Out-of-state Teachers Flock to Athens to Learn

The Daily Post-Athenian (Athens, Tennessee)
January 3, 2014 Friday
BYLINE: Greg Moses

The Athens City School System seems to have “TAP’d” into something special. Now, other educators from around the nation are looking to “Friendly City” teachers to learn a few new tricks.

ACS recently played host to teachers from nearby South Carolina and as far away as Iowa during a master teacher conference held at the school system’s administrative offices. The conference allowed Athens City Schools teachers and administrators to share their implementation strategies for the new Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), a nationally recognized educational enhancement system designed to improve teachers’ skills and students’ performance through leadership opportunities, professional development, evaluation and performance-based compensation.

“The big picture is that the TAP process really provides growth at every level,” said Stacie DeHaan, an executive master teacher who traveled all the way from the Saydel Community School District in Des Moines, Iowa, to attend Athens’ master teacher conference. “This was a great opportunity to collaborate with others to learn how we can be really effective in using those steps and applying them for the benefit of our students.”

Athens received a Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant from the U.S. Department of Education to implement the program by providing TAP master and mentor teachers in every school who will work with administrators as a leadership team to drive instruction in schools by setting goals, establishing weekly professional development meetings and a rigorous evaluation system, and creating a performance-based pay schedule for teachers based on classroom observation.

Although Athens’ program has only been in practice for one semester, the school system has proven its teachers and students are fast learners.

“Usually, it’s the second or third year of the program before you’re at the level Athens has already achieved. Their first year of implementation is already so strong, primarily because it was embraced by the entire educational community: The School Board, the principals, the teachers, and even the students. We wanted to let some master teachers from other TAP programs come and shadow the work Athens has done so they can see how to make the program effective in their school districts and communities,” said Dr. Ann Shaw, a senior program specialist with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the organization that oversees Athens’ TIF grant.

Athens Director of Schools Robert Greene feels, in a short time, the program and similar initiatives that preceded it are already paying off dividends.

“Like anything else, you’ll have some growing pains and you’ll have some people who don’t like it, sure. But, if you look at the high marks on our system’s recent report card and you look at Tennessee seeing the fastest rate of growth in education in the nation, this is what’s making it happen,” Greene said. “Our teachers are working harder than ever, and our administrators are, too, because the standards are more difficult, but the results show our people are able to meet the challenge. With Common Core standards, the bar will be set even higher, but with TAP, we can hit that bar just as we have those that have come before it.”

Ingleside Principal Debbie Harrison, who serves on the TAP advisory council, said the key element that puts the program one step above previous initiatives is that it goes beyond just evaluating teachers and leaving them to figure out how to improve on their own.

“There’s something after the evaluation. TAP offers the support teachers need to grow as educators,” Harrison said. “We have weekly cluster meetings designed around teachers’ individual needs, providing differentiated strategies each teacher can use. They can see models now of what effective classrooms look like and get feedback on what they’re doing well and what they need to improve and how to improve. They’re getting more performance information than ever before.

“We tell the teachers it’s not about them – it’s about the lesson and that lesson’s impact on the students. Teachers are having to be reflective about their teaching. That’s the way it should be. Is it hard work? Yes. But, the teachers are planning deeper than I’ve ever seen before. They’re looking at critical thinking and problem solving and how to stretch students’ knowledge from simply knowing facts to knowing how to interpret and think,” Harrison added, then closed with the endorsement, “If TAP leaves this system, I leave this system.”

Kevin Winters, a TAP master teacher at Athens City Middle School, said the program made him rethink his own performance as an educator.

“Before TAP came along, I thought I was a great teacher – I was confident in my ability. With TAP, I realized it’s an ongoing process to be an effective teacher. I still have so much to learn, and I can always keep improving,” Winters said. “TAP goes beyond the traditional professional development that we’d get over a few hours a couple of times a year. Through TAP, there’s almost constant collaboration between teachers and disciplines to share strategies for better teaching. I’ve worked in other fields aside from education, and in none of them have I ever been pushed this much or grown this much.

“Not having the kind of support TAP provides is a lack of support,” Winters added. “We have a true focus now on the kids – what the kids need, what the teachers need to help the kids. It’s making our schools better, and our kids are benefitting.”