Stories from the Field: Determination

By Tyrone Johnson

Teaching virtually during a pandemic presented many questions — especially for new teachers. Am I ready? Am I good enough? Did my training actually prepare me for these circumstances?

Those were questions that Elizabeth consistently raised at the beginning of our work together. 

Elizabeth was new to the School District of Philadelphia as well as her school, Spring Garden Elementary, where she taught 7th and 8th grade math. She believed that she had received strong training through Temple University’s pre-service teacher program; however, when the pandemic forced a transition to virtual learning, she wondered how she would fare with students, families, and colleagues she had not met in person. As her coach, I wanted her to see that she had the assets and supports around her to succeed

We began meeting weekly to help her find her strengths in planning and delivery of instruction. To make those sessions productive, I needed to know how she was doing in her classes and how well she was connecting with her students. But I couldn’t just jump into Zoom and observe. If I did that, my presence might throw off both Elizabeth and the students. I first needed to establish a rapport with her students outside of math class, and I needed to learn about them so I could gauge whether she was using appropriate strategies and hitting the right notes with them. Attending two homeroom sessions, where Elizabeth handled administrative functions with her students and provided general academic advising, allowed me to get acquainted with students’ personalities and work habits. 

The respect and appreciation that her homeroom students held for her were apparent during my first visit, but I sensed that her connection with them could be fine-tuned. I decided that the second visit should focus on communicating with students — a competency that school teachers are evaluated on. 

She consistently demonstrated a determination to learn and grow, and we agreed that co-teaching a lesson in one of her classes would be a great way for me to continue collecting information about how she was doing and to model some teaching practices that I had refined during my years of teaching and instructional coaching.

Elizabeth and I prepared for our lessons by thinking through pacing, supports for students with varying linguistic and learning needs, and content that we wanted to see in their work in each segment of the lesson. We decided together when and how often we would reinforce our messaging. We also planned how we would assess student learning and what types of feedback we would provide. 

The following week we co-taught a lesson on ratios. Elizabeth took the lead. She clearly explained the purpose, steps, and timing of each activity. Near the end of the lesson, the majority of her students were on track to complete it and demonstrate mastery of the content — a challenge for even the most skilled teacher. 

Because of Elizabeth’s hard work, more than 50% of her students met or exceeded their growth goals on the winter school-wide assessment. Her students had shown the highest growth in the school. This was beyond impressive for a new teacher. 

Elizabeth did not stop there. She was determined to continue her growth, influence her fellow middle grades teachers, and the school community as a whole. For example, we developed a school-wide intervention data tracker that indicated which students were on track to meet growth goals. In addition, Elizabeth’s materials for supporting struggling students were used frequently in grades 6-8 because of their thoroughness. Elizabeth proved that she was not only ready and good enough, but that she was actually one of the best! 

She is now attending a summer seminar on math and culturally responsive pedagogy, which will allow her to build on the growth she showed during the past year. She has already shown a strong ability to recognize students’ different ways of processing information and making meaning of lessons, and she plans to use her learning from the summer seminar to help students access more advanced topics in science and math. 

Elizabeth is a perfect example of the progress that is possible when a determined educator engages with Partners’ methods for developing equity-focused change agents.