Coaching Culture in the Syracuse City School District Leads to Increased Teacher Support – and Retention
Published on 6/28/19
District News Corcoran High School Van Duyn Elementary School Westside Academy at Blodgett
Growing up in Saratoga Springs, New York, Kathryn Mansfield knew she wanted to be a teacher. Her grandparents and aunts were teachers, and she constantly heard stories about the difference they made in students’ lives.
In high school, Kathryn volunteered as a tutor to English as a New Language students while their parents were learning English. In college at SUNY Cortland, she entered the Cortland Urban Recruitment of Educators (C.U.R.E.) program, which placed her as a student teacher in Westside Academy at Blodgett – a middle school in the Syracuse City School District.
Kathryn was as prepared as she could be as she started her first teaching job in the same school in September 2018. She knew the school and she knew the students. She was ready to go!
Until, that is, she started teaching. For the first day of school, Ms. Mansfield had arranged the desks in her classroom into ‘pods,’ grouping desks together so students could collaborate. Instead, she recalled, the arrangement created chaos. Students sat with their friends, talking over her and not listening to instructions. Ms. Mansfield realized immediately: she had a classroom management problem. And she wasn’t quite sure how to fix it.
In the Syracuse City School District (SCSD), our mission is to build, support and sustain school communities that provide all students with a high-quality education that prepares them to graduate as responsible, active citizens ready for success in college and careers and prepared to compete in a global economy. One of the top priorities of our strategic plan, Building Our Future, is to recruit, develop, support and retain the most effective, diverse staff. We recognize that when our employees are cared for, valued and respected, they will in turn care for, value and respect our students and their families.
Amid the national teacher shortage, District leadership saw the importance of not only recruiting the best teaching candidates but also providing them with the coaching and support needed to ensure that they are retained, rewarded and effective for years to come. As the fourth largest school district in New York State – and a high-poverty, urban district – these initiatives have been implemented gradually and with continuous improvements.
“We recognize that when our staff are adequately supported - when they see ongoing opportunities for career growth – they are more likely to remain in their school, in our district, and being effective teachers for their students,” Dr. Christopher Miller, Chief Human Resources Officer, said.
“We were looking to do something different,” Director of Recruitment and Selection Scott Persampieri added. “We wanted to stem the tide of the exodus of teachers from urban education. Before these programs, if we were lucky enough to find good teachers, often they would leave in the middle of the year. Now, we have taken more control of teacher preparation and are working to ensure that our recruitment, internship and mentorship programs serve to provide a steady flow of talent to the district while also serving as a barrier to prevent teachers from wanting to leave.”
Coaching New Teachers to Find Their Confidence
Ms. Mansfield is one of more than 120 new teachers taking part in the Peer Assistance Review (PAR) program in the Syracuse City School District this year. The program partners first year – or first year in the SCSD – teachers with a Consultant Teacher, a veteran whose role it is to serve as a guide and advocate.
Consultant teachers serve as a built-in support system, working with the new teachers one-on-one before the school year begins, observing their classes weekly, meeting with them regularly and being available as a resource when needed.
So when Ms. Mansfield saw her challenge that first week of school, she immediately called Anne Witz, her PAR Consultant. Anne has 25 years of teaching experience under her belt – 24 of them in the Syracuse City School District. Ms. Mansfield detailed how, upon hearing about her classroom management challenge, Ms. Witz sat down with her to brainstorm a solution. Together, they discovered an arrangement that worked best for Ms. Mansfield’s students.
“I don’t know how far into the school year I would have made it without her,” Ms. Mansfield said of Ms. Witz’ support. “She gives me so many techniques to troubleshoot a problem, and just having someone in your corner supporting you really does help lead you to success. I know that all teachers struggle in their first year. But sometimes, it feels like you’re the only one struggling and that it’s you that’s the issue. Having a PAR Consultant helped bring things into perspective for me. Having Anne there to remind me that I’m a good teacher… it really helped.”
In addition to individualized support and coaching, PAR Consultant teachers also review lesson plans and support teachers through the Danielson Rubric, a framework for teaching used to evaluate educators. When the new teachers are selected for one of their two unannounced observations, they are already familiar with what they will be evaluated on and what their evaluators are looking for. They’re prepared.
For staff who may not have a PAR Consultant, the SCSD offers a Mentor Teacher Internship Program (MTIP). The program offers additional support for those who are in need of mentored experience in order to gain their professional teaching certification or those who have received mentoring through the PAR program but are seeking extended support.
Mentor teachers maintain their regular classroom teaching role and serve in the mentor role outside of the regular school day. Each school within the SCSD has its own Mentor Teacher, allowing the mentors to address each school’s different population and needs and connect more easily with the mentees.
“We know that teachers are not finished products after their first or even second year,” Coordinator of Educator Effectiveness Dr. Donna Vallese explained. “We’re attempting to use our MTIP mentors to create a community of practice. They hold a meeting once a month for all probationary teachers in the building, and their goal is to anticipate the needs of these new teachers.”
Are report cards coming up? Parent-Teacher conferences? State assessments? Mentor teachers check in with the probationary teachers in their building about once a week to help them stay aware of the issues teachers are facing and plan their supports accordingly.
“One of the highlights of my experience as a mentor was arranging for one of my mentees to spend half of the day observing other teachers in the building,” Corcoran High School Special Education Teacher Kristen Walsh said. “Prior to her observations, we defined what she felt were her areas of weakness and what she wanted to focus on. That allowed her to take away ideas and structures that other teachers successfully use with the same population that she teaches daily. The best part was that she began implementing those ideas in her room and has found success.”
As a result of the MTIP program, new teachers say they are not only gaining ideas: they’re also gaining confidence and a sense of community.
Muntaha Ahmed is in her second year teaching science at Corcoran, and also her second year with a mentor through MTIP. She previously taught in her home country of Iraq, and has been adjusting to the cultural – and practical – differences of teaching in the United States.
Weekly meetings with her mentors have helped her acclimate to the environment and expectations here, and she said that visiting other teachers’ classrooms for observation has helped expand her network and has made it easier to collaborate.
“Even if someone teaches a different subject, you really do benefit a lot from their ideas and experience,” she said. “It’s helped me a lot. With our mentor, we work one-on-one to find a solution to a very specific problem. All teachers could use a check-in like that, but we don’t always have the time. When we have a mentor, it creates that time for collaboration.”
Coaching Our Own Pipeline of Urban Educators
In the SCSD, we offer multiple pathways for staff to become familiar with our students and our schools even while they are completing their own education.
Through the Urban Fellowship Program, fellows recruited from outside the district – some from out of state – receive full tuition toward a Master’s Degree in Education at Syracuse University, in exchange for a five-year commitment to teach in the SCSD. The primary focus of this program is to increase the diversity of our faculty so they better represent the diversity of our student body. Through the Embedded Master of Arts Teaching Residency Program (EMAT), in partnership with NYU’s Steinhardt School, teachers earn a Master of Arts in teaching through an immersive teacher residency, paired with online and blended course work. During the program and their year of residency, teachers learn the art of teaching through a gradual release model. Through partnership with SUNY Oswego, we are also supporting a small cohort of resident interns in a two-semester residency in our schools. That partnership provides residents with a stipend to help cover living expenses, in exchange for a commitment to teach in the district upon completing their degree. To date, we have welcomed more than 52 teachers through the Urban Fellowship Program and 31 residents through the EMAT program – and these numbers continue to rise.
For Urban Fellows, weekly meetings begin even before a new school year kicks off, and they continue through the year. In addition, the group attends occasional outings that are intended to provide additional networking opportunities and create a greater sense of community, as well as to help them learn more about the Syracuse area. For EMAT residents, they gain a unique insight into our schools and students by spending an entire year working full-time in a building.
“I know that when I’m a teacher, I’m going to run into an argumentative kid or a classroom management issue,” Westside Academy at Blodgett Middle School Special Education Intern Stephen Aguayo said. “But because of the EMAT program, I’ve been able to watch several teachers model these issues in different ways and in different styles. I’ve had a whole year of finding my voice as a teacher so I can be a confident classroom leader.”
Coaching From Within
In addition to mentorship and residency programs, the Syracuse City School District is also building opportunities for our teachers to coach each other – by serving as Multi-Classroom Leaders (MCLs).
Through Opportunity Culture, a unique staffing model, building administrators are able to utilize their excellent teachers in a different way. These teachers – called Multi-Classroom Leaders –still teach in the classroom, but they also extend their reach by coaching and supporting a team of their colleagues. The Opportunity Culture model was implemented in three cohorts over five years and is now in 15 elementary and Pre-K-8 schools. At Van Duyn Elementary, Opportunity Culture has been in practice for three years, and each year, student test scores have shown improvement.
MCL Karen Dotson serves as an Academic Intervention Specialist (AIS) leader, serving as a resource for the school’s second and third grade teachers in all subjects. She said the changes that the school has implemented as a result of Opportunity Culture have been transformative.
At Van Duyn, the school administrative leadership team works together to talk about what skills or strategies are needed for improvement building-wide. Then, they come up with a checklist of what the MCL could look for in the classroom to demonstrate mastery or a need for improvement. Focusing on standards-based instruction, school leaders look at assessment data and analyze areas where students may be lacking. Then, they think about the foundational skill that students need to make improvement in that area, working with teachers to help address that specific item.
To make sure teachers are fully invested, Ms. Dotson said she always works on one thing the teacher would personally like to improve upon, as well as one thing she would like to see them improve upon. This can be achieved through modeling, co-teaching or support through other strategies.
“The staff love the one-on-one support that the MCL role provides,” Ms. Dotson said. “They know they can come to me with anything and if I don’t have the answer, I will figure it out for them so they don’t have to spend time away from their instruction figuring out those little nuances.”
Continuing to Build the Coaching Concept
These are just several of the numerous initiatives within the Syracuse City School District aimed at supporting our staff so they can better support our students – and the list is constantly growing.
In the years to come, our District has committed to expanding learning opportunities in leadership development and other job-related training for all employees. We have also pledged to expand and define internal leadership career ladders.
“Growing our own is an important aspect of our plan,” Dr. Miller said. “By focusing on our own people, we will enrich our students, grow our own staff to new roles and help build lasting change for our city. Middle School students are encouraged to join Educators Rising, a program that encourages students to choose a career pathway in teaching. By high school, students can elect to enroll in a Career and Technical Education (CTE) program for Urban Teacher Prep. Both of these initiatives began as teacher recruitment strategies to build future urban teachers for the SCSD.”
We each play a valuable role in creating a school system that provides a high quality, competitive education for all students. Thanks to the willingness of our staff to take advantage of the mentoring and leadership programs offered in the Syracuse City School District, we feel strongly that we will be able to continue innovating and finding new ways to prepare our students for success for years to come.
This story was written by Karin Davenport, Syracuse City School District Communications Specialist.