Staff development fuels improvement at Saucedo

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In Karen Morris’s 15-year tenure as principal of Saucedo Academy in Little Village, the percentage of students reading at or above national norms as measured by the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills has increased from 14 percent to 46 percent. For the past two years, Saucedo, along with Corkery and Calhoun North, has been a member of the Learning and Sharing Connection, a network of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. The network has focused on staff development as one of the most powerful means to improve student achievement, based on findings by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

As identified in the school district’s “Five Essential Supports to Student Achievement,” a facilitative principal is a key factor in effective school leadership. Karen Morris has cultivated her facilitative leadership skills over the course of a 35-year career in education, and these skills are exemplified in her high expectations of herself and her staff in the area of staff development. She views her faculty as a collective decision-making body when it comes to school-wide planning and monitoring of the school improvement plan or school budget. At the same time, she confers full decision-making authority to teachers as individuals when it comes to identifying their own classroom needs.

Morris, as principal, has created the conditions to successfully implement a best practice process for staff development. A combination of staff input, principal leadership and network collaboration contributed to the final design of the process.

Morris recently talked with us about the hallmarks of a successful, continuous improvement model of staff development and the impact it has had. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Teachers collaborating

SIMMONS/BERRY The faculty at Saucedo has been active in designing their own staff development. Their learning has focused on strategies for collaboration with each other and with students. The level of collaboration at Saucedo reflects the level of trust among faculty members. According to the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the level of trust among teachers in a school is a strong predictor of achievement for students in the school.

MORRIS In 35 years of teaching, I have found that most teachers want children to be successful and to do the best job that they can; it is just a matter of enabling them and empowering them to actually do it. If we help teachers learn new strategies and help them with some of the logistics, we can be more successful. The lecture method, for example, is not the best method for the kind of children that we have now. They are a very visual and hands-on group of people.

One of the things that I really liked about the Learning and Sharing Connection Network is that a lot of my teachers, who before were very traditional, have made some real steps. Before, the room had to be in good order—rows or squares or some kind of prescribed seating manner—and the children really expected to be the receiver of knowledge with the teacher up at the front. Now I see teachers willing to allow children to work together, talk together and collaborate with each other and throw ideas back and forth.

When teachers become more successful, the atmosphere of the classroom becomes much more inviting to children. When we are trying to keep a tight rein on kids, it is exhausting. Teachers often feel that everyone has to be quiet and everyone has to be doing the same thing.

Now I see much more of teachers saying to children, “We are going to do this project and this is our goal.” Teachers are allowing the children the opportunity to plan and think about how they are going to meet this goal. The children are walking around, sharing, getting resources. The teacher is moving about the room a little bit more, telling the student that there is not one right answer. Teachers are open to using more resources, rather than just the textbook, and allowing children to research and bring things into the classroom.

When teachers begin to work this way, they feel better about their teaching. It is a win-win for both groups because the teacher feels that he or she does not have to be the sole imparter of knowledge in the classroom.

Assessing student work

SIMMONS/BERRY At Saucedo, Morris’ expectation is that teachers who participate in the Network training will also practice it and continuously improve upon their practice based on assessments of student work. This training included strategies and tools for critical thinking, student work assessment, peer coaching and teacher leadership. Teachers are coached first by a master teacher/consultant, then by their peers. As principal, Morris monitors the student work as well. Here she comments on changes that she has observed and new levels of collaboration among student and teacher.

MORRIS I see improvement in student work. I see the children being much more open and flowing in their writing and not as prescriptive. There is always a framework; but inside of a framework, a lot of different things can happen.

Using some of the practical tools from the workshops, teachers are discovering that their students know a lot. Not long ago I was in a 5th-grade classroom, and they were studying medieval times. I was amazed with what these children had seen on television, researched on the Internet, had talked about and had read books about. It was just flowing out of them, and it was really beautiful. It probably cut down on the amount of time that the teacher needed to spend on that particular subject because they already knew a lot.

Most teachers want children to think—they don’t consciously try to extinguish thinking. We have to help teachers to realize that children learn a lot more when given a chance to think, to figure things out for themselves and to reason. They will become much more independent learners and ultimately more successful learners.

Teacher reflection

SIMMONS/BERRY One of the first tools teachers learn in the workshops is Quinn’s Questions. These are designed to stimulate reflection on lessons. They represent a fundamental approach to teaching and learning, independent of subject matter. Here Morris talks about the applications of Quinn’s Questions at Saucedo.

MORRIS One of the things that I learned from Madelyn Hunter, the nationally known professor at UCLA, when I went out to study with her for a couple of summers, was how many decisions teachers make about instruction in a day and how it impacts children.

Quinn’s Questions have helped our teachers understand this idea. (See chart.) So many times Quinn’s Questions have given me a vehicle. I can ask a teacher who has been in the Network workshops, “Why are you teaching that? Is it part of the framework statement? Is it part of the curriculum? Or is it just something that you have been doing for the last 100 years?” If it doesn’t have anything to do with anything, take it out. We don’t need it.

We were working on our School Improvement Plan for 2000-2001 for the Professional Personnel Advisory Committee (PPAC) and I said, “What we really need to ask are some of Quinn’s Questions: What are we doing and why are we doing it? Is this making any difference?” The questions are so useful. We had them laminated and posted in each classroom.

Making time available

SIMMONS/BERRY Implicit in Quinn’s Questions is the willingness of a principal to make time for teachers to reflect on lessons and new teaching and learning strategies. In Saucedo’s case, this meant carving out time for training, reflection, practice, coaching and feedback for 73 teachers.

MORRIS Most workshops and inservices that teachers are exposed to are a one-shot or a two-shot deal, and there is no follow-up. The Learning and Sharing Connection Network is different because it has been a continuous presence.

It has been a two-year project with quality consultants who have been open to communicating with teachers. In between the sessions, if teachers want to e-mail them or call them, they can get feedback. That is a real strength. When people go to a workshop and never see that consultant again, after a while the effect disappears.

It is also a comprehensive project that involves teachers and parents. We have more than half the teachers who can share and work together. Next year, we’ll have all the teachers involved. That has been a real benefit. When you only send one or two teachers to a workshop, it is hard to disseminate the information to 73 people. If those one or two people leave, you are left sitting with all of this material and everybody is gone who knows anything about it.

Professional development

SIMMONS/BERRY Isolation from new ideas has long been identified as an obstacle for teachers. Few if any teachers have time to independently monitor current research, select the best methods for experimentation, then incorporate those best suited to themselves and their classroom. Staff development should help teachers stay abreast of current research and methods in teaching and learning, and it is by definition an ongoing need.

When staff development is continuous, it can also accommodate teachers who learn at different rates. Morris comments on the need for a multi-year or permanent commitment to professional development and the varying rates of teacher learning.

MORRIS We have a large portion of the teachers on board. Probably 70-75 percent of teachers have made some significant progress. The others will begin moving on when they find out that this is not just a two-year or a two-month project. This is something that is going to be here for the next 20 years, and we might as well do it because it is not going to go away.

There is a group of teachers that has made some changes but is not ready to move to the next stage. I am not going to say that they will never get there, but those of us who have done the reading on school change know that change takes time.

It doesn’t happen overnight. Some of that group has gotten into the mind set of “this too shall pass.” For that group, the change has to become fairly institutionalized before they will jump into it with both feet. They need to know that this is not going to go away.

The staff development process has helped bring out the best in our teachers, and they are growing as professionals. Most people, when they see other people be successful, begin to pick this idea and then this idea and this idea. Pretty soon, over the course of time, their classroom does change.

Most of my teachers are not satisfied with doing the minimum. They feel that they have to be the best, or turn in the best this, or do the best that. Many of them are always pushing themselves. It is not always what I ask; it is what they ask of themselves.

I have a special group of people. I am fortunate. Most of my people are open to trying things a different way. That makes a big difference. I say a little prayer every morning. “Thank you for allowing me to be here!” I have learned as much from them as they have learned from me.