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Coaches for teachers: A look at the SAS plan

November 23, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

In the mid-1970s when I became local news editor of The Daily Mail, I found that reporters responded best to my direction if I treated them not as subordinates hired to carry out my orders, but as members of a team.

My role wasn't superior to theirs, any any more than a quarterback is superior to a running back. We were a team, but, as on any team, someone has to take the leadership role.

That's the kind of teamwork I saw recently when I visited Hagerstown's Eastern Elementary School recently, to see some Student Achievement Specialists in action.

The school system has about 30 of them, former classroom teachers who've been trained in methods of data collection and analysis. Like it or not, it's a data-driven world and the job of the SAS is to help identify students who need assistance long before the end of the marking period.

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Eastern Elementary School would present challenges to any specialist. Principal Kathy Stiles told me there are 657 students and that high "mobility" is still a problem, as lower-income parents move in and out of the district.

To help them cope, teachers there get an additional half an hour of "staff development" time on every day but Wednesday, which is a "free day," Stiles said. Teachers make up for it on Monday with a full hour.

"Staff development is the key to our success," Stiles said.

In those sessions, Stiles said, teachers and the SAS workers discuss "best practices," those teaching techniques that will keep students fully engaged.

Sometimes teachers who have worked out good techniques are videotaped so others can see what they're doing, Stiles said. At other times, a teacher or the SAS "models" the technique by standing in for a teacher.

Now in my own experience, veterans don't always appreciate someone who hasn't logged as many years offering them new ways to do their jobs. Stiles says this isn't the case at Eastern, however.

"They (teachers) wanted them to be here. You ask any of them. They love it," Stiles said.

Is that true?

Yes, said Ruth Sklencar, a 30- year veteran whose SAS, Julie Stouffer, was once her student in the fifth grade.

On the morning I saw them, Stouffer was working with a group of teachers on how to get students to do well on something called a "Brief Constructed Response," or BCR. The student reads a short selection, then responds to questions using facts from the story.

Stouffer led the discussion as they considered what was a good response and what was not. One teacher was puzzled because students she said she knew were bright and who have gotten good grades previously didn't do well on the BCR. After hearing others talk about what they considered good responses, she concluded she might be grading them too hard.

Stouffer knew what the teacher was going through. A 12-year veteran, she's taught first, second, third and fourth grades and was a reading-improvement specialist before her principal recruited her as an SAS.

Test scores improved "dramatically" last year and Stouffer said teachers have told her that it was because of the help she and fellow SAS Becky Myers gave them.

Following the staff-development meeting, Stouffer began a one-on-one session with a 6-year-old who needed help with reading.

Together, they read a book called "The Race." Every time the boy responded, she did too, smiling, encouraging him, making small jokes and laughing.

Soon the child, who I had assumed was a poor reader because of his halting speech, was reading at an almost normal pace.

When he stumbled over a word, or couldn't figure it, Stouffer made him work to sound it out. When he succeeded, she showed him a bright smile.

She was funny, animated and acted less like a teacher than a helpful friend. When I quietly left, he was sounding out his letters without prompting, stopping only to look at Stouffer to see if another one of those smiles was about to appear.

Do I know everything there is to know about the SAS program? Of course not. I liked what I saw, but I'm not an expert on how to get students to achieve academically.

But the teachers genuinely seemed to like having someone to help them track student achievement and decide whether student writing was good or bad.

As I learned so long ago with the reporters I worked with, it's not really a matter of who's the boss, but figuring out how everyone can work together to do great things.

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