"Embodied within the TAP rubrics are the best practices of effective teaching, backed by extensive research, empowering teachers to prepare students to truly think and problem solve collaboratively, enabling them to be college- and career-ready, and more importantly, able to face the challenges of the future."
"I got into teaching because I wanted to build the kinds of relationships I had with my teachers when I was a kid. This community and this school have grown since then, but I like to think I’m helping build the same pride and confidence that was instilled in me."
A LABOR OF LOVE
Brian Lee’s story of how TAP has impacted his love of teaching
Brian Lee has been familiar with the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” for as long as he can remember. Today it means something very real to him as a teacher at Dodson Branch School where, for more than 13 years, he has become an influential figure in raising its children. It’s a labor of love even Lee, a former Dodson Branch School student and now social studies and science teacher, admits he never saw coming.
“Back when I was in school, I remember telling people there was absolutely no way I was going to be a teacher,” Lee said. “But what I really came to appreciate as I got older was the special bond I had with so many of my teachers. Growing up in a small town, there was always such a sense of community, and I wanted to be a part of that for the younger generation.”
It’s the opportunity to build one-on-one bonds with students and their families that motivates Lee. Having been in the very same seats his students now sit, there’s an authentic connection and a drive to instill confidence in each and every one of them.
“I’ve always been a big believer that school is about more than a series of test scores,” Lee said. “It’s so much more, and that’s something I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle. One of the things I noticed when I got into teaching was that, with the evolution of standardized state testing, it was becoming easier to fall into the habit of teaching to a test.
“When I was a student, we may not have gone very far out into the ocean, but we went all the way to the bottom and dug in,” he said. “Today, students are expected to go further (into the ocean) than ever before, but we have to be certain we’re not just skimming the surface. We have to be committed to listening to their individual needs and exploring deeper where they need it.”
One way Lee and fellow faculty at Dodson Branch School are ensuring that every student is supported is by building their instructional expertise using a research-based system called TAP. Developed by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the TAP System helps increase teacher capacity and drive effective instructional practice through focused professional development and data-driven coaching in each classroom. This support is provided by teacher leaders working with administrators in the school, enabling the school to build expertise within its own faculty.
“With TAP, we’re purposely building time into our schedules so teachers can collaborate,” Lee said. “We get together regularly to talk about what we’re seeing, identify trends and specific needs in our classrooms, and that’s something time just wasn’t set aside for in the past.”
In recent years, Lee said such steps have helped create greater awareness of the importance of supporting students in building skills like problem solving. Rather than strictly sticking to lecture notes, teachers at the school are focused on empowering students to share and expand on their own ideas, Lee explained. They’re following the lead of students and remaining nimble enough to dive deeper into specific areas of need.
“I’m a big supporter of this kind of approach,” he said. “I got into teaching because I wanted to build the kinds of relationships I had with my teachers when I was a kid. This community and this school have grown since then, but I like to think I’m helping build the same pride and confidence that was instilled in me.
“I do what I do because I want to make a difference,” Lee said. “What better place to make a difference than in the life of a young person?”
“That’s what allows the real learning to take place, and it's something we’re proud to have built together.”
A family tradition became a personal passion for local Manchester teacher
There was never a question what Stefanie Williams would do for a living. Not even for a second.
“A teacher,” said Williams, a 21-year veteran with the Manchester City School System. “With 19 teachers in my family – from immediate family members to cousins to grandparents – I guess you could say I was born into it. I’ve been surrounded by teachers since birth and the idea of helping raise up the next generation has always felt like my calling.”
After graduating from Tennessee Tech in 1995, it felt just as right for Williams to begin her teaching career in her hometown of Manchester. For 15 years, Williams taught a variety of grades at College Street Elementary School. It was a dream come true, teaching at the very school where she had once been a student. But, along the way, an opportunity she didn’t see coming presented itself.
“When I was growing up, the poverty rate was very low in Manchester,” Williams explained, “but that’s changed over the years. Today, about 65 percent of students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. For me, getting into teaching was a chance to see the real world – where everything wasn’t so perfect and challenges were a part of every day life.
“I’d noticed the grades of one of my students were really slipping,” she said. “When I pulled him aside, I found out he was living in a truck. I’d expected him to come to school to learn but, in reality, he was more worried about where he was going to sleep that night. That was eye opening for me. I wanted to connect on an even deeper level with students and help create opportunities in their lives.”
A little over five years ago, Williams was offered the opportunity to transition from her role as a classroom teacher into that of an instructional coach. She was intrigued by the thought of influencing the way teachers across the district connect with students. And when Manchester schools partnered with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to strengthen systems for supporting educator effectiveness three years ago, it cemented a new calling—teacher leader. Williams says she was drawn to NIET’s focus on creating dynamic and collaborative learning environments for students and educators.
Since Manchester began this new approach, Williams has served as master teacher at Westwood Middle School. “What I realized was that the education system had become more and more about teaching to a test,” she said. “We weren’t engaging the students and bringing them into the experience, to share in it together. They weren’t feeling the ownership in it. That needed to change.”
NIET supports districts to build a comprehensive approach to teacher leadership, professional development, evaluation and compensation. Unlike the traditional model of professional development used by most schools, it provides teachers with a system of professional development that’s ongoing, job-embedded, collaborative, student centered and led by expert instructors in the school. For example, Manchester schools have restructured the school schedule to provide time during the regular school day for teachers to collaborate to develop and implement successful strategies for student learning growth. Manchester uses a comprehensive system for evaluating teachers based on the Tennessee TEAM system, which also provides multiple measures of performance and uses teacher leaders working with principals to ensure that teachers receive extensive feedback and support. This system enables teachers to connect their own classroom practice with student learning, and receive support in addressing individual student needs.
“It took some time to get everyone—teachers included—on board because it was such a different approach,” Williams said. “But what was obvious to me from the start was it was not just another program to implement. I’ve seen a lot of programs come and go, but this was rooted in bringing the fun back into school and learning. It’s about teaching with students rather than at them.
“NIET helps us teach kids to think,” she said. “It teaches teachers to bring students into the discussion and, at times, even turn over the reins. We’ve been able to create an environment where our students feel like they have the ability to help steer the conversation and they’re building confidence and opening up. You can see that confidence and engagement, and it’s producing results.”
During the 2012-13 school year—the year prior to implementation—35.1 percent of Westwood Middle School students were at or above proficiency in math, and 49.5 percent of students were at or above proficiency in English/language arts. By the end of the 2014-15 school year, those proficiency percentages improved to 50.3 percent and 52.1 percent, respectively. Williams said there’s still considerable room for improvement, but that TAP continues to help the district build positive momentum.
Williams feels like she’s found her niche, professionally. And she’s not the only one benefitting. The entire district is experiencing great returns, and she gives that credit to the commitment and buy-in from the teachers, administrators and students. “That’s what allows the real learning to take place, and it’s something we’re proud to have built together.”
“Our classrooms have been transformed. When students become empowered to own learning, life-long learning is the result. That’s why we’re here, doing what we do.”
Supporting the transformation of Athens classrooms
As an administrator in public schools for more than two decades, Mike Simmons, principal at Athens Middle School, has been a part of hiring quite a few teachers. One of the greatest challenges he faced was providing those hires with the ongoing support and professional development they need. That’s why he partnered with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to implement a system intentionally designed to create dynamic and collaborative learning environments for students and educators alike.
Before Athens City School District adopted the NIET teaching practices four years ago, professional development for teachers had always been more of an event – a one-time conference or lecture somewhere, with teachers returning to the classroom until the next conference came along.
With the help of NIET, a mechanism was found to provide professional development every single week, and it’s having a big impact on Athens students.
“I’d only taught for one year before the district adopted the NIET teaching practices, but I can still see the difference,” said Ashlee Byrd, a first grade teacher at City Park School. “The continuing collaboration time set aside for teachers encourages the exchange of experiences, new ideas and strategies. It keeps you on your toes, thinking about creative approaches instead of settling into a routine.”
The approach supports strong classroom instruction through teacher leadership, professional development, observation and feedback, and opportunities for additional compensation. Unlike the traditional model of professional development used by schools, the new approach provides teachers with a system of professional development that’s ongoing, job-embedded, collaborative, student-centered and led by expert instructors known as master and mentor teachers. For example, a master teacher is employed at each school and the schedule is structured to provide time during the regular school day for teachers to work collaboratively on instructional strategies to address specific student needs in their classroom.
Teacher and school leaders use a clear and detailed instructional rubric to observe and provide feedback on classroom teaching. The instructional practices driving professional learning align to those in Tennessee’s TEAM evaluation system. This ensures that teachers are supported in continuing to improve their practices and increase student learning growth.
For Simmons, the idea of carving out time in teacher schedules to come together to grow professionally had always seemed impossible. But with the help of NIET, the once impossible is now routine.
He adds, “Our classrooms have been transformed. When students become empowered to own learning, life-long learning is the result. That’s why we’re here, doing what we do.”
Angel Hardaway, North City School master teacher, agrees.
“You grow as a teacher because you realize you don’t have to be the center of everything,” she said. “It’s about being a better facilitator and turning the focus onto the students. That’s when you begin to meet students where they are individually, rather than leaving students behind. That’s when students take ownership and set goals. It has put the fun back in learning and that’s producing results.”