It is hard in this era of high-stakes testing and the move to common core to really pinpoint what is working in schools. I have been fortunate enough to go and see several school sites this year in my role as a Technology Integration Specialist. The schools spanned from dirt poor with low SES students to very posh and high parental education rates. All of these schools are transforming learning and all of them were what we would consider “on the right track” to enhance student achievement.
But when asked how this was accomplished, all of these well-performing districts have a few things in common. It didn’t matter about home environment or computer and internet access at home, it wasn’t the most state of the art classrooms and newest teaching styles that dominated, even though all of this was evident in one form or another at the great schools I visited. What made the most difference in these places of great learning was the teacher. Hands down and far and above anything that could be done at home or at school, the biggest impact on kids caring about school and doing well were the teachers that were leading the charge. Every district has these teachers in isolated pockets in different schools. I’m sure if I asked you, you could name at least one or two teachers really rockin’ it, making a difference not by the subjects they teach, but by the attitude and care and deliberation they bring their profession.
What the great districts do is capitalize on these sparks in the system. I have seen handpicked schools formed from these forward thinking and caring teachers, and the scores at that school jump to heights never dreamed of. I have seen these teachers placed in mentoring roles and where they are accepted and successful, these islands of greatness grow. It is the deliberation and care that these teachers bring with them, along with a solid foundation of teaching skills, of course, that have really made the leap from good to great.
Taking the model of these islands of greatness, my district has implemented Teacher Specialist positions. They took 8 teachers, whose specialties ranged from technology integration, content area specialists, PBL and early literacy, and placed them on special assignment to help spread their love of teaching and learning to others. During this past year, these teachers have put on professional development trainings, coordinated district contests, worked closely with volunteer teachers to turn up their classroom experiences, and planned out the goals, standard schedules, and targeted interventions for our district. In our inaugural year, our students have made strides on the SBAC testing and improved attendance. More importantly however, the district’s declining enrollment has started reversing itself, and this was the lowest year for district transfer requests in 5 years.
I cannot place all of that on these new specialist positions, although I would like to. It has been a district wide effort to stem the flow. But the great thing that was happening in 8 of the classed in the district is now starting to filter out to more and more classrooms. The Specialists, through PD and class visits, lesson demos and coaching sessions, lessons studies and tech Tuesdays, have started to grow the islands of excellence into a larger and more noticeable land mass.
I am grateful to be a part of that change. I am one of the 8 specialists, and we take pride in the things we have done this year. We were recently asked to put together an executive summary of this year, so it can be delivered to the board of Education. They knew there were taking a risk in hiring these 8 Specialists away from the classroom, and it is through that summary that they will see that their faith was well placed. Try as we might, we could not cut that summary down to less than 9 pages. We are proud of your work, proud of each other, and proud of the district that took a chance on us and let us prove our worth in this exciting new capacity.
Next year is coming fast. We are all anxious to continue our work helping our teachers and students reach that maximum potential. We will be bringing forth new programs, new learning opportunities, and expanding some of the current programs that have done so well.
But through all the work and improvement, through all of the sweat and long hours, I think we still feel like we are proving ourselves. You hear the occasional comment from teachers about our longer hours and higher pay, you see the looks from the teachers who resent our new positions and gripe about the work we are doing (even though they didn’t apply for it). I think we will be proving our worth for as long as our district has the specialist positions. For us, it is not about the pay or the long hours, and it certainly isn’t about the teachers in the corner whispering and mocking. It is about the 20,000 lines of code our 3rd graders wrote in a week. It is about the higher ELA scores our target intervention group keeps posting. It is about the 72 hours of green screen videos shot by district students and staff. It is about the 1000+ downloads of our podcast and screencasts. It is the renewed sense of pride and belonging that is spreading amongst the staff and students. For most of us, it is about coming to work every day, and the sacrifice that we made to give up the comfort of our classrooms and step into an uncertain and thankless job. And really, the only person I am there to prove anything to is my fellow specialists.