There was never a question what Stefanie Williams would do for a living. Not even for a second.
"A teacher," said Williams, a 21-year veteran with the Manchester City School System. "With 19 teachers in my family—from immediate family members to cousins to grandparents—I guess you could say I was born into it. I've been surrounded by teachers since birth and the idea of helping raise up the next generation has always felt like my calling."
After graduating from Tennessee Tech in 1995, it felt just as right for Williams to begin her teaching career in her hometown of Manchester. For 15 years, Williams taught a variety of grades at College Street Elementary School. It was a dream come true, teaching at the very school where she had once been a student. But, along the way, an opportunity she didn't see coming presented itself.
"When I was growing up, the poverty rate was very low in Manchester," Williams explained, "but that's changed over the years. Today, about 65 percent of students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. For me, getting into teaching was a chance to see the real world—where everything wasn't so perfect and challenges were a part of every day life.
"I'd noticed the grades of one of my students were really slipping," she said. "When I pulled him aside, I found out he was living in a truck. I’d expected him to come to school to learn but, in reality, he was more worried about where he was going to sleep that night. That was eye-opening for me. I wanted to connect on an even deeper level with students and help create opportunities in their lives."
A little over five years ago, Williams was offered the opportunity to transition from her role as a classroom teacher into that of an instructional coach. She was intrigued by the thought of influencing the way teachers across the district connect with students.
And when Manchester schools partnered with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to strengthen systems for supporting educator effectiveness three years ago, it cemented a new calling—teacher leader. Williams says she was drawn to NIET's focus on creating dynamic and collaborative learning environments for students and educators.
Since Manchester began this new approach, Williams has served as master teacher at Westwood Middle School. "What I realized was that the education system had become more and more about teaching to a test," she said. "We weren't engaging the students and bringing them into the experience, to share in it together. They weren't feeling the ownership in it. That needed to change."
NIET supports districts to build a comprehensive approach to teacher leadership, professional development, evaluation and compensation. Unlike the traditional model of professional development used by most schools, it provides teachers with a system of professional development that's ongoing, job-embedded, collaborative, student-centered and led by expert instructors in the school.
For example, Manchester schools have restructured the school schedule to provide time during the regular school day for teachers to collaborate to develop and implement successful strategies for student learning growth. Manchester uses a comprehensive system for evaluating teachers based on the Tennessee TEAM system, which also provides multiple measures of performance and uses teacher leaders working with principals to ensure that teachers receive extensive feedback and support. This system enables teachers to connect their own classroom practice with student learning and receive support in addressing individual student needs.
"It took some time to get everyone—teachers included—on board because it was such a different approach," Williams said. "But what was obvious to me from the start was it was not just another program to implement. I've seen a lot of programs come and go, but this was rooted in bringing the fun back into school and learning. It's about teaching with students rather than at them.
"NIET helps us teach kids to think," she said. "It teaches teachers to bring students into the discussion and, at times, even turn over the reins. We've been able to create an environment where our students feel like they have the ability to help steer the conversation and they're building confidence and opening up. You can see that confidence and engagement, and it's producing results."
During the 2012-13 school year—the year prior to implementation—35.1 percent of Westwood Middle School students were at or above proficiency in math, and 49.5 percent of students were at or above proficiency in English/Language Arts. By the end of the 2014-15 school year, those proficiency percentages improved to 50.3 percent and 52.1 percent, respectively.
Williams said there's still considerable room for improvement, but that TAP continues to help the district build positive momentum.
Williams feels like she's found her niche, professionally. And she's not the only one benefiting. The entire district is experiencing great returns, and she gives that credit to the commitment and buy-in from the teachers, administrators and students. "That's what allows the real learning to take place, and it's something we're proud to have built together."