A look inside our changing public schools

Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 11:45pm

It’s August 2009 at Paragon Mills Elementary in south Nashville. The clock in Greg O’Loughlin’s classroom reminds him that in the next few minutes, his 26 students will be filing in from music class.

This is O’Loughlin’s second week as a fourth-grade teacher. He paces around the classroom straightening desks like a runner compulsively retying his shoelaces before a 5K. He dashes down the hall, squeezing in one final bathroom break, pounds a V8, and waits by his door. With no bells alerting the start of a new period, he listens for the pack of 9-year-olds, the chorus of tiny voices and shuffling feet speeding down the hallway.

Dressed in khaki pants, the sleeves of his light-blue oxford shirt rolled up, O’Loughlin looks the part. But his only experience was a couple weeks teaching six third-graders during Metro’s summer school. Twenty-six is a different ball game.

“I didn’t expect to feel like a cop all day,” O’Loughlin says. He’s heard the maxim that new teachers shouldn’t smile before Christmas to show kids who’s boss. Today that’s no problem.

A boy sobs inconsolably after O’Loughlin gives him a check mark for bad behavior. All day, students interrupt class to ask if they can go to the bathroom or blow their nose. What should’ve been a fun, interactive math lesson at the white board dissolves into childish fighting over markers and almost-nonstop chatter.

But O’Loughlin doesn’t get down. Days like these, he knows, are the ones to learn from.

“You can write down on a piece of paper, ‘I’ll put five kids at the white board, and they’ll do this, this and this,’ but none of them did anything I expected them to do,” he says.

Like all first-year teachers, O’Loughlin is learning on the job. He’s one of 140 new teachers who were brought on to help turn around some of the district’s underperforming schools. Most have only a summer of training under their belts.

Mayor Karl Dean dedicated $5.8 million through his Education First fund in 2008 to bring The New Teacher Project and Teach for America, two alternative teacher certification programs, to Nashville in time for the 2009-2010 school year. Together, they produced more than 25 percent of new hires for that year. In a traditional certification program, a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education is earned and a few months of student teaching are completed.

Teach for America and The New Teacher Project have the same mission: to produce highly motivated, effective teachers who will head into the district’s neediest schools and help close the achievement gap between minority, economically disadvantaged students and white, middle-class kids.

The district will pay just over $1 million dollars to retain The New Teacher Project this year. Teach for America is, for now, surviving on private funds. City partnerships for both are up for renewal next year.

While one program struggled to bring all its teachers back for a second year, the other may have a hard time with its third.

Seeking the best

O’Loughlin learned of The New Teacher Project, also called the Nashville Teaching Fellows program, online in 2008. He had been working as head chef at a popular East Nashville restaurant, The Family Wash, the cap to several restaurant posts around town. Before that, he spent six years in Washington, D.C., working for Friends of Sinn Féin, an organization supporting the Irish peace process.

O’Loughlin and his wife were expecting a baby girl, and exiting the work force to go back to school for a traditional master’s degree would have put his family in financial straits. With The New Teacher Project, he could get a job teaching and work toward his certification, and in the meantime earn a Master of Arts in Teaching from Belmont University. The graduate degree would cost him a little more than $8,000, half of what that usually costs at Belmont.

O’Loughlin is typical of those whom The New Teacher Project tries to recruit: accomplished professionals looking to switch careers and commit to teaching long-term.

“What we really look for are individuals that have a proven track record of success in their past career or in their past academics,” says Christina Patrick, who oversees four teaching-fellows programs, including Nashville’s. “Someone that knows how to set really ambitious goals and meet those goals, because that’s something we see translate into good teaching.”

Getting accepted as a fellow isn’t easy. Sixteen hundred people applied to Nashville’s program last year. Less than half were selected for an all-day interview, where candidates had to present a five-minute lesson to a roomful of veteran Metro teachers. Ultimately, 98 men and women were chosen to become Metro’s first teaching fellows cohort.

Teach for America approaches recruitment a little differently. The organization focuses primarily on recent college graduates who commit to teach for two years. Thirty-nine districts nationwide utilize the program but don’t select teachers independently. Rather, Teach for America tosses all applicants into one giant pool. Last year, about 35,000 applied and roughly 4,000 were chosen for the corps.

The program looks for candidates with a high undergraduate GPA and an innovative streak. “We’re trying to build lifelong leaders in education,” Shani Jackson, executive director of Teach for America Nashville, says.

Joseph Williams, an energetic 23-year-old fresh out of Vanderbilt University in the spring of 2009, fit the bill. He was Vandy’s student body president and vice president of his fraternity. Williams now teaches U.S. history and government at Whites Creek High, but before applying to Teach for America, he considered law school.

His mother, a longtime first-grade teacher in Memphis, was initially surprised by his decision to parachute into the volatile world of urban education. Like most moms, she liked to brag about her high-achieving son to his former teachers, with whom she worked. When Williams’ mom told her colleagues of his plans, she says they were baffled.

“They were all skeptical, like, why is he doing that? Almost a sense of, sadly, a sense of, why would he want to do that?” she says. “As if he’s better than that.”

The reaction emboldened Williams, who proceeded to throw himself into an eight-week teaching boot camp.

Training and support

Fifty-one Teach for America corps members destined for Nashville classrooms in 2009 spent most of their eight-week training in Atlanta, at Georgia Tech. The program had seven regional training sites.

Williams remembers rigorous days that began in the dorms around 6 a.m. He’d ride a bus to an Atlanta public school, where he learned how to teach, observing seasoned instructors before taking on a summer-school class.

Instructors drilled best practices into Williams, as well as classroom management and learning assessments. When it came time to take the reins of a class with about 20 kids, Williams would have to type lesson plans the night before, then turn them in for approval from a mentor teacher.

Once he was in front of students, a small crew of teachers, literacy and content specialists perched themselves in the back to observe. Post-It notes full of feedback were tacked onto copies of his lesson plans and handed back to him for study.

“Teach for America is a well-oiled machine,” he recalls.

O’Loughlin’s six-week institute in Nashville was similar.

“There was no down time,” he remembers. “We weren’t just being taught how to do things, but the whys behind it.”

The main difference between the two training institutes reveals itself at the end. The New Teacher Project organizes job fairs and works closely with Metro to determine which schools and subjects are in need, but it doesn’t guarantee employment. That came as a surprise to some last year. O’Loughlin wasn’t caught off guard, but he was among many of the 98 fellows still seeking work on July 9, the day of the program’s closing ceremony. Ultimately, three left the program before the start of the school year, three more never found jobs, and two were hired in surrounding counties, leaving 90 fellows in Nashville classrooms.

Teach for America also requires corps members to interview and secure jobs on their own. But Teach for America does a lot of legwork. Last year, before the training institute ended, all 51 corps members had jobs in Metro.

Jackson says Teach for America serves as a liaison, contacting principals early on to find out exactly which holes will need filling.

“For example, science and math are a lot of the areas where they have needs, so when we are accepting corps members into Nashville, they’ll be for specific needs of the district,” says Jackson. In addition, Teach for America administrators send resumes out to facilitate the matchmaking between teacher and school.

All 51 corps members worked with teaching mentors to construct lessons for the first few weeks of school, and to map out goals and lessons for the entire school year. They must complete four teacher-certification courses through Lipscomb University. Both Teach for America and The New Teacher Project also require their teachers to attend professional development workshops throughout the year.

The mentors, typically successful former Teach for America teachers, stick closely by during the two-year obligation, tracking data on student performance. As a teaching fellow, O’Loughlin tracked his students’ progress with district software, but, like those from Teach for America, he was assigned a mentor — one of his professors at Belmont — who observed him throughout the year.

Surviving year one

In early March, a little over halfway through his first year, O’Loughlin feels like he’s hitting his stride. Each class starts with a detailed rundown of his expectations, as to avoid a sequel to the marker fights of Week Two. His birthday, March 3, was one of his best days at Paragon Mills. O’Loughlin’s kids and fellow fourth-grade teachers surprised him by all dressing in his signature blue shirt.

One afternoon about a week later, he glides between desks, balancing a purple Language Arts textbook in one hand and quizzing kids on adverbs. Students sit frozen in thought. Their answers are nearly all correct. On days like this, O’Loughlin is floating.

“I’m arming kids with the civil right of literacy,” he says. “They don’t know how to read, and they’re leaving here learning how to read a little better. And they’re feeling proud of themselves. You can’t really describe that feeling.”

Even so, life is hectic. The state’s annual standardized assessment tests, TCAP, are coming up, and his master’s program is keeping him so busy he goes days without seeing his young daughter awake. He gets to school at 6:45 a.m., and on the two nights when he takes his graduate courses, he doesn’t get home until well after 7. Many teachers get their master’s degrees while working, but few choose to do it their first year.

Of the 90 teaching fellows who entered Metro classrooms in 2009, 76 made it to 2010, giving the program a retention rate of about 84 percent. That’s slightly better than the district’s new teacher retention rate of 80 percent. But it’s lower than the 87 percent retention rate of Teaching Fellow programs across the country.

Christina Patrick, who oversees the Nashville program, says some fellows left for personal reasons, like illness. Ten were asked not to return. Every year, Metro principals typically give what are known as non-renewal notices to 30 or 40 of the district’s roughly 1,000 non-tenured teachers. The decision is based on a principal’s evaluations.

A few of the fellows appealed their non-renewal notices and are being allowed to teach a second year. Patrick says The New Teacher Project supports principals’ decisions and is now providing more feedback during summer training and throughout the school year in an effort to boost their retention rate.

“I think a lot of it is taking the foundation and models that already exist in the program and pushing the rigor even more,” she says.

David Martin, principal of Jere Baxter Middle School in East Nashville, hired 15 teaching fellows and one corps member last year — more than any school in the district. All but two are back for a second year. He says he was thrilled to have access to the pipeline of talented, smart individuals.

Martin admits he likes things done a certain way at his school, and the limited experience of those 16 hires was a bonus. Essentially, he could mold them to fit Jere Baxter.

“I didn’t have to worry about a teacher being from another building and resisting my expectations,” Martin says. But, he adds, he’d like to change how these teachers are evaluated, possibly helping to decrease non-renewal notices.

Principals assess all teachers on several different criteria, including how well they plan, their teaching strategies and communication. Non-tenured teachers and tenured teachers must meet different standards. Martin would like to see a third, more lenient category created for the alternatively licensed bunch. He says because of their abbreviated time student-teaching, he’s seen some struggling with controlling and engaging students.

“If I evaluate them honestly, they can be out of work,” he says. “But I might be looking at them saying they may be a master teacher in two years.”

Meanwhile, all 51 Teach for America teachers are back for a second year in Metro classrooms. The 100 percent retention shocked Shani Jackson, executive director of Nashville’s program, which typically lands around 93 percent retention.

But, as critics of the program are wont to point out, the third year is where Teach for America loses. Typically, 40 percent of corps members remain in the classrooms where they were placed once their two-year commitment is up, with more drifting off in the following years. But it’s estimated that two-thirds of Teach for America alumni remain in education, many as administrators or advocates.

Joseph Williams, the Whites Creek High teacher, knows this lack of lifelong classroom commitment is a frequent criticism. He isn’t sure what he’s going to do at the end of his two years, but he thinks he’s made an impact even if he doesn’t stay.

“For me, when I was going through school, my favorite teachers, how long did I have them?” he says. “I had them one year.”
Fifty-seven new corps members have entered Nashville classrooms. Ninety teaching fellows were selected for the 2010 cohort, 83 have jobs in Metro, six are in surrounding counties, and one is not yet teaching.

The New Teacher Project is entering its last year of a three-year contract. Assuming the district keeps the program, the current $1 million dollar price tag should remain. While Teach for America isn’t costing Metro anything now, if the district extends their partnership, they’ll eventually have to start kicking in money.

Metro seems to want long-term relationships with both programs. Mayor Dean and Director of Schools Jesse Register recently cited them as models for hiring and recruiting top-notch teachers in their ASSET (Achieving Student Success Through Effective Teaching) report. Still, education initiatives are notoriously fickle. Their lasting power relies on whether future public school leaders continue to find them attractive and worth the cost.

It’s too early to know whether Nashville’s corps members and fellows narrowed the achievement gap. TCAP scores haven’t been released. But both programs have shown success elsewhere.

A 2004 report, published by Mathematica Policy Research, showed that Teach for America teachers randomly selected from across the nation improved students’ math scores more than their traditional counterparts. No significant difference was shown in reading. For three years, researchers at Louisiana State University have ranked The New Teacher Project’s training program as one of the state’s best.

Chaos long gone

It’s mid-April, and with a little more than a month left in his first year, O’Loughlin is ready for summer, but burnout is far out of mind. He’s confident in his teaching, and he can chuckle about memories like how queasy he was walking into his first staff meeting because he wasn’t sure if he needed to raise his hand to speak.

The chaotic math lesson at the white board seems like ages ago, and today he’s got no qualms about taking science to the playground. His class is learning about variables in experiments. Before heading outside to stuff radish seeds into plastic cups full of different kinds of soil, O’Loughlin paints a clear picture of the next 15 minutes.

“We’re going to have to take turns filling our cup with soil,” he tells his students. “It’s going to take patience and respect for each other as we do our work. Can you handle that?”

“Yes, sir,” 26 voices chime.

Everyone marches carefully down the hall on an invisible tightrope, pausing at the door until “Mr. O” gives the green light. Once outside, even with a P.E. class a couple yards away, his students remain focused, waiting for O’Loughlin to come around with a seed they can drop into their cups.

2 Comments on this post:

By: richgoose on 9/13/10 at 4:28

The lesson learned by these idealistic young teaching gladiators is that expectations must be altered in order to relate to the students in MNPS. Dropping a seed in a cup of dirt is a grand experience for most these 9 year olds.

By: suzieque125 on 9/13/10 at 5:17

How apropos that the lesson highlighted in this article is one in which the teacher is "Planting a Seed"

All good teaching and learning begins with the planting of a seed.

Having a highy competitive program such as the Teaching Fellow Program is providing these students with bright, motivated and enthusiastic educators.

These educators bring with them a wide range of life experiences that are shared with their students. This benefit could not have been possible if the Teaching Fellows entered the classroom from the traditional teacher training model.

This is a welll thought out and exciting approach to teaching and learning.
It sounds as if many seeds will be planted for many years to come.