As a former teacher and teacher of teachers, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s heart is never far from the classroom. In this post the commissioner recaps a recent visit to her alma mater and explains why you could soon see her in the halls of your building.
By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Education Commissioner
I recently kicked off a 10,000 Teacher Tour that will be charted by Classroom Chronicles throughout the rest of 2014-15 and the 2015-16 school years. The purpose of this tour is to both learn from our teachers across the state and to celebrate the work being done in classrooms in every region of Tennessee. It was appropriate that I began this journey in Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools as this is where I spent 13 years in public schools – from St. Bethlehem Elementary to Burt Intermediate to Greenwood and Richview Middle to Northeast High.
As I visited with Clarksville teachers and students, three things stood out to me.
First, collaborative engagement was happening in every classroom I visited in every school. I was struck by the amount of student conversations around text and scientific inquiry. Students were talking to each other around high-level questions and seeking answers in text that required both foundational reading skills and critical thinking skills like making inferences and predictions.
Students were using technology as a platform for the discussion (reading text on iPads) as well as using it for recording responses (recording their data through science apps). In more than one interaction, I heard elementary students build on the answers of their partners by locating an answer in the text and then explaining how it gave more information to answer the given question.
While I saw students collaborating, I also saw teachers naturally collaborating and co-teaching as part of their day. At Moore Elementary, it was encouraging to see both special education teachers and parent volunteers working with students as expert facilitators. I saw teachers planning together and discussing how to best interpret incorrect student responses on common assessments so they could reteach or individualize instruction for students who missed concepts. Teachers were sharing how they explained a new research project for students, so other teachers could better introduce the project. Even with the director of schools and principal present in the conversations, teachers were openly sharing challenges and results.
Second, students were doing authentic work. The Academy of Computer and Game Programming Technology and STEM classrooms at Northeast High were connected to real work that engineers and scientists do in the field. The students at Burt were engaged in literature circle conversations around real books. One fourth-grade student at Burt told me that he loved his teacher because she taught him algebra. When I pressed him for more information about what he was doing to learn algebra, he explained what algebra was and why it was important to him – not just how to do it. This spoke volumes about how the teacher connected this work of school to the work of life. Even the kindergarten classroom at Moore Elementary had students recording observations in a science journal as they shared observations about plants or space. One kindergarten student could not wait to share her work with the principal as she entered the classroom – she showed a joy for learning about authentic work, not worksheets or workbooks. It was obvious from my day-long visit that Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools has made an intentional effort to ensure students see how the work they do in schools connects to the work they do well after graduation. It was also obvious that student interest and joy followed.
Teachers Felt Supported by their Leadership
Finally, teachers felt supported by their leadership. I had the opportunity to meet with close to 30 teachers representing schools from across the county. When asked about specific initiatives, they were able to share many successes while articulating how their leadership supported pilots and additional professional development opportunities to ensure success. They also explicitly verbalized how both the district and school level leadership helped them reach their goals and communicated to them how much they were valued. While Clarksville is a transient community – of both teachers and students – due to it’s proximity to a military base, it was clear that the leadership in the county has a clear vision of retaining great teachers and aligning resources and support to make sure every teacher and student succeeds. This intentionality is clearly felt by teachers. One teacher said it best when she shared, “We are a family, so we hold each other up.”
I want to personally thank Dr. B.J. Worthington, Director of Schools, and principals Garry Chadwell, Diana Hara, and Kim Smith, for the time in Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools. Thanks also to Rep. Joe Pitts and Rep. Curtis Johnson for spending some of their time listening to teachers and sharing this visit with me. It was truly a time of reflection for me as I thought about the great teachers who inspired me to think about a future that I could only imagine as a student in Clarksville public schools. The Clarksville visit was also a time of learning and encouragement as we continue to seek bold goals in our state. I was reminded that if teachers continue to have high expectations and promote authentic learning and collaborative engagement under the direction of strong leadership, we are sure to succeed.
Check back to Classroom Chronicles for more updates from the commissioner’s tour. Tell us what the commissioner would see in your classroom. We are always on the hunt for great classrooms to feature!