But some see the enthusiasm getting ahead of the evidence, particularly in light of the steep price tag of such models.

“I am amazed by how much enthusiasm this idea seems to be generating, despite the fact that we don’t have much evidence to support it,” said Marty West, a Harvard professor who studied the Boston program.

A teacher residency has several key components, according to proponents.

Darling-Hammond’s group identifies several characteristics: a full year of student teaching under an experienced, effective mentor; a partnership between a school district and university so that practice and theory are closely linked; continuing mentorship after candidates become full-fledged teachers; and payment of student teachers during the residency year in return for a three- to four-year teaching commitment.

The final aspect is part of what makes the program appealing as well as costly.

“As I think about the common elements of residency program, there’s a lot that seems very promising — if also, potentially, very expensive,” West said.

Under a traditional university training model, students pay tuition; under the residency model they get paid, albeit modestly. The Boston Teacher Residency, for instance, is free for those who teach in Boston for three years, and offers candidates a $12,600 stipend as well as health insurance for their residency year. (In that program, teachers do have to pay tuition to UMass Boston to receive a master’s degree as part of the program.)

Retention rates of teachers trained through the Denver Teacher Residency

The upside is that those who go through residencies seem to remain teachers in their school districts for longer. In Denver, for instance, residents were 16 percentage points more likely than other novice teachers to return to the district. A national study of 12 teacher residency programs also showed higher retention rates.

This, Darling-Hammond hypothesizes, is explained by the quality of residence programs.

“I think that amount of student teaching and the mentor teacher being a true expert probably has a lot to do with the retention rate being strong,” she said. “You’re getting everything a beginning teacher should get.”

Although research on what makes teacher training effective has generally not come to clear conclusions, there is evidence for the idea that giving teachers practice in a real classroom is important.

But when it comes to the initial effectiveness of residency-trained teachers — at least as measured by the impact on students’ standardized English and math test scores — the evidence is mixed, and in some cases even negative.

West and colleagues found that teachers who go through the Boston Teacher Residency program were initially less effective at improving student achievement in math and no better in English, compared to other beginning teachers.

To West, these findings were counterintuitive.

“I was excited about the opportunity to evaluate the Boston Teacher Residency because I was optimistic,” he said. “I was surprised by our finding that residents were less effective than other new hires, at least initially.”

Darling-Hammond points out — and West agrees — that the teaching corps is likely to be particularly strong in Boston, where there is a robust higher education sector, so that it might be especially difficult for one program to prove particularly effective.

The Denver study, though, produced similar results: negative impacts on former residents’ students in math and essentially no effect in reading.

But there were bright spots in both evaluations. The teachers in Boston improved swiftly over time to the point that those teaching for five years were more effective than other experienced teachers. Combined with the lower turnover rates, the study estimates that the program had a modestly beneficial effect on student achievement over the long run.

And in Denver, the researchers also examined teachers’ classroom ratings, assigned by trained observers. There, former residents came out ahead of other teachers.

Other research on residency programs is thin but paints a more positive picture. A report on the New Visions Hunter College teacher residency in New York City showed that their teachers outperformed other novices in five high school exam areas, but underperformed in three others. A recent state analysis of 40 teachers trained through the Memphis Teacher Residency found they had above-average impacts on student test scores.

West says he is still optimistic about the residency model. The key question, he says, is whether the costs of the program outweigh the benefits — but no such comprehensive analysis has been done.

Darling-Hammond notes that some programs have tried to save costs by, for instance, using residents as substitutes one day a week or having them take the place of teacher aides. She also emphasizes the impact, financial and otherwise, of residencies on reducing teacher attrition.

“If you think about the costs of replacing teachers … this ends up being a cost-effective investment,” she said.

Training time

Common Core is out. Tennessee Academic Standards are in. Here’s how teachers are prepping for the change.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Karyn Bailey (left), a facilitator from Williamson County Schools, coaches elementary school teachers during an exercise on Tennessee's revised standards for English language arts as part of a two-day training at La Vergne High School, one of 11 training sites across the state.

Teachers poring over Tennessee’s revised academic standards are mostly breathing a sigh of relief as the state prepares for its third change in eight years of what students are expected to learn in each grade.

The Tennessee Academic Standards for math and English language arts, which will reach K-12 classrooms this fall, aren’t dramatically different from Common Core standards used in Tennessee since 2012. But numerous tweaks are sprinkled across the standards — mostly word adjustments for clarity and changes in presentation to make the standards more user-friendly. Some standards also have been moved to different grades and courses for the sake of progression and manageability.

About 6,000 teachers got a two-day crash course on the changes during trainings last week at 11 sites across the state. The Tennessee Department of Education organized the sessions, attended by educators from more than 90 percent of Tennessee’s 146 districts.

“This is the third time I’ve gone through this, and it’s the best one from my perspective,” said John Lasater, a Sumner County math teacher who attended sessions at La Vergne High School near Nashville.

Lasater, who teaches at Westmoreland High School, was thrilled that some standards have been moved out of standards-heavy algebra classes into higher-level math courses. “It was just too much, especially Algebra II,” he said. “Our teachers just never seemed to be able to cover everything.”

Diving into her manual for English language arts, Rutherford County teacher Leila Hinkle liked seeing a greater emphasis on early writing skills, as well as the embedding of language standards in foundational literacy standards.

“I think the new standards are clearer; they’re clarifying,” said Hinkle, who will teach fourth grade this fall. “You can see better where students were supposed to be and where they’re going.”

Standards are foundational because they set learning goals that dictate other education decisions around curriculum and testing. In Tennessee, they are usually reviewed every six years.

The trainings are part of the last major step in a transition that began in 2014 when Gov. Bill Haslam ordered a review after Common Core became embroiled in political controversy over charges of federal overreach, in part because of incentives the Obama administration offered to states that adopted them. Eighteen months of review and revisions followed, with the State Board of Education approving the newly minted Tennessee Academic Standards last year.

The changes aren’t as drastic as in 2011 when Tennessee switched to Common Core. That’s because the committee of educators charged with the overhaul used the Common Core as a foundation rather than starting from scratch. Both sets of standards emphasize critical thinking and analysis and de-emphasize memorization of facts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said many of the changes, while seemingly subtle, are no less substantive.

“A word change can be significant in terms of standards. If you change the word know to explain as far as what students must be able to do, that’s significant. That’s two different levels of understanding,” she said.

The trainings and training resources are costing the state about $3 million over the course of a year, far less than the $23.5 million in federal Race to the Top funds spent on Common Core trainings across three years.

To keep costs down, the state is changing its approach away from dependence on department-led trainings.

Erin McGill, a facilitator for trainings organized by the Tennessee Department of Education, dives into the revised standards with high school math teachers. (Photo by Marta W. Aldrich)

“We’re encouraging districts to identify teams to train with us and then to re-deliver the trainings in their own districts,” said Robbie Mitchell, the department’s executive director of academic strategy and operations. “It’s more about empowering and equipping districts to make their own decisions about what’s best for their district.”

The state plans to use the same training model for the rollout of new science standards in 2018 and social studies standards the following year.

Lasater said he found this year’s trainings productive and worthwhile.

“Before, the trainings were ‘here’s a standard, now let’s work a problem.’ This time, we were challenged to take a standard and develop a question that would fully assess a student’s mastery of it. We weren’t just working a problem; we were creating a problem. That’s a huge shift.”

You can find Tennessee’s new standards for math and English language arts on the Education Department’s website.