Promising Practices

At one Queens high school, the video club is for teachers

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Teachers at Queens Metropolitan High School watched math teacher Michelle Varuzza's taped lesson during an after-school peer evaluation club.

Michelle Varuzza, an 11th and 12th-grade math teacher at Queens Metropolitan High School, sat on the edge of a student desk after school last week and prepared her colleagues for what they were about to see.

“It’s one of the first lessons of trigonometry, and they’re pretty scared of trigonometry to begin with,” she said in the no-nonsense tone familiar to her students. “So it’s kind of like pulling teeth a little bit.”

Varuzza and five other teachers (three math and two English) were there for a weekly “video club,” where teachers watch a recording of a colleague’s lesson and give feedback. They meet every Monday afternoon during mandatory “professional work” sessions at their school.

Since a state teacher-evaluation law went into effect in the city last year, the teachers have gotten used to being observed and rated more often by administrators. But to the educators at Queens Metropolitan, who started the video club last spring, classroom feedback is most helpful when it’s from teacher to teacher with no ratings attached.

“If you’re there for evaluative purposes, people kind of shut down for feedback,” said ninth-grade English teacher Chris Fazio, who had recorded Varuzza’s lesson earlier that day on his iPhone. “This is an alternative to that, where there are zero stakes.”

After club members watch their colleague's lesson, they give "warm" and "cool" feedback.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
After club members watch their colleague’s lesson, they give “warm” and “cool” feedback.

The club isn’t centered on any one strategy or subject area, which is why teachers from across grades and departments are invited — a rarity in many high schools. That’s also why 10th-grade English teacher Ramsey Ess said to Varuzza before the video started, “I have an embarrassing question: Trig covers what?”

After Varuzza explained that the lesson was an introduction to reference angles, which are used in trigonometry to calculate the function values of other angles, she left the room and the video started. (The club asks observed teachers to leave while the others watch the video so they aren’t tempted to explain their actions.)

In the video, Varuzza briskly demonstrated how to find the angles, then led the class through practice problems. The camera followed her as if she were the star of a reality-TV show, panning from her at the board to students quietly taking notes and trailing her when she zigzagged between their desks.

The teachers in the club jotted down notes as they watched the video on the classroom’s electronic whiteboard. After 10 minutes, Fazio stopped the video and asked the teachers to translate their observations into “warm” and “cool” feedback.

“Warm feedback being the things that Michelle’s doing well that if she did more of she’d get a lot more out of the class,” Fazio explained to the teachers, “and the cool feedback being opportunities for her to improve.”

Before the club existed, educators at the school got reviews of their teaching in a couple ways: Through the new evaluation system, and when teachers occasionally observe colleagues in their departments. The club, however, was meant to address shortcomings with both of those systems.

The video recordings can be stopped and replayed in a way that live observations cannot and, unlike the peer visits, no administrators are present when teachers share their feedback. (Principal Gregory Dutton said in an interview, “I know nothing about what’s going on in the teacher video club.”) In contrast to the evaluations, feedback in the club does not include scores and it comes from fellow teachers, who know firsthand how hard it can be to pull off a great lesson.

“There’s no gotcha mentality here,” said 10th and 11th-grade math teacher Katie Anskat.

After the teachers wrote down their thoughts that afternoon, they shared them aloud while Fazio transcribed their comments in a document for Varuzza to see when she returned.

For the warm reviews, they agreed that Varuzza clearly explained complicated topics and that she moved her class seamlessly from demonstration to practice problems — though the English teachers suggested that she give different parts of her lessons labels, like “stop and jot” or “turn and talk,” the way they do.

“You English people come up with such fancy names,” said Nicole Coqueran, a 9th-grade math teacher.

Math teacher Michelle Varuzza (center) got feedback from her colleagues on a trigonometry lesson she taught earlier that day.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Math teacher Michelle Varuzza (center) got feedback from her colleagues on a trigonometry lesson she taught earlier that day.

For their cold feedback, they suggested that Varuzza ask more open-ended questions so that students grapple with the theories behind the procedures, and that she get students to help explain the concepts to one another. For each recommendation, they cited the relevant part of a rubric that teachers are rated on in the evaluation system, and they gave a timeframe — either two weeks or two months — for her to try to make the changes.

When Varuzza came back in the room, they shared their advice with her and she thanked them. After the club, she said her colleagues’ observations are often more helpful than administrators’, who sometimes seem to fixate on matters outside of her control.

“We’re here to focus on the teacher as an instructor,” she said, “not whether four students walked in late.”

The club is looking to recruit more members, said English teacher Heather DeFlorio Asciolla, who created it last year with history teacher Frank Swetten at the suggestion of their school-support network, CFN 403. Some teachers are deterred, however, because the evaluation system has convinced them that “whenever someone observes you, there’s a rating attached,” she said.

But the club can be a powerful tool for those who participate, she added. Last year, 95 percent of her students passed her class, compared to 81 percent the year before the club started.

“I truly believe,” she said, “it’s because my colleagues looked at my instruction, gave me ideas, and I took it back to the classroom.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said teacher Heather DeFlorio Asciolla referred to an increase in students passing a Regents exam, not her English class.

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at

bias in the classroom

‘Disciplinarians first and teachers second’: black male teachers say they face an extra burden

PHOTO: The Laradon School
A teacher and a student at The Laradon School in Denver work together with tactile teaching tools.

As a first-year teacher, Pierce Bond took on a remarkable responsibility: helping other teachers by disciplining or counseling misbehaving students.

That left him to make tough choices, like whether to disrupt his own class mid-lesson to handle problems in the school’s detention room. “Sometimes you have to make that decision,” he told an interviewer. “Do I stop whatever I’m doing now to go deal with this situation?”

The burden was placed on him because he is one of small share of black men in the teaching profession, posits a study published this month in The Urban Review, a peer-reviewed journal. The study relies on interview 27 black male teachers in Boston’s public schools — including Bond, who like others, was identified by a pseudonym — and found several experiences like his.

“Participants perceived that their peers and school administrators positioned them to serve primarily as disciplinarians first and teachers second,” write authors Travis Bristol of Boston University and Marcelle Mentor of the College of New Rochelle.

The paper acknowledges that interviewees were a small, non-random sample of teachers in one district, and their results might not apply elsewhere. But other researchers and policymakers, including former Secretary of Education John King, have acknowledged the phenomenon, which may contribute to schools’ difficulties recruiting and retaining teachers of color.

“Children of color and white children need to see different types of people standing in front of them and teaching them,” said Bristol. “After we recruit [teachers of color], we have to be mindful about how they are positioned in their building and draw on the things they are doing that are successful.”

In the study, which draws from Bristol’s dissertation on the experiences of black male teachers, a number of them described a similar experience: colleagues assuming that they were better able to deal with perceived behavioral issues, particularly among black boys.

One veteran teacher, Adebayo Adjayi, described how older students were regularly sent into his early elementary classroom, making his regular teaching role significantly more difficult.

“Adjayi recognized that his classroom became the school’s disciplinary room, a holding area, and he had become the school disciplinarian,” the researchers write. “Without considering the type of environment that would most support [the school’s] students who were deemed misbehaving, the fifth graders were placed in the same classroom as the prekindergartners.”

Christopher Brooks, a high school teacher, explained how seemingly small favors for colleagues began to add up. “He first said yes to one teacher who asked him, ‘Can you just talk to so-and-so because he’s not giving up his phone?’ and then to another colleague who asked, ‘Can I leave Shawn in here? He can’t seem to sit still.’ By that time, it had become the unspoken norm that Brooks would attend to his colleagues’ misbehaving students,” the study says.

Brooks says this played a role in how he arranged his day, since he knew he needed to be prepared to receive additional students some periods or solve a problem during lunch.

Other teachers told the researchers the the extra responsibilities don’t bother them.

“I understand it because I know how to speak the kids’ language,” said Okonkwo Sutton, a first-year charter school teacher. “I’ve had a very similar childhood and background as many of them.”  

Some of those interviewed questioned the assumptions behind the idea that they should serve as disciplinarians. Peter Baldwin, a novice teacher, described how a colleague suggested he would be able to help one struggling student by talking “man to man.”

“I don’t think he was just gonna respond to me better than others because I’m me, or because I’m a male or because I’m black,” Baldwin said. “I think because I sort of invested time … we’ve built a relationship.”

There’s little if any research on how this additional work or stress affects black male teachers’ job satisfaction, retention, or performance. But there is evidence that teachers of color leave the classroom at a higher rate and are less satisfied with their jobs than white teachers.

At a national level, the numbers are striking: only 2 percent of teachers are black men. Meanwhile, research has repeatedly linked black teachers to better outcomes — test scores, high school graduation rates, behavior — for black students, and that’s led to national pushes to diversify the predominantly white teaching profession, as well as local programs like NYC Men Teach.

The study emphasizes that the findings don’t apply to all black male teachers, and doesn’t try to quantify the experience of being treated as disciplinarians. But the authors suggest that treating black male teachers that way could be unfair to them, their colleagues, and their students.

“School administrators should work to develop more expansive roles for black male teachers and become more cognizant of how black male teachers are implicitly and explicitly positioned in their schools,” the paper says. “Equally important, administrators should work to develop the capacity of all teachers to support and engage all students.”