When It Comes to School-Wide Changes, Teachers Need Scaffolds Too

column | Professional Development

When It Comes to School-Wide Changes, Teachers Need Scaffolds Too

By Jin-Soo Huh (Columnist)     May 4, 2017

When It Comes to School-Wide Changes, Teachers Need Scaffolds Too

The times they are a'changing—and the folks at Alpha Public Schools refuse to be left behind. That's why last year, in an attempt to accelerate personalized learning, we mandated every middle school teacher implement a station rotation model for the first time. In the stations, students work on adaptive online programs, collaborate in small groups, and receive differentiated instruction from the teacher. The goal is to better serve all learners.

When rolling out the model, however, we underestimated one major factor: that teachers are learners, too.

Alpha’s eagerness to innovate is not unique. New models like station rotation offer an idealized vision of what a truly personalized classroom can look like. Maybe a principal visited a model classroom and aspired to create something similar in his or her own school. After all, the principal might think, if one teacher can do it, surely the rest can adapt as well.

While this long-term vision is critical, too often I have seen schools try to go from 0 to 100 in implementing their new models. Worse, leaders often forget that teachers are as unique as the students they serve. We would never push students who have yet to master their multiplication tables to jump into calculus and expect success. Yet we see schools imposing the end-goal model without providing scaffolds. Change is never easy, but at Alpha we’ve learned a few tricks to helping the process go at least a little more smoothly. Take a look.

Why is change so tricky?

One of the biggest challenges of implementing a new personalized learning model is that so many teachers are new to teaching. Education Week reports that 12 percent of U.S. teachers are within their first or second year of teaching, with that number reaching as high as 15 percent in some states.

New teachers are often unprepared for a student-centered model since teacher certification programs do not focus on preparing their graduates to teach this way. Furthermore, most teachers themselves were schooled in a largely traditional setting, heavy on teacher-led, direct instruction. Throw in challenges around management, lesson planning, and organization, and implementing a personalized learning model becomes a steep challenge.

At Alpha, while there were some teachers who thrived in the station rotation model, several of the new teachers struggled to plan differentiated lessons while also keeping students focused during independent stations, and managing the logistics of rotations.

It’s hard to blame them. I remember my own first year of teaching and the long nights of lesson planning, and that was back in the days of single, non-differentiated teaching. In trying to meet students where they were, we neglected to meet some teachers where they were, ultimately preventing personalized learning for students. We did see strong gains in our performance on standardized tests last year, but we knew we could do better.

Scaffolds for teachers

As we thought about adjusting our model for this school year, we knew we had to consider teachers’ needs. We kept the end goal of personalization the same, but created a gradual continuum that takes a teacher’s current ability level into account. For example, a new teacher’s focus may be entirely on classroom management. As he or she progresses along the continuum of levels, stations and pull-out groups are gradually introduced.

Level Goal Suggested Class Structure
1 Teacher ensures classroom is stable and students are working
50 minutes teacher-led instruction; 30 minutes independent online work
2 Teacher develops classroom management as s/he introduces stations; monitors room during stations
50 minutes teacher-led instruction; 15 minutes review/preview activities; 15 minutes online work
3 Teacher transitions from monitoring to providing students with 1-on-1 support as needed
40 minutes teacher-led instruction; 20 minutes review/preview activities; 20 minutes online work
4 Teacher starts to pull out small groups for targeted instruction based on assessment data 40 minutes teacher-led instruction; 20 minutes review/preview activities; 20 minutes online work
5 Teacher routinely pulls out small groups for targeted instruction based on data 40 minutes teacher-led instruction; 20 minutes review/preview activities; 20 minutes online work

This continuum, designed by Alpha teacher Bianca Wright, is coupled with a suggested timeline for when teachers should move on and introduce the next step in their move towards personalization. This way, scaffolds are built in to gradually develop a teacher’s capacity, rather than expecting him or her to go full-speed immediately.

Level of Teaching Experience Suggested Timeline for Station Rotation Implementation
New/Struggling Level 1 through Thanksgiving; Level 2 through April
Intermediate Level 1 through end of September; Level 2 through Thanksgiving; Level 3 through April
Advanced Level 1 through September; Level 3 through Thanksgiving; approaching 4 by April

Note there is no expectation that every teacher reaches the top level by the end of the year. Instead, the continuum recognizes we’re playing a long game, and that developing the skills to successfully personalize learning takes time.

Personalized for all

As a result of Alpha's new framework, teachers are given the support and time they need to develop their skills to personalize their classrooms effectively. New teachers are no longer thrown into the deep end but given manageable steps to follow, with reachable goals. More advanced teachers also continue to get pushed rather than getting de-prioritized. The continuum and timeline also provides coaches with more targeted support during professional development. Most importantly, students have a stronger instructional experience that becomes more and more personalized as the teacher’s skills develop.

When implementing next generation models that incorporate personalized learning, the key is to meet teachers where they are in order to support their development. After all, we know the importance of personalizing learning for students. Now we just need to remember teachers are learners, too.

Jin-Soo Huh (@JinSooDHuh) is an EdSurge columnist and currently the Executive Director of Personalized Learning at Distinctive Schools. Formerly, he served as the Personalized Learning Manager at Alpha Public Schools.

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