Future of Teaching

Teachers kept quitting this Indianapolis school. Here’s how the principal got them to stay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Abby Campbell is a first year teacher at Lew Wallace, an elementary school where 97 percent of teachers will return next year.

When Jeremy Baugh took the helm as principal of School 107 three years ago, staff turnover was so high that about half the teachers were also new to the struggling elementary campus, he said. For his first two years, the trend continued — with several teachers leaving each summer.

“In the back of my mind,” he said, “I just kind of had assumed that that was going to be the norm — that I was going to have to always be on the lookout for good talent.”

But when he surveyed his staff this year, Baugh got some unexpected news: about 97 percent of teachers said they plan on returning. “I was thrilled,” he said.

Staff say the change is heavily driven by a new teacher leadership program Indianapolis Public Schools has rolled out at 15 schools. Known as opportunity culture, some teachers are paid as much as $18,300 extra per year to oversee and support several classrooms. Educators at School 107, which is also known as Lew Wallace, say opportunity culture helps retain staff in two ways: It gives new teachers, who can often feel overwhelmed, support. And, it allows experienced teachers to take on more responsibility without leaving the classroom.

As districts across the country struggle to hire teachers — particularly in hard-to-fill specialties such as math and science — many schools are especially interested in retaining the teachers they have. Although there is little research directly linking leadership opportunities with retention, there is some research suggesting one reason teachers leave the profession is because they feel they don’t have influence in their schools and they have few opportunities to advance.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Principal Jeremy Baugh has been at Lew Wallace for three years.

At School 107, which began the program last school year, there are three multi-classroom leaders who each oversee several classroom teachers. Their role is to offer advice, training, and support to their peers. They are ultimately responsible for the test data in all the classrooms they oversee.

One of those teachers is Deanna Schmidt. With five years of experience and a masters degree, she was looking for a job where she could train teachers and continue to work with students.

“I loved teaching but I just wanted to do something different. I had kind of tossed around the idea of maybe going back for an admin license,” she said. But “I don’t really want to be a principal.”

Instead, Schmidt left her job at the Butler Lab School to work as a multi-classroom leader at Lew Wallace. “I think I found the perfect fit,” she said.

Lew Wallace is one of the most diverse campuses in the city. The neighborhood it draws from, near Lafayette Square, is full of recent immigrants and refugees. And that’s reflected at the school, where 38 percent of students are learning English.

That’s just one of the challenges facing students and teachers. Over 80 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free lunch, according to state data. And mobility at the school is so high that more than half of its 606 students are new this year, Baugh said.

The result is that teaching at School 107 can be particularly hard, Baugh said. In one classroom, for example, there might be several students who are learning English — who the teacher struggles to communicate with — and four children with difficult behavior, he said.

“Those four children create kind of this shaken pop bottle syndrome in the classroom where everybody feels on edge,” he said. “That can be difficult to teach in because you don’t have this sense of calm all the time.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
About half the students in Abby Campbell’s fourth-grade class are learning English.

School 107 has long struggled on state tests. Fewer than a quarter of students passed the state ISTEP exam in 2016-2017. Over the last two years, however, individual students have made gains in test scores from one year to the next. Those improvements began before the school started using opportunity culture. But a recent study of three districts using the teacher leadership model found multi-classroom leaders raised student math scores — although they did not appear to raise reading scores.

The idea behind opportunity culture is that teachers — especially newer teachers — are not alone in handling challenges. They have mentors helping them in a range of ways — including modeling lessons, pulling small groups, and working on lesson plans.

Abby Campbell, who is in her first year teaching, has 31 students in her fourth grade class. Her students run the gamut from those who are far below grade level to those who are above it. Close to half of them are English language learners, and about five have special education plans, she said.

When she started teaching, she was overwhelmed. “I had a lot of nights with tears, and not sure if I was going to survive the year,” she said.

Campbell not only survived the year but plans on returning in the fall. One of the main reasons, she said, is because of the support she’s gotten from her multi-classroom leader, Jessica Smith. Smith helps Campbell with nearly all the pieces of her job — from lesson plans to emotional support, said Campbell.

“I can’t even imagine doing it without Jessica,” she said. “I would’ve been a hot mess.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teacher Abby Campbell works on math with her fourth-grade class.

Initially, some teachers at Lew Wallace were uncomfortable with having multi-classroom leaders essentially overseeing their classes. But the classroom leaders are supposed to be team members, and most teachers are more at ease now that they’ve gotten to know them, staff said.

“I was wary,” said Steve Carr, who teaches sixth-grade math. But Brandon Warren, the classroom leader he works with, helps him without being prescriptive, Carr said.

“It’s not me telling you what to do. It’s what we’re going to do together,” Warren said.

Multi-classroom leaders also lead regular training for teachers. After struggling to tackle everything during teacher training, the multi-classroom leaders at School 107 eventually decided to focus on a small number of issues. This year, they are working on strategies for improving student writing and for keeping students engaged — particularly English language learners, who may not feel comfortable answering questions in front of the class.

Because so many of their teachers are returning next year, they will be able to move on to new focus areas — strategies for teaching math and English language learners — instead of repeating the same teacher training, said Smith, one of the classroom leaders.

“It’s so hard to keep training new teachers all the time,” she said. “If we can keep our teachers, they are going to be such a higher caliber because we’ve put our time into them, and we’ve invested in them.”

Teaching teachers

Mentors matter: Good teaching really can be passed down to student teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Janet Lo (left) and Stacey Gong-Zhang attend a training program for pre-K teachers.

Do student teachers learn more when they’re mentored by especially effective teachers?

The answer may seem obvious, but there’s been little research confirming as much. Until now.

Three studies released this year offer real evidence that good teaching can be passed down, in a sense, from mentor teacher to student teacher. In several cases, they find that the performance of the student teachers once they have their own full-time classrooms corresponds to the quality of the teacher they trained under.    

And as many teacher preparation programs face pressure to improve, the findings offer a common-sense prescription: invest in finding the most effective possible teachers to supervise their trainees.

“Taken together, the point is that teachers who are … effective appear to be very promising mentors,” said Matt Ronfeldt, a University of Michigan professor who co-authored all three papers.

One of the studies, published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher, examined thousands of student teachers between 2010 and 2015 who were subsequently hired by a Tennessee public school. (Getting the data to understand this was a multi-year undertaking, since there isn’t a centralized system connecting mentors with their student teachers.)  

It found that teachers tended to be better at raising students’ test scores if their supervising teacher was better than average, too. Similarly, new teachers scored better on classroom observation rubrics when they had been mentored by a teacher who also scored well on that same rubric.

There was no evidence that teachers with more years of experience, all else equal, were more effective as supervisors.

The researchers can’t definitively prove cause and effect, but the results suggest that the mentor teachers are imparting certain specific skills to their student teachers.

The effect was small, though: Having a supervising teacher who did particularly well on their observations or their test scores was comparable to about half the performance leap teachers make between their first and second years in the classroom. That’s not a huge difference, but research has found teachers make their steepest improvement in those years.

A similar study, released in January, focused on about 300 student teachers in Chicago Public Schools who were subsequently hired in the district. Again, the student teachers who had better mentor teachers, as measured by classroom observations, ended up with better observation scores themselves.

Here too, there was no clear benefit of having a more experienced supervisor.

A separate paper, published in April through the research organization CALDER, looked at a single teacher prep program, Tennessee Tech University, which allowed researchers to conduct an experiment with its student teacher placements.

After all of the supervising teachers and schools had been selected, researchers divided them into two categories: those likely to be effective mentors and those less likely to be. This was based on data on the teachers (their performance and years of experience) and the schools (staff retention numbers and student achievement growth). From there, the nearly 200 teachers were randomly assigned, allowing the researchers to conclusively determine whether being in that high-quality group mattered.

It did. The student teachers with better placements reported that their mentor teachers were better instructors, offered more frequent and better coaching, and provided more opportunities for them to practice. This analysis didn’t track the student teachers’ later performance, but they did report that they felt more prepared to teach themselves and to manage their future classrooms.

This study, the researchers conclude, “would make a strong case to school systems that the quality of placements is fundamental to the development of new teachers.”

The set of studies add to a small but growing body of research on the best ways to set teachers up for success. Previous research had linked higher-functioning placement schools to better results for student teachers. Teachers also seem to do better after having student taught at a school with similar demographics as the school where they go on to teach. And concerns that adding a student teacher to a classroom hurts students (by allowing an untrained teacher to take over for a high-performing one) seem mostly unfounded.

The latest findings aren’t especially surprising, but to Ronfeldt they’re still important.

“While that may be a ‘duh’ moment, the reality is that there [are] often assumptions like this in education, and I think having the research evidence to back it up is critical,” he said, pointing out that few states have requirements that mentor teachers have strong evaluation scores. “We can make all sorts of assumptions, as I have for other things, and find out the opposite.”

Want to read more about efforts to improve teacher preparation? See Chalkbeat stories on teacher residencies, a Texas program known as UTeach, the challenges of identifying successful programs, a teacher training program that has embraced “personalized learning,” Denver’s effort to ease the transition into the classroom, and New York City and Memphis programs to recruit more men of color into teaching.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.