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.

Human Resources

A minimum salary for Colorado teachers? State officials may ask lawmakers to consider it.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

As part of a broad plan to increase the volume of high-quality teachers in Colorado, state officials are considering asking lawmakers to take the bold step of establishing a minimum teacher salary requirement tied to the cost of living.

Officials from the state departments of education and higher education are finalizing a list of recommendations to address challenges to Colorado’s teacher workforce. Pressing for the legislation on teacher salaries is one of dozens of recommendations included in a draft report.

The report, assembled at the request of the legislature, also proposes a marketing campaign and scholarships to attract new teachers to rural areas.

Representatives from the Colorado Department of Education said they would not discuss the recommendations until they’re final. However, the department earlier this month briefed the State Board of Education on their proposed recommendations in advance of the Dec. 1 deadline for it to be finalized.

The impending report — based on thousands of responses from educators, students and other Colorado residents in online surveys and town halls across the state — is a sort of first step for the state legislature to tackle a problem years in the making. Since 2010, Colorado has seen a 24 percent drop in the number of college students graduating from the state’s traditional teacher colleges. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment in those programs.

Residency programs, which place graduate students in a classroom for a full year with an experienced teacher, and other alternative licensure programs have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. But those programs produce far fewer teachers and can’t keep up with demand.

Colorado faces a shortage of teachers in certain subjects, regions and schools, and circumstances vary. Math and science teachers are in short supply: Only 192 college students in 2016 graduated with credentials to teach those subjects. The same year, 751 students left with a degree to teach elementary school.

And rural schools have had an especially hard time finding and keeping teachers.

Here’s a look at what the state departments are considering recommending, based on the presentation from education department officials to the state board:

Provide more and better training to new — and veteran — teachers.

Colorado schools are already required to offer some sort of induction program for new teachers. This training, which lasts between two and three years, is supposed to supplement what they learned during college.

For the last two years, the state education department has been pushing school districts to update their programs. The recommendations in the report could kick things up a notch.

The education departments are asking for updated induction requirements to be written into statute and more money to be provided to districts to pay for the training.

The draft report also calls for more more sustained training for veteran teachers, including competitive grant programs.

An additional suggestion is to create a program to train teachers expressly to teach in rural classrooms.

Increase teacher compensation and benefits.

This will be a hard pill to swallow. According to the presentation to the state board, the education departments want to call on lawmakers to set a minimum salary for teachers based on the school district’s cost of living.

The presentation to the board lacked specifics on how lawmakers and school districts could accomplish this. One board member, Colorado Springs Republican Steve Durham, called it a “mistake” to include such a recommendation.

Keeping up with the rising cost of living is a challenge. A new report shows new teachers in the state’s three largest school districts couldn’t afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.

“We hope the report itself is going to talk a lot the cost of living — that’s what we heard from our stakeholders across the field,” Colleen O’Neil, the education department’s executive director of educator talent told the state board. “They literally were not able to meet the cost of living because their salaries did not compensate them fairly enough to find housing.”

Other suggestions the report might highlight to improve teacher compensation include loan forgiveness, housing incentives and creating a differentiated pay scale for teachers — something teachers unions staunchly oppose.

Help schools better plan for hiring and send teachers where they’re needed.

One short-term solution the state is considering recommending is allocating more resources to help schools plan for teacher turnover. This includes providing incentives for teachers to notify school leaders about their plans to leave the classroom earlier.

The education departments are also suggesting the state increase the number of programs that can help teachers get licensed in more than one subject at a time. Other ideas include offering scholarships to potential teachers to complete licensing requirements for content areas that are lacking viable candidates — likely math and science — and providing transportation and technology stipends for rural teachers.

Make the teaching profession more attractive.

Teachers “feel they’re not treated like professionals,” O’Neil told the board. So the education departments want the legislature to allow them to partner with private entities to launch a marketing campaign to lift the profile of teaching as a career in the state.

The education departments also hope the legislature considers creating more opportunities for middle and high school students to consider teaching as a viable career path. This could include reinvigorating the state’s Educators Rising program, a program for high school students interested in teaching.

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.