Supporting the Transformation of Athens, Tennessee, Classrooms

September 13, 2016

Supporting the Transformation of Athens, Tennessee, Classrooms

As an administrator in public schools for more than two decades, Mike Simmons, principal at Athens Middle School, has been a part of hiring quite a few teachers. One of the greatest challenges he faced was providing those hires with the ongoing support and professional development they need. That's why he partnered with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to implement a system intentionally designed to create dynamic and collaborative learning environments for students and educators alike.

Before Athens City School District adopted the NIET teaching practices four years ago, professional development for teachers had always been more of an event—a one-time conference or lecture somewhere—with teachers returning to the classroom until the next conference came along.

With the help of NIET, a mechanism was found to provide professional development every single week, and it's having a big impact on Athens students.

"I'd only taught for one year before the district adopted the NIET teaching practices, but I can still see the difference," said Ashlee Byrd, a first-grade teacher at City Park School. "The continuing collaboration time set aside for teachers encourages the exchange of experiences, new ideas and strategies. It keeps you on your toes, thinking about creative approaches instead of settling into a routine."

The approach supports strong classroom instruction through teacher leadership, professional development, observation and feedback, and opportunities for additional compensation. Unlike the traditional model of professional development used by schools, the new approach provides teachers with a system of professional development that's ongoing, job-embedded, collaborative, student-centered and led by expert instructors known as master and mentor teachers.

For example, a master teacher is employed at each school and the schedule is structured to provide time during the regular school day for teachers to work collaboratively on instructional strategies to address specific student needs in their classroom. 

Teacher and school leaders use a clear and detailed instructional rubric to observe and provide feedback on classroom teaching. The instructional practices driving professional learning align to those in Tennessee's TEAM evaluation system. This ensures that teachers are supported in continuing to improve their practices and increase student learning growth. 

For Simmons, the idea of carving out time in teacher schedules to come together to grow professionally had always seemed impossible. But with the help of NIET, the once impossible is now routine.

He adds, "Our classrooms have been transformed. When students become empowered to own learning, life-long learning is the result. That's why we're here, doing what we do."  

Angel Hardaway, North City School master teacher, agrees.

"You grow as a teacher because you realize you don't have to be the center of everything," she said. "It's about being a better facilitator and turning the focus onto the students. That's when you begin to meet students where they are individually, rather than leaving students behind. That's when students take ownership and set goals. It has put the fun back in learning and that's producing results."