Rising to the Challenge in First Tennessee

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As a former teacher and teacher of teachers, Commissioner of Education, Candice McQueen’s heart is never far from the classroom. In this post, the commissioner recaps her recent stops in Hawkins, Greene, and Washington Counties on the Classroom Chronicles tour. 

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

Last week I had the pleasure of traveling to First Tennessee to visit three school districts. During my first stop in Hawkins County, I was honored to announce Church Hill Elementary as this year’s winner of the Title I Distinguished School award. Each year, the Tennessee Department of Education selects two schools from over 1,200 Title I schools to receive this honor. Church Hill Elementary was selected because of their strong growth among students from diverse backgrounds.

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Teachers at Church Hill Elementary pose for a picture during an assembly with Commissioner McQueen and Director of Schools Steve Starnes.

The consultants who evaluated all of the Title I Distinguished School finalists highlighted four areas that contributed to Church Hill Elementary School’s success. First, Church Hill has strong leaders who are setting high expectations. Having school leaders model this sets a strong example of how teachers can also hold their students to high expectations. Second, teachers meet regularly to break down standards, share best practices, and align curriculum. This type of collaboration helps teachers improve their own practice and provide better instruction for their students.

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Data Room at Church Hill Elementary, Hawkins County

Third, there is a focus on using data to drive instruction. At Church Hill, teachers and administrators created a “data room” to help them make purposeful decisions in their classrooms, tailor instruction to student needs, and determine student placement in intervention and enrichment groups during “Panther Power Hour.” As a result, Church Hill has seen growth in math, English language arts (ELA), and science. Finally, Church Hill has a positive culture at this school that is tangible from your first steps in the door. Church Hill has a welcoming and safe environment for students, and it is obvious that parents, teachers, administrators, and students take pride in their school. Based on my visit to Church Hill, I would add a fifth reason for the school’s success – students who are ready to learn and engage each day. My short visit to Church Hill is one I will not soon forget!

At my next stop in Greene County Schools, I saw strong, intentional instruction aligned to the demands of college and the workplace. In ELA, students were reading authentic non-fiction texts in class and incorporating evidence from the text into their writing. Practice with non-fiction reading and writing helps prepare students for the type of work they will encounter in college or their career. In math, I saw teachers make use of MICA practice problems in their classrooms to push their students to meet high expectations and prepare for TNReady. I observed students who were challenged but eagerly reaching toward new expectations.

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Commissioner McQueen spoke with students in Jill Paris’s 8th grade ELA class in Greene County about reading authentic text and using technology in the classroom.

I was impressed by the district’s effort to support its schools with technology hardware and with technology support. The district has made a purposeful effort to improve technology by providing a designated technology coach at each school. These coaches provide technical assistance but also train teachers to use technology more effectively in the classroom. This not only helps enhance daily learning and engage students but it also teaches students skills that will help them succeed in life. I left the district confident that Greene County Schools was prepared and supported for the transition to online testing this year.

School board members Clark Justis and Nathan Brown joined me on the tour in Greene County along with County Mayor David Crum, State Representative David Hawk, and State Senator Steve Southerland. The excitement and support of the community was inspiring and no doubt contributes to the district’s success.

Washington County Schools was my final stop for the day where I visited Lamar School, one of the K-8 schools in the district. State Representative Matthew Hill and Director of Schools Ron Dykes joined me for the visit. The principal of Lamar, Shannon Gray, set rigorous expectations for students and was thoughtful and engaged in the work of her teachers in partnership with parents. In particular, she focuses on content-specific family nights so her community can both understand academic expectations and connect with each other to build community.

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Caitlin Tomski’s tea party with her 2nd graders to teach them story elements in Washington.

While at Lamar, I visited the classroom of Ms. Caitlin Tomaski, a second grade teacher who used strong literacy practices with students and instilled an excitement about learning. I observed as her students held a tea party to learn about story elements. Students circled the room until they found a partner to discuss the story’s characters or conflict, then “dug deep” to make a personal connection. Ms. Tomaski’s enthusiasm for her work was inspiring and rejuvenating.

In other Lamar classrooms, I saw a variety of strong math practices from hands-on center and station work to direct instruction and teacher modeling. I observed students working on long division problems in teams so they could support each other’s learning. Moreover, I had the opportunity to talk to students about the real world applications of Algebra. It was obvious from their responses that students had a deep conceptual understanding of math and valued the class.

I am grateful to all of the educators who allowed me to visit their schools and classrooms as part of my 10,000 teacher tour. Follow more of my travels here on the Classroom Chronicles blog as my tour continues throughout the school year.