Spotlight Teacher of the Month: Tracy Niccum

Position: Special Education Life Skills Teacher
District: School District of Washington, Missouri

Ms. Niccum is a Special Education Teacher from Washington West Elementary School.  Washington West is one of seven elementary schools in the School District of Washington in Washington, Missouri. Ms. Niccum educates students in grades 2 through 6 and has used the Rethink platform for two years.

As a second-year teacher, Ms. Niccum was initially hesitant to implement Rethink with all the work teachers are required to do during the year. So she started small.

“I focused on one or two students and realized I could link their behavioral plans and Individualized Education Program goals to Rethink,” Ms. Niccum said. Once she learned how Rethink could improve her classroom, she started using it more.

Ms. Niccum now uses Rethink regularly and said she feels “The most valuable aspect of Rethink is the ability to collect data and link Individualized Education Program goals and behavioral plans to the platform.”

One of the toughest challenges for Ms. Niccum as a teacher is improving her data collection process and encouraging student independence within the classroom.

“Data collection is a huge part of education and when you have a self-contained classroom, it can be very overwhelming,” said Ms. Niccum.

Rethink’s easy-to-use platform makes it seamless, said Ms. Niccum, with printable data collection sheets, graphs and summary reports. Rethink webinars and on-site visits provide her with the extra support she needs to implement individual schedules for students and help them succeed.

Her students also use the Activity Center to practice specific skills that align with
their IEPs. One of Ms. Niccum’s students uses the Activity Center twice a week and takes the lead setting up her own schedule on the platform, which she enjoys.

Ms. Niccum regularly selects different math and reading activities for her student to complete that align with her student’s IEP goals and the curriculum she teaches.

This integration, Ms. Niccum said, makes it easier to track progress and is important because teachers “have to be able to show student growth on IEP goals.” Teachers in her district must also indicate how students are improving on each goal at the end of every quarter.

The process can be riddled with paperwork, but Ms. Niccum said Rethink makes it much more manageable for paraprofessionals and teachers at her school.

Ms. Niccum on tracking student progress and IEP goals using the Rethink IEP builder

“The most valuable aspect of Rethink is the ability to collect data and link IEP and behavioral plans to the platform.”

Ms. Niccum said she plans to implement Rethink programs and activities for all her students so she can track student progress and IEP goals in the most effective way.

She hopes other teachers and principals consider subject areas in their schools that need improvement and discover how Rethink can help them. Ms. Niccum also believes that Rethink is especially valuable to special educators.

“We are always looking for ways to reduce the abundance of paperwork we have to do on a daily basis,” Ms. Niccum said. “The process goes much quicker when you can just click a button and pull up all the data. It’s all right there.”

Keep up the fantastic work, Ms. Niccum! Congratulations on being this month’s Spotlight Teacher!

Need to Know News: Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

Rethink Commends the Recent Special Education Decisions to Promote Quality Services and Supports.

Last week a unanimous decision was handed down by the court providing increased opportunities for students with disabilities. In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a higher standard of education for children with disabilities. Chief Justice Robert’s written opinion contained strong words:

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote. “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to “drop out.” ’ ”

In Texas there has been significant discussion around the so-called cap that implied that Texas schools should maintain an 8.5% or below qualification for special education. Given that the national average is approximately 13% this low eligibility cap is problematic. Earlier this month it was announced that this arbitrary cap is being removed.

Since its inception, Rethink has been committed to the assumption that with effective, evidence-based instruction children with disabilities can make progress and achieve their highest potential. It is with great positivity that we now have the Supreme Court demonstrating this shared belief and Texas making a commitment to serve all students in need of special education services and supports.

Shifting the Professional Learning Model to Improve Teacher Retention

An extraordinary shift is upon us in the field of education. Students are accessing information and demonstrating their capacity to learn differently. They are learning and using skill sets far different from past generations to prepare for life outside of the classroom. Indeed the fast-pace of change regularly revolutionizes the skills needed for adult success. The landscape for students is changing , and the landscape of what we ask of educators who teach and prepare students for the world and the workforce is also changing.

Our collective expectations of teachers extend way beyond organizing lessons and measuring student performance. We expect teachers to cater to individual student needs, use different learning techniques, incorporate technology and cater to the social and emotional needs of students.

These expectations are common threads for teachers who vary in practice and disposition. They also make the teaching profession much more difficult. Although teachers do a great job helping students succeed, the intricate demands and lack of professional development on the job has led to a decrease in the amount of teachers who choose to remain in the profession after their first five years.

Why do teachers leave the profession?

There are a variety of reasons for natural attrition in jobs including relocation, family matters, different schedules, salaries or distaste for management. The decision to leave for others stems from issues or concerns they feel cannot be resolved. According to the National Education Association, this includes:

    • A lack of support
    • Unfair demands and mandates
    • A lack of assistance with student discipline
    • Underfunded programs and low salaries
  • A lack of influence or respect at work

 

The National Center for Education Statistics identified 7.7% of teachers left the profession at the end of the 2012-13 school year with this number on the rise. The same study found that 46% of those who left the profession said opportunities for professional development in their new position outside of education were better. Although the answer seems simple, increasing the quality and access to professional development for teachers continues to be a challenge .

How do we retain more quality teachers?

Many districts are responding to this data and other statistics by reshaping the professional learning experience. Professional development is also becoming more relevant, personalized and useful. When translated on a larger scale, districts can use research to not only to improve teaching practices, but to increase teacher retention and buy-in for the profession. Developing custom professional development options for teachers with different skills, levels of experience and areas of interest can help increase teacher commitment to learning communities and help them take an interest in giving back to those communities.

Taking professional learning to the next level

Educators should always have a choice in how and what they choose to learn. This can include classroom modeling and access to different learning activities, platforms and online learning communities. Social media channels such as Twitter can also be a great tool for encouraging discussion among educators. Other methods to engage teachers in professional learning opportunities can include summer learning institutes and year-long campaigns to help them find joy in implementing new practices.

Of course some teachers still enjoy learning in a traditional lecture environment, but the important thing to consider is their right to choose the most accommodating option for them.

A common framework to keep in mind is one developed by  , which follows four stages:

  • Engagement – Ensures teachers have buy-in to what they are learning.
  • Learning – The environment content is delivered in, which helps move teachers from knowledge acquisition to application.
  • Support – Ongoing refinement of skills into successful practices that lead to improvement in teaching and student learning.
  • Measurement – The data collection on the teacher’s practice or commonly known as educator evaluations.

This four-stage framework can be applied to any professional learning opportunity and will help keep teachers on track when they embark on their own learning path. The hope is that with enough reflection on the benefits of more opportunities for teachers, we’ll start to encourage the best educators to stay in the profession with more support and room to grow.

Strategies for Instructional Coaching

Experience tells us, and the field of andragogy confirms, that adults learn differently from children. Andragogy refers to the adult learning theory and was coined by American educator Malcolm Knowles. Instructional coaches need to employ principles of andragogy as they support teachers in improving their practice.

The four principles of adult learning are:

  • Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  • Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities.
  • Adults want to learn about subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.
  • Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

How do these principles apply to coaching teachers? It’s simple. According to the Annenberg Foundation for Education Reform, “effective instructional coaching encourages collaborative, reflective teaching practice.” For example, if a teacher organizes a lesson a successful coach can help the teacher reflect on strengths and areas that need improvement. The best coaches offer guidance and resources related to teaching the subject or improving the delivery of lessons in a way that aims to tackle challenges in the classroom. An effective coach should also help teachers reflect on what they’ve learned during evaluations and help them apply it to their work with students.

It is equally important for teachers to use data to inform their practice. Data is a useful tool for understanding student challenges and identifying areas in need of focus. Sometimes isolating the right areas of focus can be difficult for teachers. In those instances, it is wise for the instructional coach – to support teachers to self-identify a focus area. The University of Kansas’ Center for Research on Learning provides a framework for coaches and teachers to decide where to start. It’s called “The Big Four.” These four focus areas include classroom management, content, instruction and assessment for learning.

Coaches can use these four focus areas to help teachers choose where to start. Support can expand to sharing data and monitoring progress with them over time. Applying current research in the area of focus as well as modeling research-validated instructional strategies for teachers is also helpful.

Five strategies to help translate research into practice from Jim Knight’s book, Instructional coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction:

  • Clarify: read, write, talk
  • Synthesize different sources
  • Break it down
  • See it through teachers’ (and students’) eyes – What does this look like in the classroom?

Finally, just as teachers should reflect on their area of focus, instructional coaches should reflect on their experience too.

We hope these strategies help guide your experiences helping teachers succeed.

Good luck and happy coaching!

Why Self-Directed Professional Development Matters for Educators

As the role and function of schools continue to change, so do duties and responsibilities of educators. Educators are often asked to help students succeed amid challenges including growing class sizes, new tests, new rules and new evaluation measures.

Educators must choose appropriate resources to help prepare for the challenges they will face during their career. Effective professional development provides educators training in meaningful and important aspects of their job. Through active engagement in professional development educators improve the quality of classroom instruction, grow professionally and strengthen their practice.

Professional development sometimes carries a stigma. It is viewed as inconvenient, not comprehensive enough and often ineffective. Indeed much of the professional development in education has been deemed costly and ineffective. Single-day professional development opportunities limit the ability of educators to ask important follow-up questions, access knowledge banks after sessions or learn in-depth strategies and skills that take time to master.

Unlike traditional professional development, self-directed professional development opens learning possibilities for educators in any place and at any time. It allows educators to acquire a wide variety of skills and gain access to training outside the classroom at their own pace.

Why is self-directed PD important?

  • Educators gain access to quality instructional materials, similar to receiving training from master teachers or high-quality instructional coaches. Video modeling is particularly effective in this professional development model.
  • Educators can review difficult concepts without fear of running out of time or not grasping complicated concepts.
  • Related service providers, who often don’t have access to classroom educator professional development, can discover new and inventive ways to help students with special or social/behavioral needs. This comes in handy for those who implement behavioral intervention plans or serve students with Individualized Education Programs.
  • Self-directed PD can solve challenges associated with integrated co-teaching. Teachers can learn highly effective techniques and use them to strengthen classrooms where students with special needs learn alongside general education students.
  • Teaching assistants can access professional development as they are often excluded from professional development provided to credentialed staff but are pivotal in supporting students with disabilities.

Time is a valuable commodity for educators. Self-directed PD may just part of the answer. When progress is measurable and professional development produces effective outcomes, it is meaningful.