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Focus on Teachers: Yarra Howze, Supporting Teacher Growth

June 20, 2014

“Most teachers, given the chance and right supports, definitely want to improve their practice in service of students,” asserts Pittsburgh teacher Yarra Howze.

Here at the Foundation, we completely agree—which is why we were pleased to support the Pittsburgh School District’s Empowering Effective Teachers plan.

An important component of Pittsburgh’s plan has been to create “career ladder roles,” or opportunities for expert teachers to become instructional leaders outside of their own classroom.  In Yarra’s case, she teaches students for 3.5 hours per day and spends the remainder of her day working with colleagues as an Instructional Teacher Leader for English/Language Arts.   In this new role, Yarra’s impact on the number of students has increased dramatically.  She teaches reading to 60 students daily, as well as reaches approximately 240 students in the classes of 12 teachers.

Yarra described her position as “a perfect combination of classroom teacher and instructional leader.”  She focuses on facilitating professional learning, differentiating her work based on the self-identified and observed needs of each teacher.

For example, Yarra works with seven teachers in the “Supported Growth Project.”  Instead of participating in a formal evaluation process, these teachers are involved in an in-depth study of one particular component of their teaching. They collaborate with Yarra and each other over the course of the year, sharing ideas, bringing artifacts of their work and presenting on their progress in their selected area.

Yarra’s other cohort of teachers is involved in the formal teacher evaluation process.  They focus on improving their overall teaching skills in four domains: Planning and preparation; classroom environment; professional responsibilities; and instruction.

Yarra credits Pittsburgh’s teacher observation tool—known as the RISE (Research-based Inclusive System of Evaluation) rubric— with helping teachers understand where they are in their practice.  She says, “RISE provides tiered descriptions, indicators of performance and classroom examples of each of the components we are being judged on.”

When Yarra observes a teacher, she reviews the lesson and then cross-references it with the observation tool, identifying which components match with the evidence from the classroom.  Teachers also conduct a self-reflection and then they share their findings against the rubric.  Yarra explains, “Teachers do a lot of reflecting on where their practice falls on the rubric and arrive at their own understanding of how to move forward in their practice. In the past, people oftentimes knew they are struggling but didn’t know why.  Our rubric now gives them information they need to see what isn’t working. A good part of our conversation is about setting next steps, doing classroom visits and supporting each other across the board.  We shouldn’t work in isolation.”

Completing her second year as an Instructional Teacher Leader, Yarra acknowledges, “The system [Pittsburgh’s Empowering Effective Teachers Plan] is more intense and holds teachers more accountable than ever before.  We are held to specific components of good teaching and asked to show evidence of it.  If we aren’t meeting a component, we are asked to improve our practice. The system is holding teachers accountable to actually teach.”

But she emphasizes:  “At the same time, Empowering Effective Teachers is also about providing teachers with more support.  Prior to this, there wasn’t a ‘go to’ person to help teachers if they need it.  Before, we were told ‘you need to improve and you need to figure it out on your own.’  So, you either improved or you didn’t.  Now, teachers are supported by peers who are held to the same standards as they are.  Teachers are excited to talk about their practice.  They want to share what works and discuss what they want to improve with their peers to promote student achievement.”

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