With just four days until the national championship, the varsity crew team was falling apart, getting beat by JV.
What should Coach P. do?
New Haven teachers debated the scenario at Yale Law School on the second day of a training camp aimed to prepare them for new leadership roles in their schools—including testing a new approach to teaching immigrants English at Fair Haven School.
The debate took place Tuesday in Room 121 at Yale Law School at 127 Elm St. There, 64 teachers from New Haven public schools are gathering this week to undergo training by the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE).
In the process, they’re participating in a new part of New Haven’s evolving school-reform drive: retaining and further developing great teachers without forcing them out of classrooms and into administrator offices.
The goal of the week-long camp is to train teachers become “facilitators” in their schools, leading small groups of their peers in a new kind of grassroots, teacher-run training that rethinks traditional “professional development.” Sixty-four teachers will get an extra $500-a-month stipend to serve in the new leadership role. It’s part of a quest to create new ways to let teachers lead without leaving the classroom, according to Dave Low, a teachers union vice-president who’s involved in the effort.
New Haven hired NAATE for $160,000 to run the week-long training. That marks the first money disbursed so far of a $53 million federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant New Haven received from the Obama administration last year to improve the way the school district grades, rewards and develops educators.
On Tuesday, the second day of the training, teachers streamed into the ornate wood hallway at Yale Law School with packets of homework. At 10 a.m., they sat down in two classrooms for a second-period class. In Room 121 they encountered Tony Klemmer, founder and president of NAATE. Klemmer joined the education field after two decades running tech startups in Boston. He had led a Catholic school in Rhode Island as assistant principal, and also has a Ph.D. in philosophy.
Klemmer led a discussion on a case study created by the Harvard Business School.
Here’s the scenario: Coach P., aka Colonel Stas Preczewski, coaches the Army crew team at West Point, N.Y. His varsity team—the eight fastest, strongest and most coordinated rowers—are performing so poorly that the junior varsity team—the bottom eight rowers—routinely beats them in practice. While the varsity players are individually skilled, they are plagued by infighting and poor morale.
Just four days before the national U.S. Army championship, Coach P. has a decision to make: Should he switch up the teams? Whip the varsity players into shape? Or promote the JV team to the championship?
Teachers first dissected what was going wrong with the team: No trust. Poor teamwork. Poor communication.
Kimberley Georgia-Steele offered an analysis: The eight people facing backwards, the rowers, were getting scrutinized for poor performance, but the one coxswain, who faces forward, wasn’t doing his job.
“It’s who you put in front of them that matters,” she said.
Maggie Stevens-Lopez (pictured) said the varsity team lacked a “synchronicity of spirit” as well as of physical performance.
The team lacked “shared accountability” for their goal of winning the race, offered Low.
Teachers offered a range of solutions. Stevens-Lopez suggested taking both teams out of the water until they synchronize their spirit. Kristin Mendoza suggested blindfolding the players during practice so they couldn’t see who was messing up and point fingers at each other.
Vin Sullo of Hillhouse High proposed promoting the JV team because those players had shown better character: “What wins races, what wins championships, is character.”
Scott Raffone, an instructional high school math coach, suggested making the varsity team play childhood games, such as dodge ball, to “get their joy back” before the big meet.
Another teacher asked a key question: “Is four days enough to change a mindset of a team?”
The answer, it turned out, was yes: In real life in 2002 at West Point, Coach P. took his varsity players out of the water and forced them to wrestle each other one-on-one, slamming each other on the ground. His rowers were reluctant to do so. By the end of the exercise, the rough combat turned to laughter and solidarity. The team got its act together and excelled at its meet.
The point of the exercise, said Klemmer, was to get teachers thinking about the dynamics of a team.
He asked the group if the case study connected to their lives in school.
Stevens-Lopez said yes: It hit home the need to step back and “get other people involved” instead of doing the heavy lifting as a leader.
Teachers discussed how they’ll go about building their own teams once they return to their own schools. Each of the 64 teachers will go back and form a new group of five or six teachers who will work on a specific area of education. The topic—such as how to differentiate instruction to kids of different levels, or how to get kids ask their own questions—is up to the teachers.
Dave Low suggested teachers choose their groups not based on personality, or who they have good relationships with, but on the ability to evolve and build skills.
Low has been involved in crafting the new initiative in teacher leadership through his role as a member of a new iPD (“innovative professional development”) Committee. The panel, comprised of five teachers, two administrators and one district central office staffer, initially formed in response to a challenge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates has been awarding money to districts to do more peer-to-peer, individualized teacher training, including using technology to do so.
Gates tapped New Haven in January as just one of a handful of school districts to receive a planning grant, with an offer to pay $3 million to $5 million to fund those plans. Gates has held off on awarding New Haven the full grant until after Garth Harries officially became superintendent. In the absence of the Gates money, the iPD committee has used the federal TIF money to fund this new experiment, Low said.
Low said the iPD Committee chose NAATE out of six applicants interested in training New Haven teachers. Then a subgroup of the iPD panel reviewed 113 applications from teachers across the district and chose 64 to become “facilitators” in their schools. The applications were reviewed blindly, with teachers’ names redacted. Not every school ended up with teacher facilitators. The teachers get $1,000 for participating in this week-long session, then $500 a month for training small groups of teachers.
Klemmer said he founded NAATE in 2010 because he saw no advanced training program in the country for “experienced, high-performing” teachers looking to improve their trade. The group runs an intensive, two-week summer training program in which several New Haven teachers have participated. NAATE aims to teach teachers not just “tricks of the trade” but the bigger-concept principles behind instructional practice and leadership.
Teachers who signed up for the NAATE boot camp have a range of plans in mind for their schools. Three teachers from Fair Haven School—Stevens-Lopez, Mendoza and Chrissy Bowman—approached the training with a daunting task ahead of them. They’re part of a new team of teachers who united in March to restructure how their K-8 school handles English-language learners and newcomers from foreign countries. Over 50 percent of students there speak English as a nonnative language—a fact that has overwhelmed some mainstream teachers without special training in ELL (English-language learning). The school’s principal and assistant principal don’t have a background in ELL, so teachers with expertise in the subject have stepped up.
“We created the leadership roles for ourselves,” said Stevens-Lopez, who’s entering her eighth year teaching at the school.
The teachers have designed a number of changes, including creating separate classrooms for students who have been in the U.S. for less than 10 months. They’ve also designed a new literacy block for English-language learners in the 5th and 6th grades.
The teacher facilitators will support teachers on how to make sure they’re meeting the needs of their ELL kids. The goal, said Mendoza, is to make sure every teacher is aware of the needs of English-language learners.
“We’re hoping to be a resource for people,” Bowman said.
Fair Haven Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings said the trio will observe other teachers and offer feedback (not as part of the official formal teacher evaluation). The school will look for new ways to measure students’ progress besides the state standardized tests, which kids have to take at grade level, and in English.
Gethings said she’s confident the teacher-led effort will meet a warm reception in the school.
“I’m excited for their empowerment,” she said.
“Our teachers at Fair Haven who don’t have the background in ESL—they’re asking for this.”