Although my work with Mr. Poh officially ended in late February/early March last school year, I did want to provide a summative analysis and write-up of my experience (to follow hereafter).
In Search of Effective Instructional Support
Leon I. Gordon
Beginning in December of 2009, I began observations of a 1st year teacher, Mr. Poh, at Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men—Englewood Campus. After close observation and periodic debriefing, Mr. Poh and I assessed his classroom’s strong-points and areas for improvement. We decided to implement a full-scale system revamp at the start of 2nd semester (January 2010). This system revamp has taken place in three phases: (1) culture building and academic expectations (2) management systems and procedures (3) establishing core learning structures and planning effectively.
We began first with the work of building a foundation for class culture, followed by installing systems for class management and organization. Subsequently, we moved to design and implement core learning structures from which to facilitate instruction. Thereafter implementing the latter three stages/phases we focused our efforts on effective planning as a means to provide quality instruction-standing on the classroom systems for culture, management and instruction as the vehicles to facilitate class operation. For the course of approximately nine weeks, Mr. Poh and I worked to optimize his classroom operation, so as to maximize student learning, by engaging in a continuous cycle of instructional planning, implementation and reflection. As we engaged in this work, we kept under close scrutiny the classroom systems of operation we implemented as a means to troubleshoot or adjust them as necessary.
While Mr. Poh stands to benefit from my mentorship, I engaged in this partnership with intentions to improve as an instructional leader/coach. I look to identify and highlight key strategies used that translated into success for Mr. Poh in the classroom. Moreover, as a future school administrator, I look to hone in on successful practices of instructional leadership. As principals/school leaders are required to provide instructional support, I engage in this one-on-one partnership in hopes to identify perhaps how this support could be provided at a much larger scale (i.e.- departmentally, multiple rookie teachers, continuous instructional improvement for collective staff). This summative review will proceed as follows:
(1)A review of the implementation and practice of culture building/expectations, management systems and procedures, learning structures, and planning and carrying out instruction – in which I highlight the supports provided, success/struggles, and oversights of each targeted area.
(2)A discussion of implications for providing instructional support, at scale, within individual schools and districts.
Review of Implementation and Practice
Building Culture & Class Expectations
Mr. Poh and I worked to create an environment that would increase classroom cohesion, unity, and student investment. He attempted to invest his students in the theme of “the samurai”, promoting the students to think of themselves as “samurai who are sharpening their swords (i.e.-their minds) with knowledge. He also grounded his class on the following four expectations for behavior, work ethic, and academic prowess: benevolence, wisdom, courage, and respect. This culture was implement via class discussion and activities that engaged the students in the latter desired outcomes.
-Assisted Mr. Poh with both the design and physical construction of his classroom.
(this included desk arrangement and a substantial amount of décor)
-Met with Mr. Poh to brainstorm ideas for the culture he wanted to create.
-Assisted Mr. Poh with creating and planning the culture building activities used in class.
-Provided Mr. Poh with materials I had previously used/created to invest students.
-Students were more conscious of and made a more frequent effort to respect the learning environment
-Student engagement in culture building activities was apparent
-More presence of cohesion among class via everyday culture rituals
(i.e.- opening ceremony, collective call-and-response)
-Students behavior was still an issue that would often confound the seriousness with which regarded elements/practices of class culture
-Mr. Poh’s often struggled with correcting student behavior which would often derail his efforts to reinforce class culture.
-Throughout first 4-5 weeks of our work student rosters were not finalized and Mr. Poh would receive new students who were not present for initial culture work and lose some who were.
Management Systems & Procedures
Mr. Poh and I worked to establish management & organization for his classroom along five lines: (1) implementing a disciplinary procedure for behavior (2) providing space for student work (3) creating systems for student organization of work (4) implementing operational procedures for beginning/ending class (5) implementing an effective seating arrangement for students to minimize behavior issues.
-Observed Mr. Poh’s class for one week, discussed concerns, and helped brainstorm potential solutions for behavior.
-Helped create student folder system for Mr. Poh(Including the layout of class the activity used to help students to create their folders)
-Discussed before/after class (in person & via telephone) where to best situate particular students in the class seating arrangement
-Students were more conscious of their misbehavior
-Students attempted to use folders for organization
-Students adhered to entry/exit procedures
-Mr. Poh struggled to enforce seating chart which often led to class disruption
-Mr. Poh struggled to promote clear disciplinary procedure, would fluctuate between several tactics (i.e.- student pull-out, verbal reprimand, “silent-waiting”)
-Students took advantage of unclear disciplinary procedure
-Mr. Poh struggled to reinforce/ hold students to the organization procedures he created
-Early on, I perhaps pushed Mr. Poh to focus more on discipline instead of engagement as a means of controlling misbehavior. It proved difficult for him to balance his focus between these two elements which would limit less progression.
-Lack of absentee system would confound engagement for those who returned
-These systems proved to be much to manage and would often lead unintentional lack of enforcement
Mr. Poh implemented structures for everyday classroom learning (i.e.- taking class notes, journal entries to engage/facilitate/monitor student reading and understanding, and lesson formatting and dissemination (i.e.-formatted structure for introduction to new material, individual practice, and assessment of learning objectives).
-Given that we taught the same subject I provided Mr. Poh with a thorough review of these structures as well as the templates I created to go with them.
-Increased student engagement with lessons
-Students comfort and understanding of learning routine helped to save valuable class time
-More students observed to be on-task
-Mr. Poh had difficulty reinforcing appropriate formatting of these structures
-Students would struggle to adhere to appropriate written format of these structures
-Mr. Poh had difficulty wielding these materials to engage students and check for their understanding.
-Students often copy down information without “engaging” or learning it
- Providing the materials and talking about how they should/could be used does not translate into effective classroom use.
(This issue was addressed via our planning and reflection, detailed below)
-Student absence system not put in place to provide students who were absent with an opportunity to retrieve notes, and other assignments based upon these learning structures.
Planning , Carrying Out Instruction, & Reflection
A great deal of our work focused on planning, carrying out instruction, and reflecting on the outcomes in the classroom. Attempting to utilize the systems above put in place, Mr. Poh worked to plan lessons to teach learning objectives that would be later assessed via six-week exams. Using the learning structures put in place above Mr. Poh attempted to deliver instruction/carry-out lesson activities, assess student learning, and provide students with feedback.
-Planned extensively with Mr. Poh (via telephone and in-person) before the beginning of each week.
-Brainstormed activities for lessons to engage students in content
-Provided guidance about how to use the class learning structures implemented for specific lessons.
-Reflected/Brainstormed (via telephone and in-person) with Mr. Poh (both between class and at the end of the day) about how to class went and how what next steps he should probably take.
-Observed Mr. Poh’s morning and afternoon classes three times a week (Monday, Thurday, and Friday) and provided feedback.
-Planned/Prepared and Taught a model-lesson for Mr. Poh’s morning and afternoon classes.
-Mr. Poh exhibited increased confidence in his ability to plan
-Mr. Poh exhibited active use of critical reflection and “thinking on his feet”
-Mr. Poh stressed his newfound understanding of how much not planning purposefully impacts student behavior (and subsequently, learning)
-Mr. Poh found the model lesson beneficial for a number of expressed reasons. I list the following to name a few: seeing how to correct student behavior without derailing lesson pace; and, in contrast, seeing when to take on the “battle” against misbehaviors that prohibit learning; seeing how to keep students engaged by using constant checks for understanding,
-Mr. Poh had difficulty providing students with feedback via checks for understanding and assessments. (turnover for feedback was very slow)
-Mr. Poh had difficulty reinforcing student adherence to instructions on lesson materials
-Although Mr. Poh felt more confident in putting together a coherent plan for learning, he had difficulty engaging students in the lesson (prompting my delivery of a model-lesson)
-Mr. Poh had difficulty balancing, on his own, the planning of teaching objectives and incorporating the outlined course literature and activities therein
-It would have been useful if Mr. Poh and I were able to map out his unit calendar as this made it very difficult for him to create a consistent and coherent delivery of content and learning activities for his classes.
Implications for Providing Instructional Support at Scale
What stands out foremost in my work with Mr. Poh is that focusing on improving too many things at once can prove problematic. We attempted to implement a lot in a very little amount of time. While we were able to meaningfully engage and talk about many of these dimensions of teacher practice, successful enactment of them lies on an entirely different learning curve than understanding their importance. As such, it would prove beneficial to put together a trajectory for mentorship/support that foregrounds particular components of classroom practices in reasonable increments. As teachers come into the classroom with different strengths and weaknesses, this trajectory or choice of what to narrow/focus on is not the same for all. In this, it is essential that creating a feasible plan for mentorship/assistance requires adequate observation to identify target areas for improvement.
I devoted much time to assisting Mr. Poh in the classroom, much more time than is feasible for a single person working to provide instructional support at a school. This suggests that instructional support should be a distributed effort at the school-wide level. The success and feasibility of this, of course, is largely dependent on the composition of a school’s teaching faculty. A staff of varying experience and expertise (for both general teaching methods and content specific) would be ideal; whereas, a staff comprised of predominantly novice teachers would present a much trying disposition from which to create a system of distributed instructional support.
In considering the latter, perhaps it would be best to administrators/districts to invest in meaningful school-wide professional development. I suggest that this professional development should offer support for both general classroom practice as well as support that specialized by departments. Urban Prep does, in fact offer such support for its teachers, as teachers are required each summer to go to curriculum workshops as departments. Here teachers develop their curriculum, content, and perhaps, begin to idealize their learning activities for enacting their units. However, as seen with Mr. Poh, this did not translate into successful practice. In fact, one of Mr. Poh’s major difficulties was enacting the units that had been “prescribed” via this professional development experience. This has allowed me to see the inescapable notion that teachers need to be observed and made to recognize their strengths/areas for improvement and to be pushed and/or taught to reflect critically about their practice.
Just like students, teachers (especially novices) need adequate feedback. In this deduction, I acknowledge that finding the ideal system of instructional support at a school-wide level is largely a function of the school operation (which can vary in a widely across and within contexts). I propose that schools should be staffed with internal personal whose soul job is to piece together and utilize the school’s strengths (as well as recognizing its short-comings) to provide a system that adequately supports its teachers (with novice and struggling teachers being the greatest priority). I am happy to have learned this last month that Urban Prep has just hired such personnel, a liaison whose sole job is to align academic curriculum as well as instructional practice and support. As a next step it would be valuable for me to learn just how schools with existing personnel (e.g.- Noble Street Network Charter Schools) facilitate instructional support (i.e.-how leadership is distributed, teacher composition, teacher recruitment, teacher observation and use of data of assessment).