New evaluation systems, new standards, online assessments, personalized staff development, data driven decision-making and many more — in the last few years, districts around the country have had to adopt and integrate an increasing number of initiatives. Bayfield School District in southwestern Colorado (number of students: 1,402) tackled the challenge of "initiative overdrive" with a set of innovative solutions and strong strategic planning.
Making sure teachers were not overwhelmed with all these initiatives has been a top priority for district leaders. To avoid initiative fatigue and help teachers implement Colorado State Standards – the state's version of the Common Core State Standards – they created extensive support systems like SchoolVault, an online formative assessment tool, and pilot programs to provide trainings for Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) and Math Design Collaborative (MDC). (For more information on these tools and trainings read our case study.)
But beyond support for assessment and curriculum development, district leaders also wanted to help teachers grow their practice through feedback from colleagues and give them training opportunities to become teacher leaders. To reach these goals, the district built a peer-coaching network, a mentoring program and teacher leader supports.
Read more below about the teacher support programs, how district leaders described the impetus behind each program and what outcomes they observed in practice.
Based on teachers' requests, the network helps teachers receive feedback about their teaching from their colleagues. In practice, teachers meet with their assigned peer coach and before visiting the classroom, discuss what the teacher wants to know, what kind of data they want the peer coach to collect, and a time to meet for a post-conference. The peer-coaching network started as a small group in 2013 and quickly expanded in size. The pilot group received professional development on coaching models and peer coaches continue to receive this training. From the beginning, there has been no administrative oversight of the network.
Becky Smith, Integration Specialist:
"If we want teachers reflecting and growing in a safe environment - that doesn't mean that our administrators are unsafe or threatening - but there's always the perception that somebody's looking over their shoulders. [Teachers] asked for this kind of professional development, because it's personalized, it's about me rather than what you say I need.
"[Teachers] get to select their peer coach. Some of them meet immediately afterwards, some it takes a couple of days, some take a week. Here's the richness of this: rather than me sitting and just telling you everything that I saw, this is a reflective conversation.
"Our thinking is that if I'm thinking about me and what I'm doing, then I'm not just listening to what you have to say in preparing my response. We want them to have personal reflection and growth.
"What I'm hearing is they're coming back and saying this is some of the most powerful [learning] that they've encountered, that it's a risk, having somebody come into their room. It's a risk saying I'm going to peel back these protective layers and let you watch on something that I want to know about myself.
"I had the privilege of watching our three Spanish instruction teachers … sit together in a team meeting. Our veteran who has been here for 24 years turned to his two colleagues and said, 'I would like for you to come watch me in my classroom to see if my pacing is appropriate. Am I introducing things too quickly? Am I allowing the students to interact with the language enough before I move them on to the next lesson?'"
In 2010, the district started an extensive teacher-leader system to support the district’s professional learning communities and help all teachers with the integration of standards. There are now 23 teacher leaders in the school district, all receiving compensation for their work. They have created pacing guides that align to evidence outcomes, have deconstructed the standards and have written assessments.
Superintendent Troy Zabel:
"That's the way a small school district works. We have 100 staff members and nearly a quarter of them are teacher leaders. To be able to cover all of our content areas and grade level areas … we have to have almost 25 percent of our staff in teacher leader positions.
"... They're all hand-selected. We don't allow someone to just say, 'I want to be a teacher leader.' … At the elementary and the middle school, we have been able to be much more selective. When I came to the district four years ago, the high school had utilized a very traditional approach of selection, one that was based on who has been here the longest. We're making adjustments to that process now, targeting our most effective teachers to be placed in these leadership positions.
"Teacher leaders help with supporting teachers with their understanding of the standards, assessments and intervention practices. They do this by directly working with their teams during our dedicated PLC time every two weeks. The PLC time is dedicated to work on pacing guides, assessments and the direct analysis of student data. That data drives instructional decisions about individual student programming."
The program helps brand-new teachers and teachers from other districts navigate the new environment. Mentors attend several trainings throughout the year where they reflect on challenges and successes. Once a month, mentors and mentees meet to answer questions and deal with potential problems. The mentors meet with the principals quarterly for a headline news discussion about what they are seeing and to ensure a successful partnership.
Becky Smith, Integration Specialist:
"[Teaching] is a tough profession. This is two years in a row we've had 20‑24 percent turnover. We created the mentoring program for two purposes. One, teachers who come into the district and don't feel connected … are more likely to leave. So we wanted our new staff to come in and feel connected to a person, to a support system.
"We developed a mentoring program that has two levels. Level one is focused on our newbies. These are the young people right out of college. This is their first job, this is their first experience. They're going to require more handholding.
"Level two is when we're hiring teachers from other districts. These are veterans that are coming in from other districts that have good, strong teaching skills. They need to know the Bayfield system of doing things. 'How do I get a sub? Where do we have our meetings? How do I fill out this evaluation process?' Level two is less intense.
"[Mentors and teachers] are in touch with each other, face to face a minimum of once a month. They're in communication with each other through phone, text, or email weekly. That's the minimum. The mentors are required to keep logs, but the logs are only headline news, because this is completely outside the evaluation process.
"The logs are kept for accountability purposes. The mentors meet with the principals quarterly just to have a headline news discussion – 'What are you seeing, what am I seeing?' There are no surprises."