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Blue Valley

August 26, 2002
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Related Topics: Partnership, Labor Relations, Retention, Featured Article, Recruitment, Staffing Management
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When Ryan Ellis walked into a high-school classroom in the Blue Valley SchoolDistrict in Overland Park, Kansas, for the first time last fall, he wasunnerved. His dream was to get students excited about discussing The Adventuresof Huckleberry Finn and other classic works of literature. He hoped to turn thatpassion into a career.

All the same, the rookie teacher wondered if he was up to the job, in anaffluent suburban school district where administrators and parents set highstandards. He promised himself that if he ever thought he wasn’t making thegrade, he would quit.

Blue Valley’s HR department also worried about whether Ellis would succeedor fail. With student test scores that consistently rank in the top 10 percentof the nation, the district has a reputation for the academic excellence thatcomes with highly skilled, veteran faculty members. Blue Valley’s teachersaverage 14 years of experience; an impressive 66 percent have advanced degrees.

    But since the late 1990s, administrators have been concerned about maintainingthe quality of their workforce. “We ourselves never actually reached the pointthat we were in a crisis, but on a state and national level there were a lot ofwarning signs,” says Sandra Chapman, Blue Valley’s director of humanresources staff development.

    Nationwide, the school-age population is surging,and the departure of baby-boom-age faculty--thanks to pension plans that allowthem to retire with full benefits in their mid-50s--already is creating a diresituation. Over the next decade, public schools across the country will need 2.4million new teachers--nearly as many as the 2.8 million presently at work inclassrooms.

While college education programs are scrambling to produce graduates to meetthe need, these novices have an alarmingly high washout rate. Nationwide, 30 to50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years because ofpoor performance or because they are disillusioned. At Blue Valley, the failurerate wasn’t quite that high, but it was still troubling. In the 1998-99 schoolyear, for example, 13 percent of the new teachers weren’t rehired for thefollowing year because of poor performance. That was nearly twice the district’soverall teaching-staff turnover rate, and it meant that the district was losingnew teachers at a faster rate than its veterans were retiring.

Blue Valley administrators knew that just filling those jobs with more newhires wouldn’t work. Research indicates that it takes a teacher several yearsto develop the skills needed to reach children with different learning styles.For the school district to keep its lofty reputation intact, new hires had tostay long enough to develop into talented veterans. The problem wasn’t a lackof quality applicants. Blue Valley’s reputation and pay scale--the averageBlue Valley teacher earned $45,000, the fourth-best compensation among Kansasschool districts-attracted 10 for each opening. Instead, new teachers who shouldhave succeeded weren’t making it.

Chapman and others gradually realized that a solution would require majorchanges in the initiation process for teachers. In the past, rookies had plungedin with little formal help from administrators or experienced colleagues. “Theold culture was sort of ‘I had to survive it, so you’ll have to do it, too,’”Chapman says.

Thus, Blue Valley developed the Alliance for Educational Excellence program,a new-teacher-development initiative providing orientation seminars, workplacementoring, and continual in-the-classroom evaluation and training to help newteachers improve their performance. The program gives new teachers anopportunity to build on their academic credentials with a master’s degree fromthe University of Kansas through a special program in which they can actuallytake many of their classes at Blue Valley and conduct research on issues intheir own classrooms.

“The unique thing about the program is its comprehensive nature,” Chapmansays. “Some districts have tried various parts of this solution--peerassistance, or graduate study--but combining the elements in one package isnew. Basically, we’re trying to focus on the different needs that a newteacher would have, and address them all at once.” Another distinctive aspectis the district’s extensive use of surveys and feedback to continually monitorand improve the program’s performance. Finally, the program is a product ofpartnership. On one level, it’s an alliance that includes school-districtadministrators and the local teachers’ union, who’ve put aside theirsometimes divergent interests to work together, and the University of Kansas.But on another level, it also is a cooperative effort between the district’sHR professionals and veteran teachers, who’ve been persuaded by HR tocontribute many hours of work--with only modest compensation--to help theirnew peers.

The results of the Alliance initiative have been startling. Sinceimplementing the program three years ago, Blue Valley hasn’t had to fire anynew teachers for poor performance. Given the previous 13 percent failure rate,that’s a net gain of 27 veteran teachers who might not otherwise be in theclassroom. Additionally, Blue Valley has created a model for how to bringtogether various players and coordinate their efforts, in order to assist newemployees from a variety of angles and give them the best possible chance tosucceed. For that reason, Blue Valley is the winner of this year’s Optimasaward for Partnership.

Using veterans to assist new hires
New teachers begin with six days of orientation seminars before the start ofthe school year. The program includes advice on teaching fundamentals such ascurriculum, instruction, and classroom management. One important aspect is afrank discussion between the new hires and veteran teachers about Blue Valley’sworkplace culture and community expectations for teacher performance. “BlueValley has a lot of parents who are educated, well-to-do, and have very highexpectations for their kids. There’s a lot of pressure on teachers from theget-go, and a young teacher has to be mentally prepared to deal with it,”Chapman says.

One of the orientation program’s innovative features is the “demonstrationclassroom” segment. A group of new teachers is invited to spend a half day inthe classroom of a veteran teacher who is preparing for the coming year. “Wepair them with someone who teaches the same subject or age group that they’llbe teaching,” says Walter Carter, Blue Valley’s district coordinatingteacher for staff development. “There are important differences betweenteaching, say, kindergartners and fifth-graders, and you can’t address thateffectively in an auditorium full of all different sorts of teachers. Thedemonstration classroom gives them a very specific model to follow, and a chanceto talk about very specific issues-how to manage a certain class in the firstweek, how to deal with parents of children of a certain grade-level. Ourfeedback from surveys is that new teachers find it very useful, because it helpsthem to prepare specifically for what they’ll be doing.”

Ryan Ellis says the program also gives new teachers the message that it isokay for them to ask their peers for help, and that in fact they’re expectedto do so. “You see right off that it’s not a sink-or-swim environment, wherethey wait until you make a mistake and then criticize you. It’s okay that youdon’t know everything. You’re allowed to ask questions, and you know thereare people around who want to help you figure it all out.”

That message was reinforced by a mentorship program that paired new and moreexperienced teachers who were in the same grade or subject. The mentors arevolunteers and receive a nominal $400 stipend for their efforts. To qualify,mentors receive 10 hours of specialized training on coaching techniques. Inparticular, mentors prepare to offer “just in time” support, in which they’reavailable on short notice to help a new teacher work through an immediatechallenge.

Veteran English teacher Rita Norton, for example, helped Ellis get throughsome rough spots in the American Literature course that he taught to high-schooljuniors. “One of the books I had to teach was The Adventures of HuckleberryFinn,” Ellis says. “There are a lot of tricky things about teaching thatbook--for example, how to deal with the racial issues. She showed me what she’ddone in her classes in the past, how to encourage the kids to talk about it andto form strong opinions, rather than just to sit there.” When Ellis expresseda desire to include some works by Native American writers, Norton provided himwith some hard-to-find texts that she’d collected over the years and used inher own classes.

Continual critiques to improve--and validate--performance
In addition to quick, timely bits of advice from mentors, new teachers likeEllis also receive more extensive critiques and coaching from anotherexperienced colleague. The Peer Assistance program actually began as astand-alone pilot initiative in 1997, but its value quickly became so apparentthat Blue Valley expanded it and incorporated it into the larger Allianceprogram. It features four veteran teachers, who take three years off from theclassroom to work with new hires and help them develop their skills. Each peerassistant has a caseload of 25 to 30 new teachers. The veteran meets with his orher charges at least eight times in the course of the year, and spends much ofthat time actually observing the novice teacher in the classroom.

Those observation sessions are different from the sort of evaluation that anew teacher might get from a supervisor. “On some of the observations, we’rewatching specific things that the new teacher has asked us to look at, andgathering data,” says Deb Satariano, a veteran peer assistant. “For example,the person might ask me to track how many kids are off-task when she’steaching, or how much time she wastes after answering a question before movingon. Those numbers can help a person to make subtle adjustments to her teachingtechnique, and become much more effective.”

In Ellis’s case, his peer assistant, Kathi Flexman, scrutinized how hemoved in the classroom. “Movement is a really important attention-gettingtechnique when you’re teaching,” Ellis says. “So she came in one day witha graph of the room and the location of the students’ desks. Then she satthrough the class with a stopwatch, and every 15 seconds plotted where I was inthe room. Afterward, she showed me the pattern. It was really a surprise, not atall what I remembered in my head. We also talked about why I spent so much timeover by these students, as opposed to other ones-your goal, generally, is tospread yourself around evenly-and how to use techniques such as walking behindstudents, so that they have to turn their heads and concentrate more on you. Orhow to kneel down next to a student who’s whispering to somebody else, so thatyou can regain the student’s attention without turning it into a powerstruggle. This is the kind of stuff that they barely touched on in college, ifat all. But it really can make a big difference in your success as a teacher.”

Turning job improvement into an academic credential
Another component of the Alliance program is an optional master’s degree ineducation. The non-thesis program, set up with the cooperation of the Universityof Kansas, gives new teachers a chance to take nine credit hours of classestaught in the evenings at school-district buildings by university professors andschool-district staff members. They use textbooks supplied by the district. Ittook considerable negotiation to work out a partnership with the university,Chapman says. “They’re a research university--for them, the purpose of amaster’s degree is to prepare for a doctorate. For us, the focus is acquiringand improving skills that can be used in the classroom. But we managed to workout those differences.”

So far, about 100 teachers have enrolled in the program. The course workincludes “action research” assignments, in which teachers work on an issuefrom their own classrooms--for example, how to use a computer more effectivelyas a teaching tool. They develop a potential strategy to address the situation,and then document its effectiveness. “The goal is to apply theory that younormally would learn in a master’s program,” Chapman says. “Basically,they’re getting credit for helping to solve a problem with their kids. Thatgets at another issue that we’ve discovered with new teachers: they have a lotof knowledge and background already, but they tend to fall apart when it comesto applying it. This program is designed to help them put it all together.”

A cooperative effort, on multiple levels
One of the keys to the Alliance program’s effectiveness is that it has thestrong support of both district administrators and the Blue Valley NationalEducation Association, the teachers’ union--two groups that in many districtsare bitter adversaries on personnel issues. One reason: HR worked from the startwith the union and gave it an important role in shaping the program’s content.“When I got the job [in 1998], the NEA officials actually came to me first andwanted to start a mentoring program,” Chapman says. “I said, ‘That’sgreat, because I want to talk with you about some ideas for staff developmentthat I want to work on.’ ”

HR and union officials began having informal discussions, out of which cameideas such as the expanded induction process and the in-house master’s degreeprogram. HR took those joint ideas and ran with them--doing support research,writing proposals, seeking outside grants, and winning political support withinthe school administration.

The union supported HR’s efforts to launch the program with its ownlobbying. “When we did our collective bargaining that year,” union presidentSherrelyn R. Smith says, “one of the things we actually negotiated for wasfunding for the program. We felt very strongly that this was something fromwhich our teachers would get a lot of benefit.”

Blue Valley’s HR team and the teachers’ union have continued to worktogether to ensure that the program runs smoothly. Mentoring and peer-assistanceprograms sometimes venture into tricky areas of management-labor relations. Theveteran teacher-coaches inevitably must discuss new teachers’ development withthe principals who supervise them, if only to ensure that their advice doesn’tconflict with the supervisors’. But they have to be careful not to share somuch that the new teachers feel unable to candidly discuss their weaknesses withthe coaches. HR and the union have achieved a comfortable balance, in part bygiving new teachers some control over what information about them is passedalong. A report from one of the peer assistant’s observation sessions becomespart of the new teacher’s end-of-the-year evaluation. But the new teacher getsto pick the session that is to be included.

Teacher-coaches are able to win new teachers’ confidence because they oftenact as advocates for the new teachers with their supervisors. “If I know ateacher is having trouble, I’ll ask, ‘Is it okay if I talk with yourprincipal about this issue?’” peer assistant Satariano says. “I alwaystell the principal exactly what we’re doing to improve the person’sperformance--and also all the things that the new teacher is doing well, tohelp the principal have a balanced view.”

HR and the union say their partnership has paid off. Not only has theAlliance program improved the district’s new-teacher retention rate, but it’salso become a recruiting tool. “These days, when potential candidatesinterview, they want to know what sort of programs a district offers to supporttheir teaching,” Smith says. “We have a lot to offer them. It’s a way toensure that we continue to attract the top people, and that we 

Workforce, September 2002, pp. 64-68 -- Subscribe Now!

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