If at First You Don’t Get Common Core…

Last October, I walked into a new teacher’s kindergarten classroom. The teacher had gone through our Fast Start training, and I was eager to see how he was doing a month into the school year. I was pleased to see that 100 percent of his students were sitting “criss-cross applesauce,” ready to begin a read-aloud. The teacher’s coach and I shared the same thought: “We did it!” This classroom had a teacher who was well prepared, and the kids were ready to learn. The teacher seemed to be meeting our expectations—and our expectations were higher than most.

But as we watched him in action, we quickly realized that our work was not as done as we thought. The teacher was simply reading at the children. If he did pause to ask questions, they were simple, text-to-self questions and commands like, “Raise your hand if you have a brother” or “Talk to your partner about who is in your family.” We observed no text-dependent questions, nor were students being challenged to describe relationships between text and illustrations.

We knew we had a problem—one of our own making. It was clear that over the summer, this teacher had not truly understood what teaching towards the Common Core State Standards should look like. True, he had great management skills, but his students were not learning crucial grade-level content—and this was kindergarten. We knew we needed to act fast.

We soon discovered that these shortcomings were not limited to this particular teacher. It seemed that many of our new teachers were entering their classrooms with great management skills, but were unable to translate that into rigorous instruction. It was time for a mid-course correction to our training model.

Making adjustments to Fast Start throughout the process isn’t an accident for us: It’s a deliberate strategy. As Fast Start has grown from a new model to a tried-and-tested approach, we’ve developed a cycle for continuous improvement, in which we look for evidence of what’s working and what isn’t, and then make careful adjustments to improve. In this case, our coaches sat down with their new teachers right away to do vision-setting meetings based around the Common Core standards. Together, we walked through the standards and shared our vision for excellent literacy and math instruction. We used our Common Core Literacy training  to provide the teachers with opportunities to walk through the standards and dig into questions about how to put them into practice. We coached new teachers on delivering essential content while simultaneously practicing foundational classroom management techniques.

The core premise of Fast Start is that there are a few key classroom management skills teachers need to master from day one in the classroom. But we also know that early success with students takes more than communicating clearly and managing a classroom well. We still think digging deep into a small number of management skills in the pre-service training is the right approach. But after hearing the feedback from these new teachers and seeing them in action, we realized that we needed to find a better balance between management skills and instructional skills during the summer. Our approach is the same—focus on foundational teacher skills—but this year we wanted to include foundational instructional skills as well.

As we began planning for this summer, we built a pilot program to incorporate this new area of focus into the training. All of our pre-service teachers now attend nine introductory sessions designed to provide them with a basic understanding of what great Common Core-aligned instruction looks like. After that, they attend sessions where teachers build the vision of excellence and practice key instructional skills for their specific content area. And all teachers—regardless of grade level or content area—attend literacy sessions to make sure they enter the classroom with a clear foundation in teaching literacy, since the Common Core standards bring literacy into every subject. Teachers look at exemplars and instructional techniques, and come to in-person sessions ready to practice delivering lessons in front of their peers.

After the first summer of this updated approach, the instruction our teachers are delivering is far better than it has been in the past. Here in Baltimore, our teachers started school a couple of weeks ago. I was in classrooms during the first week and saw a teacher ask her seventh graders to cite evidence from a text. Down the hall, her fourth grade math colleague gave her students a real-world math problem and told her students to solve it—rather than a drill sheet, which we likely would have seen in the past. While it is still early, our teachers are not only thinking about management, but they are pushing themselves to bring rigor into their lessons right from day one. We attribute a lot of that to the basic principles of Fast Start: double down on what matters most and practice, practice, practice.

With the beginning of the school year kicking off across the country, all of us who train teachers must continue to improve our trainings to make sure that our teachers are ready to lead their classrooms from day one. We’re looking forward to that challenge. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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