Empowering students through strong instruction

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Our blog series on The Opportunity Myth continues with math coach Sarah Lanahan discussing her experiences strengthening classroom instruction.

A little over 3 years ago, I switched schools and positions.  I went from working at the 100-year-old flagship school of a suburb outside of Austin to working at a 20-year-old school that is just a ten-minute drive down I-35.  While the population and demographics are drastically different, I have also noticed that much of the instruction is drastically different. From my observations in the classroom and reading The Opportunity Myth from TNTP, I realize that I am seeing the problem they mention firsthand, and I actually have a way to help change it. 

To give you some background, the population of my current campus is 57% Hispanic, 19% African-American, 14% Asian or Pacific Islander, and 8% white.  The current demographics of my prior school were: 56% white, 27% Hispanic, 8% Asian, and 5% African-American.

As a lifelong educator and someone that has always had a passion for working with the struggling students, the stark difference between the campuses has been a rude awakening. These campuses are both staffed by highly qualified teachers that have gone through many of the same preparation programs, but the level of the curriculum taught and the student expectations could not be farther apart.

We all know of the proverbial “self-fulfilling prophecy” but to see students not given the opportunity to reach their full potential has been a struggle for me. As uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge the situation, having a conversation with educators about how to turn the tide is even more difficult.

In my transition between districts, my responsibilities also changed; I moved from being a classroom math teacher to being the math instructional coach. In my new role, I was excited to work with teachers and impact students in more than one classroom. But changing the culture of a team is difficult: a maxim from which schools aren’t exempt.

When I began, I knew we had work to do.  I had seen the data; I knew the students were not scoring well on standardized tests. What surprised me was the level of expectation teachers were setting for their students. Teachers were telling me, “The scores are low.  They’re just really low.” When I would suggest ideas or strategies, I would often hear “that won’t help” or “they still won’t get it.” And my answer has always been, “how do you know if you don’t try?” 

I knew it was possible to set high expectations for students and help them surpass these with strong classroom instruction.  For the past three years, I had taught a class that met daily for 90 minutes and was comprised of students that had not passed their Algebra I EOC test.  While many teachers would have lowered the level of instruction and the difficulty of the problems they presented those students, I did not lower my expectations for those students.  Instead, I pushed them to link the geometry they were now learning with the skills they were working to master in Algebra I.  This required taking typical geometry questions and content and adding an additional layer of algebraic reasoning. 

At first, my students pushed back to the increase in the difficulty.  They quickly learned they were going to be held accountable for the material and began to rise to the grade-appropriate curriculum I presented.  While I knew my students had differing levels of math skills when they entered my room, I always pushed each student to the highest level and provided them with the scaffolding necessary to help them get there.

I began working with my school’s teachers to develop the belief that strong instruction and high expectations were requirements for all of our students.

Over time, I observed many of the math teachers challenge their students with assignments that gave them opportunities to demonstrate mastery of grade-level standards, and, as my students did, they rose to the new challenges posed to them. The dedication and commitment of our math teachers shines through in their ability to be so receptive to feedback and supports.

But there still is a gap in instruction that needs to be addressed.

As a district, we are implementing a system of quick walkthroughs done by administrators and instructional coaches throughout the week to get a better pulse on what is happening in our classrooms.  As I visit classes in additional content areas, I start to wonder “how can I help these teachers increase the rigor of their assignments? How can I facilitate professional development across content areas that  helps the teachers challenge the students while holding them accountable for their learning?”  

I am hoping that through the use of our new walkthrough tool and additional coaching conversations, we can collectively coach teachers to strengthen the instruction happening in the classroom.  

Strong instruction requires high expectations.  We must also create classroom environments that empower students to try no matter the consequences.  As a teacher, I regularly made mistakes in my classroom. My students knew from my modeling that it was okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.  That is how we learn through the rest of our lives.

As we first learned how to walk, we all fell down many times.  As we learned how to read, there were many stumbles and misspoken words.  As drivers, we learned not to tailgate after getting in a fender bender.  We learn new skills daily by learning from our mistakes and knowing not to repeat them. As educators, we need to provide the same opportunities for our students and for each other.

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