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Accountability is ratcheting up for schools and teachers, as new teacher-evaluation systems go into effect in more states. But although advocates of the changes say their aim is to help struggling teachers get better, there’s been little attention to which kinds of on-the-job training for teachers work and which don’t. As part of an ongoing project looking at this training—known as professional development (P.D.)—The Hechinger Report spoke with Sana Nasser, principal of Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, to find out how she helps her teachers improve their craft.
Nasser has been the principal at Truman for 14 years, and has worked in schools for three decades. Truman is one of the few large high schools still remaining in New York City, as many have been closed down for poor performance. The school’s students—a majority of whom are low-income and ethnic or racial minorities—do relatively well on state tests, however, and two-thirds of them graduate.
Q: How do you do professional development in your school?
A: If it is not based on what you see in the classroom in your daily observations, it’s not meeting the needs of your kids. By the second week of school we have visited all the classrooms.
Teachers are very cynical about what is the buzz word for this year. We do it in such a way … it may be called something different, but it is really the same thing.
We did “backwards planning” with the teachers for two years—beginning with the one sentence that you want your students to come out of your classroom learning. This year we called it “understanding by design.” Because we’re calling it something different in September, I have to explain that this is exactly the same: Start with what is it that you want your kids to learn, and then plan your lessons in reverse. We kind of relate it so they know it’s not this year’s flavor.
Do you bring in outside providers to train your teachers?
I really don’t, because I have done both. You bring in experts, who are really well-known in the field and have written books. And I have found that teachers are much more receptive when they see a colleague say, “Here is what I tried with my students.”
I found it more tangible for the teachers, and it’s more likely that they will replicate it.
Do you track whether your professional development is working, and how?
Here’s how we track it: How are the kids doing? I look at their attendance. I look at their coursework. And I look at Regents results. You know a teacher is doing a good job or not if the teacher has high attendance rates, because the kids want to be there.
The Hechinger Report is investigating how professional-development funds are spent in the country’s largest school system—New York City—as well as in other districts around the nation to see what we can learn from schools, districts and countries that excel at ongoing teacher training. This story is part of the ongoing series.
I have a roundtable with the principal—with the students—I pick them at random. While we’re eating, we discuss what works, what doesn’t work. We don’t mention teachers’ names, but I know exactly who they’re talking about. I ask them why they run to that teacher’s class. Is it because they’re cool? Because they let them get away with things?
The most important factor is that relationship that the teacher has with the children—and I don’t mean they’re friends on Facebook—but that the teacher talks with them on their eye level. She asks, “Where were you yesterday? I didn’t see you.”
How do you train teachers who don’t do that?
I can’t teach you commitment. I can’t teach you heart.
We don’t go to staff fairs. People apply to us because they know our staff development program is very strong. We have a classroom that we call the Truman Staff Development Center. It’s really run by teachers, and they can go and get whatever they want to get. We run writing workshops on Friday in the morning to walk them through the writing process, because we’ve found that’s the most difficult thing for kids to do—to write. And the P.D. after school—we do it once a month instead of twice. Eighty minutes of meaningful development.
It’s all continuous and a build-on—the whole year I will concentrate on only one thing. Because I want to see them integrate it into their lessons. You can’t do P.D. without holding them responsible for it.
We also ask teachers to videotape themselves. You see things very differently when you are watching yourself deliver. We say, “Please videotape yourself so you can see what we’re seeing and what your kids are seeing.” There’s a remedy for this, but you need to see it first.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.