Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Education" looks at the importance of making time for teachers. The National Center on Time and Learning examines schools around the country that emphasize teacher professional development. Among the schools featured in the report: Brunson-Lee Elementary in Phoenix. Producer Christina Estes takes us there.
Christina Estes: Every Wednesday after school lets out, the teachers at Brunson-Lee turn into students. During their professional development sessionâ€¦they learn strategies to become better teachers and impact more students.
Rachael de Fresart: I know it's such a cliché but those little light bulbs that you kind of see in their eyes when they're like "Oh!"; I truly get it now. And then they go and they talk about how they get it. I think that's one of my favorite things.
Christina Estes: One of the most challenging aspects for Rachael de Fresart is trying to figure out each child's individual needs. She has about 30 students in her fourth grade class.
Rachael de Fresart: Each class is different. Each year is a different group of students and each year has different needs. What you did last year might not work for these groups of kids. So having different people come up to you with these different ideas really does help.
Christina Estes: The weekly workshops are led by an instructional coach who expects and gets 100% participation. This gathering focuses on math fluency. De Fresart explains how another session led to her students writing more.
Rachael de Fresart: Writing in math could be, "Okay, you solve this problem, explain how you know you're right." Because it helps them later on justify their own thinking, but it also helps them communicate because writing is not just writing; it's a way to communicate and it's a way to process information.
Ryan LoMonaco: Change is tough. Change is tough for teachers, especially if they have been teaching for quite a time.
Christina Estes: Principal Ryan LoMonaco says they're facing a lot of challenges including more rigorous common core standards and teacher evaluations.
Ryan LoMonaco: I would be lying if we didn't get resistance every now and then. But it's all in how you approach it, and how you are as a leader. I believe -- I honestly believe that if I don't have trusting and lasting relationships with my staff members then they're not going to put those things right to work.
Christina Estes: LoMonaco says the lessons learned here are sometimes put into practice the very next day. But it's the long term payoff he especially likes.
Ryan LoMonaco: When teachers can plan more thoughtfully and really think about engaging their students, the students are the ultimate beneficiary. The greatest gift I can give my teachers is time. If I could give even more I would.
Rachael de Fresart: As a teacher, you're not just a teacher, you're a continual learner, you're a student, and you're a lifelong learner.
Ted Simons: In addition to professional development workshops, teachers at Brunson-Lee get time to compare notes and brainstorm with colleagues who teach the same grade level. Here now to tell us more about teacher professional development are Sarah Ravel, a curriculum coach at Brunson-Lee Elementary School, and Alexis Wilson, Assistant Superintendent of the Balsz School District. Good to see you both here - thanks for joining us.
Alexis Wilson: Thank you.
Sarah Ravel: Thank you.
Ted Simons: Give us a precise definition of professional development for teachers.
Sarah Ravel: Absolutely. So in any profession, as things change over time, you're always looking, as a professional, to keep up with the best practices and finding a way to hone your craft. And so professional development is how we support teachers, as a district and at school site levels, to refine their craft in order to best support our students.
Ted Simons: How do you differentiate professional development from career development?
Alexis Wilson: Well, I think that takes place in a couple of different ways. In the Balsz District we're fortunate because of our extended learning calendar. We were able to offer early release days for students every Wednesday, and so those Wednesday afternoons our teachers gather, as you saw in the piece, to work on different instructional strategies, to perfect their craft, if you will. And so we start there, and then we also offer a once-a-month district level professional development, where teachers come together in their particular cohort groups. So what might be a grade level might be a content area, where they focus on instructional strategies there. For career we offer, for some of our instructional coaches or teachers that are willing and able and want to move into more leadership roles, the opportunity to participate in some professional development that might take place outside of the district and be facilitated by someone else, to grow them in their careers.
Ted Simons: As far as professional development is concerned, how has this changed over the years?
Sarah Ravel: That's a great question. Historically, schools and districts have struggled providing high-quality professional development for teachers. In fact, if you look at teacher exit surveys, for people who are leaving the profession, you'll often see poor professional development as one of the reasons for leaving either their school or their profession. And so research tells us that high-quality professional development is ongoing, it's job-embedded, and it takes place within a group of teachers who are engaged in the same practices as you are.
Ted Simons: You mentioned exit interviews and such. Is there something specific teachers are looking for that in the past they weren't getting and now you're trying to give them?
Sarah Ravel: Definitely. I think differentiation. In the past we've seen a lot of professional development that's been a one-size-fits-all approach. And now we're trying to target specific grade levels or teachers that work with specific groups - like our English language learners - and providing opportunities where they can come together as group and talk about the specific challenges of their own.
Ted Simons: And you mentioned that making time is a big factor here. Technology is probably helping along those lines, or is it?
Alexis Wilson: No, I think we have to continually integrate technology throughout the professional development so that the teachers become more savvy and more comfortable with using technology as a resource to instruct their students, as well as the students using technology. And we're fortunate that we have a lot of technology available for our students in the Balsz District.
Ted Simons: So how do we know professional development for teachers is helping educationâ€¦is helping students? Do we have metrics out there? Can we gauge thisâ€¦measure this?
Alexis Wilson: Sure! Anyone doing professional development should be using data to gauge how it's going. You're looking at student achievement results, and that can take place for ongoing instruction throughout the day. It can be an informal opportunity. You have benchmark assessments that we give at the end of every quarter. You've got pre- and post-assessment data; you have teacher evaluation data, so you're trying to align all of those things to meet the needs of your teachers and ultimately your students.
Ted Simons: Invariably, though, with data, especially with school, you have variables. And so how do you factor in those variables to find out if it's really working?
Sarah Ravel: I think you go back to look at what our students are producing in the classroom. And you're really looking at what our students are doing in math and writing and reading and looking at the piece of student writing. You're able to find those pieces where you've been successful. The key part of professional development, where it really becomes successful, is when it helps teachers identify what's successful in student learning and link that to the practice that they applied in the classroom. It helps them make that connection between the two.
Ted Simons: And as far as school administrators, how involved are administrators in professional development?
Alexis Wilson: They are very involved. This year we've worked a lot to make sure that we were also providing professional development for our school principals. So we have an outside consultant group that comes in and works and does planning with them. A lot of our work over the last couple of years has been to prepare our leaders, our teachers, and our students for the Arizona college and career-ready standards. So a lot of training has taken place around that.
Ted Simons: I was going to ask about standards and assessments and such, and that's one of the variables isn't it? I mean, I hear from teachers all the time, "if they give me one more test I'm going to scream." Is it frustrating at times when you have to deal with those sorts of things?
Sarah Ravel: I think the unknown is always frustrating and it's difficult for teachers when they're not sure that they can trust the new system. We have a lot of teachers who believe strongly in the common core standards, and yet they're not sure that we are going to continue down that path with the standards, and so there's some hesitancy to really buy in and dig in deep with discovering what those standards mean and how to best teach those when we're not sure they're going to be around.
Ted Simons: Not too much hesitation though is there? I mean, most teachers are for this, aren't they?
Sarah Ravel: Many teachers are in our district, because we've seen how these standards have impacted our students.
Ted Simons: Last question - as far as professional development is concerned, nothing's free. How much does it cost? Is the funding there, or, as we hear so much with education, is the funding just slip-sliding away?
Alexis Wilson: Well, we're fortunate in some respects that we have some excellent internal instructional coaches like Sarah and many other coaches at other sites that actually deliver lot of that professional development. But we have to seek out grants and other ways to fund, you know, consultant groups that we might work with that can come in and either train the coaches or others so that they can deliver that. So it's a bit of a train-the-trainer model. Of course we would like to be able to offer more, as much as we can, but we do the best we can.
Ted Simons: Alright. Well, good luck. Congratulations on your success so far. Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.
Sarah Ravel: Thank you.
Alexis Wilson: Thank you.
We’ll take you to a Phoenix elementary school that creates better teachers by regularly pulling them out of classrooms. At Brunson-Lee Elementary, they found that making time for teachers to work on lesson plans together strengthens instruction. Sarah Ravel, Curriculum Coach at the Brunson-Lee Elementary school, and Alexis Wilson, assistant superintendent of the Balsz School District, will talk about the professional development for teachers.