Assessing and Improving Teacher Capacity CST

By Heather Mattson / September 10, 2015

Most school improvement efforts are described after the turnaround occurred. In the Journeys Project, the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd chronicles schools throughout the turnaround process. What are the early challenges, decisions, and results? How do schools handle roadblocks? To whom do they turn for advice and support?

Episode 1 introduces the school improvement journey of Amargosa Valley School, an extremely remote K-8 in rural Nevada with a large migrant, English-learner, and socioeconomically disadvantaged population. Episode 2 details how the school and district try to handle the challenges of recruiting and staffing in a remote rural setting. Episode 3 discusses how the staff handled aspects of the School Improvement Grant plan that required modification, along with how they have built upon successful plan components.

This blog post describes the Amargosa Valley School administrators’ in-depth focus on assessing and improving teacher capacity. Check out the School Turnaround Learning Community’s Turnaround in Action blog for more on Amargosa Valley School.

Early on, newly hired principal Robert Williams and school intervention director Evengelyn Visser both realized teacher practice needed to be their primary focus, since that would most affect student outcomes. To address this, Williams decided he had to make teacher observation, feedback, and evaluation the centerpiece of his work. This approach was not easy, given the demands put on any principal, but especially those on a first-time, SIG principal. Additionally, Williams and Visser determined that Amargosa’s teachers needed in-depth feedback, making the process even more time consuming. Williams and Visser decided that the approach that worked best was scripting an entire lesson and then providing teachers with that bulleted narrative, along with feedback aligned to Nevada’s Educator Performance Framework, which was being piloted in Amargosa and a number of other schools in the state.

Williams and Visser both spent a lot of time in classrooms and sometimes would do a joint observation to get a full view of the teaching and learning. With his background as a former high school teacher, Williams focused on classroom management and student engagement, and he kept a running written record of his whole time in the classroom. As a primary-grade curriculum expert, Visser did not script, but instead she took in the overall classroom dynamic, with an emphasis on instructional strategies.

After a joint observation, Visser and Williams discussed their notes. Williams then incorporated all of this information into the written feedback he provided to the teacher prior to their conversation. By union contract, this conversation had to take place within 10 days of the observation. In addition to the formal 45-minute observation, Williams usually spent at least another hour providing feedback. If he watched teachers who were really struggling, he usually spent an additional two hours  writing notes and comments and meeting with them. The teachers’ contract required at least 60 minutes per year of observation. Williams was in most classrooms for at least two hours each and more in the rooms where the teachers needed extra support. The teachers were surprised at this level of time commitment, but they were mostly receptive because of the constructive nature of Williams’ feedback.

“We are a remote, rural district. We hire the best people we can, and then we work with them to become the best teachers possible.”

--Robert Williams, Principal, Amargosa Valley School

One teacher who had a rocky start to the year, but steadily improved as the year progressed, told Williams that reading his feedback was hard for her. She told him that she had to make sure she was sitting down and alone and that she sometimes cried. But she knew his response was written from a place of caring and a spirit of working together to improve – not trying to get rid of her. In fact, midway through the year, this teacher came into Williams’ office and asked him what he thought her top three areas of focus should be. This excited Williams, and they had a reflective, meaningful discussion.

Again, the partnership between Williams and Visser was critical here. The ability to calibrate their impressions after the observations was extremely valuable. Visser also helped assure Williams that he would not undo the more positive adult culture he had begun to build if he provided feedback that was focused on growth. In fact, Williams and Visser were sending the message that growth for all – students and educators – was part of the new culture at Amargosa.

Additionally, Visser’s presence helped to hold Williams accountable for the tough work of teacher evaluation, especially with struggling teachers. Willliams admitted that evaluating ineffective teachers was time-consuming and draining, stating, “Those aren’t easy conversations.” When so many other demands are placed on principals’ time, dealing with difficult evaluations can easily become the thing that busy principals move to the bottom of their lists. Williams noted that Visser helped motivate him: “Having somebody there to discuss things with and somebody that I know and respect was a reminder that this is a priority, and I need to stick with my priority.”

“Rob has really bent over backwards to let the union know at each point what he was doing, giving them every opportunity to support struggling teachers.” 

--Evangelyn Visser, School Intervention Director

“The union is supporting me because my process has been totally open in terms of the information I’m giving to the teacher. I’m trying to make sure everything is explained, and I’m providing resources and asking what supports are needed.  I’m not hiding anything.  It’s not a personal attack. It’s about doing our best for kids.”

--Robert Williams, Principal, Amargosa Valley School   

Williams also made sure to involve the teachers’ union every step of the way with his new approach to evaluations. When teachers granted him permission, he shared his observations with the union so they could be fully informed. In turn, the union encouraged struggling teachers to work with Williams so that those teachers received support to meet students’ needs. Everyone was on the same page; the goal was not to get rid of staff, but to help all teachers improve.

“The idea is that we create a sense of urgency with our staff and that improvement is the only option. We can’t continue to do the same thing we’ve always done.”

--Robert Williams, Principal, Amargosa Valley School

This intense focus on teacher capacity helped Williams and Visser realize in the first year of SIG implementation that they needed to change a major area of focus in their SIG plan. The revised plan, described in Episode 3, targets major resources toward improving Tier 1 instruction throughout Amargosa by establishing a whole-school professional learning program based on online modules. These modules focus on the building blocks of good instruction.

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About the author

Heather Mattson

Heather Mattson is a Senior Research Associate at WestEd and a staff member of the Center on School Turnaround. In addition to coordinating the Journeys content team, she is a Journeys school facilitator and a blog contributor.

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