by Claire Miller
The College of Education began with a simple goal: To create a working relationship between the college and K-12 schools in the metro-Atlanta area so educators and those who teach them could have a mutual exchange of ideas.
This idea came to fruition through a five-year, $6.1 million Teacher Quality Enhancement grant that created Professional Development Schools. This grant, called the Professional Development School Partnerships Deliver Success project (PDS2), is a network of schools in six Atlanta-area counties plus two colleges that work with Georgia State University to share current research, professional development opportunities and strategies to improve student achievement.
But the College of Education didn’t stop there, according to Gwen Benson, associate dean for school and community partnerships and principal investigator for the grant.
In spring 2009, COE faculty and administrators, the PDS grant director, and district leaders met to discuss and apply for an even larger grant affecting many more institutions in both rural and urban settings.
From that, the Network for Enhancing Teacher Quality (NET-Q) project was born.
“We leveraged our experience with PDS2 to obtain the NET-Q grant, which is the fifth largest of the 28 awards for this grant program in the United States,” said William Curlette, director of evaluation and research for both grants.
NET-Q, which is funded by a $13.5 million Teacher Quality Partnership grant from the U.S. Department of Education, is a collection of programs, partnerships, initiatives and incentives designed to not only prepare teachers for the demands of teaching high-need subjects in high-need schools but to give them the support they need once they set foot in their classrooms.
“We looked at everything we would want in an ideal partnership,” said Dee Taylor, project director for NET-Q. “We wanted to address high-need content areas and build a support system for new and veteran teachers, along with leaders.”
The COE is spearheading this task in true collaborative fashion, partnering with six metro-Atlanta school districts, 23 rural districts in south and west Georgia, four Georgia colleges, Georgia Public Broadcasting, and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future in its efforts to train, support and retain quality teachers.
Many of NET-Q’s initiatives, including the Georgia Public Broadcasting Digital Partnership Collaborative, the Leadership Residency and the Cross Career Learning Communities, are making waves throughout the state and are sure to make an impact even beyond Georgia’s borders.
Maureen Corley, pen and paper in hand, stood before an oval table at which sat the finest teachers at Nesbit Elementary School in Tucker, Ga.
Eager to hear what they had to say, Corley, a scriptwriter from Georgia Public Broadcasting, asked about the teachers’ experiences in their first year of teaching – how they felt when they struggled, what they needed from their mentors in the field and how they communicated with their colleagues and their students.
She heard a number of stories about establishing relationships with mentor teachers and anecdotes about challenging classrooms and the pressures they faced in those first few months of teaching.
“When you first start, you’re expected to know and do what teachers who have been teaching for decades know and do,” one teacher explained.
“It takes a good six weeks from the first day to begin feeling comfortable at the front of the classroom,” another teacher chimed in.
All of these stories gave Corley an inside look at the issues new teachers face when they begin their teaching careers. And they made it easier for her to tackle her next assignment: To create instructional videos for professional development on becoming a mentor teacher.
This collaboration, called the Georgia Public Broadcasting Digital Partnership Collaborative, seeks to reach out to teachers on a state and national scale through a series of online learning resources. By creating videos about building relationships between new teachers and their mentors, the Collaborative can offer training support to mentor teachers across Georgia and the country.
"These videos will cover different topics areas teacher mentors need to know,” said Caitlin McMunn Dooley, assistant professor in the COE’s Department of Early Childhood Education. “In discussing what subjects we would cover in these modules, we realized how much we needed teacher mentor training. This was in high demand at the school district level and is something we believe is worthwhile for a national audience.”
While teachers at Nesbit Elementary and faculty from the College of Education offered their classroom expertise, Corley and Meghan Welch, a College of Education doctoral student who works at GPB, brought their experience in writing and filming to the table.
They will take what they’ve learned from the meeting at Nesbit and from research publications, national experts and other resources at Georgia State and turn it into an informative and entertaining script with dialogue that sounds natural and engaging to the audience, Welch said.
Once the scripts are finalized, the team will scout schools in Georgia for the right location to film these videos.
Each online video will tackle a different mentor teacher issue and will connect to discussion questions and print, video and audio resources for teachers to use.
“Teachers often turn to public broadcasting for content for both their classroom instruction and their own professional development,” Welch said. “Having a leading institution like GSU develop the modules in partnership with GPB will hopefully serve as a model for future projects that support quality teaching and learning.”
The front office at most schools is the gateway to the principal, assistant principals and other staff members who help the school function on a daily basis.
But for College of Education post-graduate students Chris Canter and Emily Thomas, the front office is a training ground – the place where they are finding out what it really means to lead a school of teachers, staff and students.
During the 2010-2011 school year, Canter and Thomas are rotating among different elementary, middle and high schools and assisting principals and assistant principals with administrative duties, all thanks to NET-Q’s Leadership Residency initiative.
This residency gives them a comprehensive understanding of all that’s involved in running a school, from the first day of classes to wrapping up the school year. Both Canter and Thomas function as part of the administrative team, but with a mentor to help them better learn and hone essential leadership skills.
“There’s plenty of literature on how teachers affect student achievement, but it’s less clear how leaders do so,” said Jami Berry, COE clinical assistant professor of educational leadership. “Through NET-Q, we are working closely with our partnering school systems to develop candidates who have strong skills and who are meeting the needs of their students.”
Canter, a former English teacher, has spent time in Mimosa Elementary School in Roswell, Ga., and McNair Middle School in Atlanta, working with the administrative staff and making a difference in how those schools are run.
One of his first tasks at Mimosa Elementary was to conduct ethics training, familiarizing the staff with the Georgia Code of Ethics for Educators as well as Fulton County policies and procedures. He has also participated in informal classroom observations, worked with teachers to create differentiated lesson plans and formulated behavior plans for students.
Similarly, Thomas, a former assistant principal for instruction, spent her residency at two urban high schools in DeKalb County – Arabia Mountain High School in Lithonia, Ga., and McNair High School in Atlanta – and contributed to several different administrative tasks, from developing an after-school program for students to monitoring classroom instruction and working with small groups of teachers. She’s currently working with McNair’s Parent Center and has participated in several professional learning conferences at Georgia State University through the College of Education’s Principals Center.
As Thomas has observed, a leader residency program can have a domino effect, not just on the residents, but on the administrators, teachers and students in a school, and on universities by giving them a better understanding of how to train future school leaders.
“This component allows colleges to strengthen their teacher preparation programs since participants are able to work within real schools to confront real issues and challenges,” Thomas said. “The leadership residency ensures that school leaders will be prepared to use research-based practices to support teachers, which in turn improves student learning and academic success.”
With its variety of hands-on tasks and prolonged time in several different school settings, the year-long residency is giving Canter and Thomas the chance to hone their skill sets before going into the field.
“Too often, potential leaders are placed in positions without proper training,” Canter said. “They have great skills and abilities, but they have not had the opportunity to practice and refine them. It is necessary to know what you’re getting into and to have some experience handling all sorts of issues, challenges and job duties.”
Canter, who aspires to be an assistant principal, feels the leadership residency is giving him this vital experience.
“I know when I have finished this residency, I will have experienced many situations that will contribute to my ability to begin day one as an assistant principal with a good foot forward,” he said.
The best teachers – those who truly impact their students and whom students remember long after they’ve graduated – are the ones who know that learning is a lifelong process. These are the educators who reflect on the lessons they teach and identify the best ways to get their students to understand the material.
Teachers who want to improve their practice and start an honest dialogue about improving student achievement can do just that through NET-Q’s Cross Career Learning Communities (CCLCs) initiative.
The College of Education first implemented CCLCs in professional development schools in the metro-Atlanta area as part of its PDS2 grant. Now, under the direction of Connie Parrish and Susan Taylor, CCLC coordinators for the NET-Q project, the college is partnering with Columbus State University and Albany State University to offer these same learning communities to teachers in nearby rural school districts, including Marion, Chattahoochee, Mitchell and Calhoun counties.
“It’s a professional learning group that provides a safe haven for teachers and administrators to bring their work together and look at ways of improving that work using specific protocols,” said Roger Hatcher, director of the Center for Quality Teaching and Learning at Columbus State University.
CCLC members attend regular meetings in their schools to discuss everything from achievement data and lesson plans to student work samples and professional dilemmas.
Gwen Williams is the NET-Q project coordinator who will help Albany State launch CCLCs in Mitchell and Calhoun counties this summer. “Teachers bring their work to the meetings and they are trying to figure out how to move their students forward academically,” she said. “All of the conversations about solving problems center on the work they’re doing in classrooms and determining the best practices to use.”
In CCLC meetings, members use a set of protocols for conversations about teaching and learning. These guidelines are used to structure discussions and help teachers address and find solutions to the issues they face in the classroom.
“I think the key is the various protocols that are used in these group meetings that protect the teachers’ integrity,” Hatcher said. “These communities are not meant to criticize teachers – they’re designed to give teachers a place to talk about what they need to improve.”
In addition to improving teaching skills and student achievement, CCLCs are designed to foster a culture of collaboration and give teachers a sense of community.
This has already begun in Chattahoochee and Marion counties, where CCLCs affiliated with Columbus State have been in place for more than a year.
Sandi Veliz, assistant principal at Chattahoochee County High School, believes that CCLCs have given her faculty the chance to connect and solve problems in a structured environment.
“This type of professional development has brought our faculty closer as a group as well as allowed for individual and departmental growth,” she said. “Rarely do faculties have the opportunity for the reflection and collaboration that result in true growth.”
For more information about NET-Q, visit http://net-q.coe.gsu.edu.
This story was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of the College of Education's Milestones magazine.