The Secret to One Math Teacher’s Success

New teachers are often assigned to challenging classes and beginning Westerly (RI) High School math teacher Alyson Gorden was no exception.  In September, 2011,  Alyson learned that in one of her classes, most of the students had Individual Educational Plans and that she would be co-teaching the class with a special education teacher who had no background in math.

By the end of the first week of school, Alyson, who had no special education training, was concerned that behavior problems in this class were interfering with learning and that homework assignments were going undone.  The students had low expectations for themselves and for her math class.  Alyson met with her newly-assigned induction coach, Michelle Livsey, and together they decided to focus their first few weekly meetings on the challenges that this class presented.

New Teacher Center Partnership with Rhode Island Department of Education

The New Teacher Center’s (NTC) partnership with Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) represents one of the most intensive statewide approaches to new teacher support and effectiveness in the country.  With funding support from a multi-million dollar Race to the Top (RTTT) award, RIDE has partnered with NTC to develop a comprehensive Statewide Teaching Induction Program involving every district that participated in the RTTT grant. During the 2011-2012 school year, NTC has worked with 17 full-time induction coaches in 46 Rhode Island districts. The coaches (known elsewhere as “mentors”) are working with 262 beginning teachers, of whom 30% are, like Alyson, teaching in STEM subject areas.

The Goal—Turning a Class Around

“Alyson knew she needed lots of help turning this class around,” says her induction coach Michelle, “and we began emailing and phoning to supplement our weekly one-on-one meetings.”  Using the framework presented by the New Teacher Center’s Formative Assessment System, Michelle and Alyson worked on ability grouping for class members and developing leveled, differentiated math activities for the groups.

“After Michelle suggested we analyze last year’s test results, it didn’t take long to discover that these students had done a poor job following the test instructions. We’re working on ways to focus their attention on written instructions. The work that Michelle and I have done has been keyed to the specific needs of my classroom.”

And the classroom atmosphere and homework problems? “It’s night and day,” says Alyson, “a totally different class.  Michelle helped me change the seating arrangement to avoid some of the behavior problems and since we developed the differentiation strategies, I get about 80% of homework from students in the class.”

A Fruitful Collaboration with Special Ed

Connecting with support staff at Westerly High School has been another key to her students’ success. Because a special ed teacher was assigned to co-teach this class, Alyson needed to create a means of effective collaboration with the teachers and her aide.  With Michelle’s help, she’s defining a collaborative model that has included the co-teacher in the instructional planning and execution.

Since they don’t have common planning time in their schedules, Alyson has arranged to meet with her for lunch during which they focus on student progress. She remarks “I had planned to get a master’s in math in a few years, but as a result of this collaboration, I’m considering a degree in special ed.  I could help my students a lot if I understood more about their special learning needs.”

The Induction Coach’s Perspective

“Alyson is just beginning her teaching career, but she has that quality of all effective teachers, the ability to adapt a technique or suggestion to fit her class, to help her give students what they need,” Michelle observes. “And I’ve learned from the amazing training that NTC offers the induction coaches that  I have to tune in to Alyson’s needs, not come in here with my own agenda. I’ve become more self-aware, a better listener.  It’s not just the mentees that are learning here.  I’ve experienced incredible growth this year and it seems that just when I get to the point where I need help, the next induction coach training session hits that very issue.”

Alyson adds, “I’ve learned more about teaching this year, from the coaching program and collaborating with other teachers, than I learned from my secondary ed degree.”

One Student’s Success

Alyson is justly proud of the level of engagement and success that her work has promoted in her students.  One freshman, repeating a math course she had failed in middle school, learned recently that she would receive a passing grade in Alyson’s class.

The student came running to Alyson with new expectations, exclaiming “I’m going to graduate!  The first one in my family!” The student told Alyson that the attention and differentiation that Alyson provided meant that the teacher liked and supported her. “That’s the first time,” she declared, “that I’ve felt that way.”

Principal Sees Program’s Payoff

“The coaching that Michelle is doing with Alyson isn’t just impacting Alyson, but also the special ed teacher and aide that Alyson is co-teaching with.” said Steven Ruscito, Alyson’s principal.  “Both have evolved in their expectations of their students and their understanding of math standards as a result of working with Alyson.

The students are benefiting enormously.  Students that are getting thrown out of other classes are engaged in her class due to the differentiation she provides. It gives students confidence that they can succeed at the task at hand. Honestly, I could see Alyson as Rhode Island Teacher of the Year someday.”

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