OII Staff Celebrate and Connect With America’s Teachers

They didn’t go bearing apples, but tidings of appreciation nonetheless for the important work teachers do in preparing students for college and careers. As part of its contribution to Teacher Appreciation Week (May 5-9, 2014), the U.S. Department of Education took teacher appreciation to another level by “respecting through understanding” during its third annual ED Goes Back to School. On May 6th, 70 ED staff members — eight from OII — shadowed teachers throughout the country in order to better understand their work and the challenges teachers and their students encounter on the road to making America’s public education system the best it can be.

For ED headquarters staff, the day is an opportunity to see firsthand how principles of effective teaching and learning translate from the likes of grant applications to the classrooms of teachers in the D.C. metro area.

Keeping it authentic and relevant for young learners

Several OII staff members experienced what it’s like when young children, from preschool to third grade, are engaged, in both body and mind, in developmentally appropriate learning experiences. At McKinley Elementary School in Arlington, Va., Brittany Beth watched as the kindergartners in Debbie D’Addario’s classroom observed the latest transformation in tadpoles — they sprouted back legs! The students then documented the amazing development in both pictures and words in their tadpole workbooks, all part of a lesson on the differences between living and non-living things. For more insights from Beth about her shadowing experience, click here.

At Burrville Elementary School in Northeast D.C., where OII’s Assistant Deputy Secretary Nadya Chinoy Dabby joined veteran third-grade teacher Karen Smith, students collected quantitative data using their own bodies. They measured the circumference of their wrists and the length of their arm spans, using those inches and feet to learn about the mathematical principles of mean, median, and mode. “It’s sometimes easy to lose track of the fact that learning, done well, is engaging and relevant,” noted Dabby. There were other lessons about good teaching, such as “creating a space that is welcoming and responsive to each child’s complex needs.” When Smith, without missing a beat, changed the seats of two students to accommodate the one who left his eyeglasses at home, Dabby found it a “meaningful reminder of the wide range of talents it takes to be a good teacher.”

Anne Hart, Montessori teacher at The Boyd School in Herndon, Va., works with her students on spelling. (Photo by Pamela Allen)

Anne Hart, Montessori teacher at The Boyd School in Herndon, Va., works with her students on spelling. (Photo by Pamela Allen)

At The Boyd School in Herndon, Va., Pamela Allen, of OII’s Office of Non-Public Education, experienced the school’s Montessori pedagogy, as the children in Anne Hart’s primary classroom explored learning materials geared to their individual interests and learning readiness. Observing the freedom of the engagement and the students’ explorations was “a powerful reminder that a ‘one-size-fits-all education’ system doesn’t work in America,” Allen observed. The young students’ “gifts are as diverse as their ethnic heritage,” she said, noting that like other nonpublic schools, The Boyd School has “the independence and autonomy to incorporate a unique and flexible approach to student achievement.”

For Adam Bookman, a program specialist in OII’s Teacher Quality Programs division, the challenges of teaching the primary grades in America’s public schools were palpable during his shadowing experience. He encountered a classroom of spirited third-graders who kept their second-year teacher on his toes. The teacher shared with Adam his daily efforts to not only master a well-planned lesson, but also develop solid classroom management techniques. This intimate insight into the challenges that teachers face allowed Adam to see the value of teacher support efforts that go beyond just the first year. “I’ll keep this in mind during my continued collaboration with teacher preparation programs,” he concluded.

Simulating STEM career experiences at a Blue Ribbon School

Preparing D.C. youth for college and careers was on display for Julia Mundy, a fellow with OII’s STEM Team, who spent the day in the biotechnology laboratory classroom of Ericka Senegar-Mitchell at McKinley Technology Education Campus, an ED Blue Ribbon School in Northeast D.C. Biotechnology is one of four STEM concentrations that McKinley students can specialize in, and the program emphasizes authentic experiences. Mundy worked alongside students screening for Huntington’s disease and later joined a classroom debate about the ethical implications of testing for a disease for which there is no cure. “Watching this experience not only further motivated my own work to make these experiences available to all students,” she realized from her shadowing, but it also “reminded me of the incredible work of the teachers in providing these opportunities.”

Continuing to look for the connections

For Yianni Alepohoritis, busy at present moderating the deliberations of peer panels for OII’s i3 grants competition, the time he spent in Kevin Settlage’s 8th-grade English Language arts classroom at Robert Frost Middle School, in Rockville, Md., was invaluable, and even more so the time he and Settlage spent at the end of the day “picking each other’s brains.” The two thought back on the classroom action, analyzing how it relates to the national and federal policies that Alepohoritis is immersed in daily, looking for the connections. It was a significant learning experience for both, and so much so for Alepohoritis that he plans to regularly visit other classes in the future to keep looking for those important connections.

The shadowing event, while the highlight of the day, is only one part of ED Goes Back to School; a teacher-led prep session about the time and complexity involved in lesson planning precedes the day in the field, and a debrief with Secretary Arne Duncan and a celebratory reception in honor of the teachers ends the day. What began as an intent to appreciate has gone far beyond. The experiences not only have helped to illuminate how the policy and programs that we at ED work on every day affect the practice happening in the classroom, but it also has served to build and strengthen relationships between policymakers and teachers.

Doug Herbert is a special assistant in the Office of Innovation and Improvement and editor of the OII home page.