Future of Teaching

Panel: What it means to be a ‘quality educator’ has changed in the 21st century

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Teacher Geoff Davis (left) and Parent Power co-founder Delana Stardust Ivey (right) listen to Robin Hughes, executive associate dean of the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis.

Geoff Davis teaches English and math to fifth and sixth graders at Indianapolis Public School 56.

He also teaches them to play the ukulele.

Why the ukulele?

On Tuesday Davis told a gathering of educators and others at IUPUI that he knows the 45 minutes his students spend playing the ukulele gets some of them through the day.

“It doesn’t sound terribly relevant but it gives kids a reason to come to school,” he said. “I know a boy who is smart, but resentful and difficult. He taught himself the chords I have up on the wall. Then I started to teach him to play the ukulele. Now I can talk to him about anything.”

He’s not the only one, Davis said.

Davis was part of a panel Tuesday that addressed about 40 educators as part of the university’s annual Cohen Lecture.

The Cohen Lecture series began in 2014 to honor Michael Cohen, a retired professor in science education who taught at the school of education from 1968 to 2003 and authored an elementary school textbook called “Discover Science.”

Along with Davis, the panel included Tiffany Kyser of the Great Lakes Equity Center, Parent Power co-founder Delana Stardust Ivey, city of Indianapolis Education Director Ahmed Young, and Robin Hughes, executive associate dean of the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis.

The conversation grappled with the complex challenges of the 21st century classroom, such as how to ensure equal treatment for students from all backgrounds, how to connect with students’ families and even how to define a quality educator.

Kyser, who earned a doctorate at IUPUI and now works for a U.S. Department of Education regional center that supports equity training around race, gender, national origin in Indiana and five other states said her organization has a different definition of what makes a high quality educator.

Kyser described a traditional definition of a quality educator as one who has credentials, good evaluations and produces good test scores. The center instead suggests a high quality educator views students’ cultural backgrounds as assets, works to empower them and fosters not just academic learning, but also social and emotional growth.

No matter how you define it, quality teaching is too rare in many schools, Kyser said.

“We have to be very overt in acknowledging not all students have had the benefit of how that local community defines as a high quality educator,” she said.

Young, who oversees more than 30 charter schools sponsored by Mayor Joe Hogsett, said his definition of a quality educator might surprise some people because it is not based on credentials or test scores.

“For me it’s someone who is able to inspire, lead, educate and foster a sense of confidence and efficacy in a child that brings out their innate gifts,” he said. “If they are able to bring that out, that is a teacher. I think we have become beholden to these very confined definitions of what at teacher is.”

Ivey, an IPS parent, said quality teaching is affected by the mandates laid on teachers’ shoulders. She said she sees teachers who are uncomfortable with requirements that they focus on specific skills with the sole goal of boosting test scores.

Education leaders, she said, have not listened to the teachers, to the parents or to students. For example, her son told her he didn’t like school anymore after recess was eliminated.

“Students were speaking out, but we labeled it as acting out,” she said. “The truth is they are being used. It’s a ‘disorder’ if they aren’t sitting quietly all day.”

Hughes said test scores correlate so strongly with a student’s family wealth that she is not sure how much is learned from those results, even if students succeed on those measures.

“I’d want to think about folks being ‘humanity ready,’” she said. “We talk about people being ‘college ready’ but that just means being able to perform well the first year in college. If we think about ‘humanity ready’, that is what ‘does it mean to be truly educated and really thoughtful?’”

Davis praised his school for its healthy approach to teaching, which allows him to take risks, like teaching ukulele. But he’s felt the pressure to abandon creative teaching methods in the past.

“High stakes testing has completely changed what occurs in the classroom and it hasn’t been good,” he said. “It breaks instruction down into tiny skill bytes. I had to do it — 10 or 15 minutes skill lessons without any depth, discussion, connectedness or relevance.”

It’s a frustrating way to teach, Davis said.

That’s not how we use information or share information,” he said. “And it’s so time consuming.”


student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.


Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.