Opportunity to Learn

Natalie Coleman, Sumner County Teacher and HSG Tennessee Teacher Fellow

originally posted on TNTeacherTalk


Any teacher can tell you that students who miss too much school are at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Regardless of whether absences are a result of illness, personal reasons, or suspensions, missed time in school is detrimental to the individual student’s learning. The Tennessee Department of Education hopes to improve students’ opportunity to learn by reducing absenteeism. In Tennessee’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan, one nonacademic indicator for school and district accountability is the “chronically out of school” metric, which will evaluate progress in reducing the number of students who miss ten percent or more of the school year.

Before finalizing the state’s ESSA plan, the TDOE tasked the Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellows with collecting feedback from teachers across the state of Tennessee about their experiences with chronic absenteeism and with student discipline. This spring, the Fellows released a report based on the valuable input of over 2,000 teachers who participated in an online survey and nearly 400 who provided their insights in focus groups. The report includes six recommendations that the Fellows presented to Commissioner McQueen and the TDOE and is now available for the benefit of all stakeholders in Tennessee education.

The report details the results of the survey and summarizes the trends of teachers’ comments in focus groups, and a look through the report shows many connections between teachers’ experiences and the recommendations made to the Department of Education.

Recommendation 1 focuses on helping schools and teachers address the problem of students chronically missing school. Based on the survey data, even though 95% of teachers affirmed that chronic absenteeism affects student achievement, many teachers also reported that they have received little or no training in how to reduce student absences. 90% of teachers reported that they had not received training on strategies for reducing chronic absenteeism, and 92% reported that they were unfamiliar or only somewhat familiar with the state’s initiatives in addressing this issue. In response to this feedback, the Fellows recommend, “To ensure that teachers are fully aware of TDOE efforts, CORE offices could build teacher awareness of the draft ESSA plan (2016) through trainings that highlight key plan features that are designed to reduce chronic absenteeism.”   

Recommendation 2 seeks to provide schools and teachers with more resources to address this issue. On the Fall 2016 survey, 69% of teachers reported that they believe problems at home are the most significant barrier to student attendance, but only 30% report that they are aware that Family Resource Centers are available to help families and students who struggle with absenteeism. In fact, teachers who chose to write in their own answers about the family support services offered by their schools overwhelmingly responded with none. As a result, the second recommendation says, “To alleviate teacher concerns about this issue, TDOE could build awareness of an increased TDOE focus in 2017 on reducing chronic absenteeism through Family Resource Centers. Additionally, TDOE could remind teachers of the 103 Family Resource Centers in 78 districts and highlight the various needs-based services and training provided to parents and families through these centers.”

Recommendations 3 and 4 focus on student behavior and discipline. In focus groups, teachers shared various obstacles they encounter in implementing effective discipline policies. The third recommendation connects these teacher concerns to resources the TDOE could provide in conjunction with Response to Instruction and Intervention for Behavior (RTI2-B): “Because TDOE focuses on RTI2-B in the draft ESSA plan (2016), TDOE could expand the RTI2-B framework to reach more districts and schools through CORE offices or Tennessee Behavior Supports Project (TBSP), thereby providing additional targeted support in areas highlighted as obstacles by teachers.” The fourth highlights strategies for improving student behavior that are both research-based and frequently cited by teachers themselves in their focus group responses: “Through CORE offices or Tennessee Behavior Supports Project (TBSP), TDOE could emphasize how the following teacher suggestions for improving student behavior are research-based and addressed in RTI2-B: promoting positive behavior and prevention efforts and encouraging restorative behavior practices; involving parents in student behavior efforts; nurturing positive student-teacher relationships; and providing appropriate consequences in response to student behavior issues.” This recommendation encourages the TDOE to promote these research-based practices which teachers also know to be effective.

Recommendation 5 addresses the all-too-familiar concern of bullying in school. 14% of teachers report they feel unprepared or very unprepared to handle incidents of bullying in their classrooms, and 20% rate the effectiveness of their schools’ response to bullying as ineffective or very ineffective. These numbers show that many schools and teachers need additional support in addressing the issue of bullying and validate the fifth recommendation: “Because 20 percent of teachers shared that their schools’ response to bullying is ineffective, TDOE could provide resources to CORE offices for dissemination to districts and schools.”

Recommendation 6 highlights previous Hope Street Group findings about RTI2 and urges using prior teacher feedback to inform implementation of RTI2-B, Response to Instruction and Intervention for Behavior, which features in the state’s draft ESSA plan. This recommendation reads: “TDOE could revisit the recommendations provided in the Spring 2016 Hope Street Group Report on RTI2, including those related to scheduling and structuring RTI2; promoting whole school support and reducing negative perceptions of RTI2 effectiveness; and providing funding for additional RTI2 resources (e.g., professional development) and staffing.” This previous report, detailing teacher feedback regarding RTI2, is also available on the Hope Street Group website.

To learn more, visit the Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellows website and download the full 2016-17 report. You can also stay connected by liking and following the Tennessee Teacher Fellows’ Facebook page, Tennessee Teacher Voice.


For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport



Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow Amanda Arnold penned this letter to President Donald Trump. The letter was originally published on TNTeacherTalk.com

Dear Mr.  President:

As you begin this journey, please take to heart that education is critical to the success and future of this great nation. “Making America Great Again” is a goal rooted in the future, and that future lies within the students of this nation. Education is one of the most versatile and powerful tools that government possesses. History has relentlessly proven that nations can be built and destroyed by how a government educates its people. Appropriate and effective education empowers the people, but education without clearly defined purposes, ethics, and goals can destroy the same people. Please act upon a vision of education that recognizes the following:

  1. Education can break the cycle of poverty.
  2. Impoverished communities need equal access to quality education, resources, and opportunities.  
  3. Students deserve safe, clean, and well maintained schools. Many of our impoverished communities have schools in a state of crisis.  
  4. Educational policy should be a problem-solving model based on demonstrated needs and research based results.  
  5. Every student is capable of growth, but all students do not academically grow at the same pace.
  6. All students do not reach proficiency at the same rate. Some students need more than four years to achieve high school proficiency. Some students need more challenges within that four years. Schools should not be punished for meeting a student’s needs.
  7. College and career readiness has two parts. Students need career and technical training. Educational policy has abandoned training and educating students for blue collar jobs. Our country needs blue and white collar jobs.
  8. College is not appropriate for every student, but every student who has a desire and the academic ability to pursue that route should have equitable preparedness and the opportunity to do so.
  9. Equitable does not mean equal education. Different students have different needs.  Different school districts have different needs. Want to make them great? Meet their demonstrated needs.
  10. Parents want success for students. No parent wants to see his or her student struggle or fail. Strengthen the parents to empower the students.  
  11. Hold educators accountable, but give educators the proper support, resources, guidelines, and tools to meet the needs of the students.  

Education must prepare a  diverse group of talented, well-educated students. The nation needs electricians, business professionals, mechanics, blue and white collar workers. Diversity in talent and developing the skills to meet the needs of those talents can make students successful contributors to society. Successful contributors make a successful society.

Making any country great begins with expectations: the expectation that every student can be successful, the expectation that poverty does not have to be a cycle, the expectation that the right tools in the right hands can change lives. Greatness does not manifest itself the same in every person; it is unique—just like our students. If you want to make America great, make educational opportunity great.

Amanda has taught English at Dobyns­ Bennett High School for the past five years. In that time, Amanda has served as the English 9 Co­Taught Team Leader, English 10 Co­Taught Team Leader, Co­President of the Alpha Zeta Chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa International Honor Society for Women Educators and on the Tennessee Digital Learning Team. Throughout her career she has served as a school­-wide Title I coordinator, school-­level testing coordinator and 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant coordinator. She holds a Bachelors and Masters degree from East Tennessee State University. In 2010, she earned an Educational Specialist degree in Instruction and Curriculum Leadership from Lincoln Memorial University. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


TN Teachers Part of Award-Winning ESSA Team

Tennessee teachers and Hope Street Group Teacher Fellows Natalie Coleman and Debbie Hickerson were part of a team being recognized for their efforts on development of an ESSA strategy plan.

Here’s more from a press release from Hope Street:

This week, a cross-state coalition of Hope Street Group Teacher Fellows will join 11 other teams in Chicago as finalists of the Learning Forward and the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future’s Agents for Learning Challenge. The challenge, which called upon educator teams across the country to create plans that detailed innovative uses for federal funding for professional learning and student outcomes under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), named the Hope Street Group State Teacher Fellow team of Trey Ferguson (NC), Cassie Reding (KY), Carly Baldwin (KY), Natalie Coleman (TN) and Debbie Hickerson (TN) as finalists. The “Game Changers” team from Hope Street Group is the only team with representatives from three different states to receive this honor. Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellows will also be strongly represented: current Fellow Sarah Giddings and former Fellows Debbie Hickerson and Rebecca Wattleworth will also be in attendance to present theirinnovative proposals with their respective teams.

Trey describes their team’s initial incentive to throw their hat in the competition ring:

“My teammates and I felt too many professional learning opportunities were happening to us, not for us, and definitely not with us. Too many systems are being developed from the top down and do not provide adequate resources or accountability to enhance good teaching practices.”

The finalist teams represent a diverse and knowledgeable group, among them 56 teachers, administrators and learning leaders from 12 different states. When asked about their strategic approach, team member Natalie Coleman tapped into the need for collaboration among educators:

“Our proposal focuses on collaboration and learning from excellence, and we have proposed a model of professional learning that makes it possible for teachers to learn from one another through observations, peer feedback and ongoing follow-up sessions.”

Hope Street Group, a national organization that works to ensure every American will have access to tools and options leading to economic opportunity and prosperity, was given the unique opportunity to plan and sponsor the event:

“We were honored to be asked to co-sponsor this event and help plan it,” commented Dr. Tabitha Grossman, the National Director, Education Policy and Partnerships for Hope Street Group. “Giving teachers an opportunity to share their insights and innovative ideas about how educators can learn together and individually is something we hope to do more of in the coming months with the partners who are involved in this event.”

Dr. Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward, weighed in on the call for teachers to lend their leadership–their expertise, experiences, and input–in the distribution of ESSA funding:

“States tell us they are looking for ways to capture stakeholder input, and the creative and bold ideas in the applications show how much these engaged educators have to offer as we enter the implementation phase of ESSA.”

In addition to the proposal presentations, the Chicago event will feature opportunities for the team members to engage to receive coaching to refine their plans and build skills in advocating with policymakers. As evidenced by the insight offered in the proposals, the challenge further demonstrates the need for teacher voice in education policy on the school, district, state and national levels. Educators can provide a firsthand perspective into what is effective and needed by students, themselves and their colleagues. A unique perspective only they can offer.

The presentations from the top 12 finalists will be live-streamed from 1:00pm to 3:30pm (CST) on July 22nd and can be viewed from this URL:http://www.learningforward.org/agentslivestream. If you are not available to watch on July 22, the recorded presentations as well as the teachers’ plans will be available online.

To learn more about Hope Street Group’s Teacher Fellows Program, please visit http://hopestreetgroup.org/impact/education/teacher-fellowships/. For additional information or questions, or to request interviews, please send an email to outreach@hopestreetgroup.org.

About Hope Street Group

Hope Street Group is a national organization that works to ensure every American will have access to tools and options leading to economic opportunity and prosperity.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


The Power of Purpose

Montgomery County Science Teacher and Tennessee Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Marc Walls offers some thoughts on summer reflection for teachers.


Teachers are accustomed to evaluating the
purpose behind everything in education:
Is this instructional strategy the best fit
for the lesson? What will most benefit my students? Could our time and
effort be better allocated in a more strategic

The purpose of almost every aspect of a
teacher’s year is assessed and decisions are made by many involved parties, including the teacher most of the time. But if we’re not careful, there is a purpose that can and does get forgotten and lost in the shuffle of every other priority that exists:

Our purpose.

The busiest time of a teacher’s year is also the most important because it is in the waning months of a school year that teaching placements, among other critical decisions, are decided upon for the following fall. When we are most stressed, busiest, and hardest at work for our school and the students we’ve shared so many hours with, it is imperative to take a few minutes for one’s self and reflect.

And when I reflect each year, I always ask myself the same question:

Can I do my best work here?

I ask that question because my purpose matters to me. If my answer to that question is a confident “yes,” I know I am where I am supposed to be. However, if I reach the conclusion that factors within my school prevent me from doing the very best that I have the capacity to do, I know it is time for me to find a better fit. I have to find, again, the convergence of everything that matters as the graphic in this post perfectly illustrates.

Every year, teachers are evaluated using many different assessment tools. We forget, though, that it’s ok to assess where we work as well. Teachers do their best work when supported and empowered. Without this, no risks will ever be taken. We thrive when opportunities are cultivated to build our capacity. This focus will trickle down to the students. The school that creates a culture of opportunity and collaboration produces teachers and students who can maximize their potential. As I continue to see new levels of what my potential is as an educator, it is important to make sure that the school where I teach is growing at a similar pace.

This spring, I will take the time to ensure that I am in a school that allows me to do my best work. I encourage you all to reflect on what you need to be at your best and evaluate your work environment as thoroughly as it evaluates you.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Leading from the Classroom

Debbie Hickerson is a 5th Grade Teacher at Cason Lane Academy in Murfreesboro and a Tennessee Hope Street Group Fellow.

Every professional journal we see these days contains an article which examines professional development for teachers. It is thrilling to see the educational community focus on ways we can better our practice, hone in on our talents, and strategize ways to find more tools for our classroom teachers. The highly regarded educational trainer and author, Harry Wong, has told us for years, “It is the teacher – what the teacher knows and can do – that is the most significant factor in student achievement.” (The First Days of School, 2001). This tells me that we must find the time, money, and support that will allow us to invest in our teachers. I have an idea on how we can do just that.


School districts are making requests for more substantial budgets today than they ever have. Even small school systems are seeking millions of dollars for operating costs. With so many school districts looking for ways to make the most of their allocations, it’s time to get creative with professional learning. It just makes sense to capitalize on the assets by having teachers instruct, not just mentor, one another and share their talents, skills, techniques, materials, resources, and strategies. Tennessee State Teacher Fellows working with the non-profit organization, Hope Street Group, produced a report in January 2016 containing data from teacher surveys and focus groups held throughout the state in the Fall of 2015. The press release states, The Hope Street Group report focuses on professional learning and teacher leadership, with results indicating that over half of the survey respondents aspire to a teacher leader role while remaining in the classroom.” Tennessee teachers didn’t want to leave the kids, they just wanted to help maximize their colleagues’ effectiveness.


These findings should cause principals to take a look at their faculty. The school is filled with scholars! These are highly educated people, with various degrees, skills, and talent. Why not tap into all that expertise?


What would leading from the classroom look like? “Teachers teaching teachers” is not a new concept, but it is one that is underused. This type of professional learning provides many opportunities for teachers to step up to take active roles in peer training. Districts who implement this style of teacher leadership have teachers who are leading in-service professional development. They may have book talks or hold lunch-and-learn sessions, lead professional book clubs, and occasionally spend time during faculty meetings giving presentations, sharing ideas, pedagogy, and/or strategies. Why not allow teachers to sign up once a month to conduct after school professional learning workshops?


Costs. Teacher-led professional development fosters accountability, collegiality, and teamwork. Schools receive funds earmarked for professional learning, so why not have teachers leave campus to travel to other schools and use these funds to cover the expense of substitutes? That afternoon, the same substitutes would be moved to different classrooms for another set of teachers to leave campus to observe lessons. The cost to the schools, and disruption to the students is minimal. The cost would be even less if paraprofessionals were used in place of substitutes.


True Collaboration. Language Arts teachers could spend one planning session a week with Drama, Social Studies, History, and Science teachers teaching them how to do a close reading of their content area materials. The following week, the content area teachers could provide valuable background knowledge for the Language Arts teacher before he/she begins a new topic as well as providing ideas for projects, differentiating lessons, and multisensory activities. This type of planning would be critical for arts-integrated lessons, particularly as many districts are embracing STEAM activities and strategies now.


Using built in PLC days. School districts that build in half days to the yearly calendar, could maximize those afternoons by offering break-out sessions for which teacher leaders offer a variety of professional learning workshops allowing teachers from any school to attend based on their own need and interest. Teachers would then have the option to receive specific methods, activities, hands-on materials, make-and-take manipulatives, as well as new strategies to take back and share with their teams. This would also provide an opportunity for teachers to discuss current trends in education, legislative bills that are coming up, or learning how to use Twitter, Linkedin, or other social media to their professional advantage.


It takes a village to raise a teacher. There are so many online webinars for teachers to earn PD credit, wouldn’t it be great to have a team who previews those and only shares the best, most valuable information? Many districts have parent conference days, classroom work days, and half days in which the special area teachers (also known as related arts) have nothing required of them. (Special area teachers include Drama, Music, Chorus, Band, P.E., Art, Library, STEM, Guidance Counselor, and the like). Having them work on a committee to preview PD webinars could potentially be a great school improvement project that would benefit everyone on the faculty.


Teacher buy-in is essential. Teacher leadership is going to require whole-hearted teacher and administrator buy-in, but the facts are undisputable. No intervention can make the difference that a skilled, knowledgeable teacher can, it is cost effective, makes the best use of our time, and is collaborative in nature. Since our schools receive school-wide scores and grades, quite frankly, the truth is when our colleagues look good, we all look good.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Hope Street Group Seeks Next Round of TN Fellows

Hope Street Group is seeking its second class of Tennessee Teacher Fellows and applications are open through March 11th.

Hope Street Group seeks to engage Tennessee teachers in the education policymaking process. Fellows have opportunities to broaden their understanding of state reform efforts; learn media skills; and receive continuous support in writing blog posts, op-eds, and letters to the editor.

Hope Street is specifically seeking fellows from the following regions of the state:

Read articles from current HSG TN Fellows:

TNReady Made Students Tech Ready

Of Hope and TNReady

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

TNReady Made Students Tech Ready

Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow and Hawkins County Educator Tina Faust offers her thoughts on the TNReady challenges and the benefits of digital test prep.

As I reflect on the testing situation in Tennessee, my initial thoughts and fears transcended to wonder. I realize that we are reverting back to pencil and paper, but I wonder where we’d be if Tennessee hadn’t decided to launch an initiative that included technology. I wonder how many teachers would still be resisting technology instead of embracing it as a learning opportunity. I wonder how many children would lack technology exposure in education. I wonder how children in low socioeconomic areas would thrive in a digital society. I wonder how large the digital divide would continue to grow if our classrooms ignore technology. I wonder at what point our education system would realize that children who lack technology exposure are hindered and are not college and career ready.


With these thoughts racing through my mind, it occurred to me that TNReady is about more than a test, it’s about connecting the digital world to our classrooms to ensure our students are future ready. As an Instructional Technology Specialist, I want all teachers to embrace technology and utilize it as a seamless part of the curriculum. TNReady has enabled me to make strides to accomplish this goal. The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) worked with districts to ensure infrastructure was in place to support student computer usage. Many districts had to purchase technology and improve infrastructure to meet the perceived demands of TNReady; which equated to more technology within our schools. Once resistant teachers began to embrace technology and utilize it with students, predominately because the TDOE put an emphasis on technology integration. While not all teachers see technology as an integral resource, TNReady started the process to change our mindset.


Growth mindset is essential if we are preparing the generation of the future. It is imperative that Tennessee’s education system meet the demands of society and connect education to the digital world as it provides relevance to our students. Moving Tennessee in a direction to embrace a digital culture is a positive goal that will achieve this connection. While many of us expressed angst over the testing situation, it is important to remember that we are growing and assessing the improvements that will make our classrooms a place where Tennessee students will connect and thrive. I see TNReady as growing a TechReady environment that prepares our students for life after K-12.

For more on education policy and politics in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Of Hope and TNReady

Natalie Coleman is a 7th grade language arts teacher in Sumner County and a 2015-16 Tennessee Hope Street Group Fellow.

Are we ready?

This question is front-and-center in the conversation surrounding education in Tennessee.

This is the question ringing in classrooms across the state, the question plaguing teachers working tirelessly to adjust instruction to more rigorous expectations, striving to help students reach heights monumentally higher than they’ve ever been asked to, much less prepared to, before.

This is the question of parents, nervous their children’s scores will not be as high as they’re accustomed to, worried that everything they’ve heard about the standards and Race to the Top and the over-testing is true, worried that the changes happening in our state may not be good for our children.

This is the question of students whose target has been moved each year, who have been told TCAP counts as a grade (and that it doesn’t), that it’s the last year for TCAP tests (and that it’s not), and that now it is time for us to be TNReady. As a state, we have even branded our new test with a name that echoes our question—Are we ready? Are we TNReady?

For anyone in the state closely connected to education, TNReady is a name that carries with it fear of the unknown, of unrealistic standards, and of unwarranted pressures on teachers, parents, and students. At the same time, though, it resonates with the hope of what we as a state want to achieve—readiness in our students.

We want them to be ready for the next steps in their educations and in their lives. We want them to be prepared to succeed. We do not want to continue reading that students in the first Tennessee Promise cohort aren’t making it, even when college is free, because it’s “too hard.” We do not want to continue hearing from employers that Tennessee’s young workforce is simply not ready.

I will admit that, as a teacher, I am nervous about TNReady because of the pressure it puts on my students. I fear that my classroom will progressively become more and more of a test preparation center and less of a place where students can cultivate creativity, curiosity, interest, and wonder. I am concerned that the testing may take too much of our time and focus, may not be developmentally appropriate, may not be amply vetted, may overwhelm our low-budget school technology resources. I believe that teacher and parent groups are right to raise questions and concerns, right to warn that TNReady may not itself be ready and that its incorporation into student grades and teacher evaluations is problematic and potentially unfair.

Yet, the prospect of TNReady also fills me with hope because of the aspiration it represents. As a state, we have said that it’s time for our students to be ready, time to stop selling them short with watered-down standards and bubble-sheet assessments, time to do what’s necessary for our students to be able to read and write at levels that will make them ready for the literacy demands of college and careers.

In the previous six years I’ve taught, I’ve felt a great tension between what I believe has always been the heart of our language arts standards and how those standards were ultimately assessed. At first, I idealistically believed that teaching language arts the way I learned to teach—authentically and deeply rooted in reading and writing—would automatically translate to test success as well. My achievement levels and TVAAS scores told a different story. Over time, I learned that achieving the desired results required shifting gears to TCAP-specific strategies and drills as the test approached. Test scores improved greatly, but I don’t know what my students actually gained, besides a good score, from those weeks of lessons.

Now, though, my students are preparing for TNReady Part I, a test that will require them to read rigorous texts and synthesize the information from them into a sophisticated essay. This new test has the potential to be one that matches the authenticity I strive for in my classroom.

When I tell my students that the writing we are doing in class right now is to prepare not only for TNReady Part I but for many kinds of writing they will need to do in the future, I can mean it. The skills we are honing to prepare for this test are skills that will help them write successfully in high school, on AP exams, for college admissions essays, in college classes, and even in their careers.

Right now in Tennessee, because of our raised standards and the assessments that come with them, our students are learning skills that will make them ready. I believe this and hope for more growth because of the amazing growth that I’ve already seen.

As our state has undergone massive educational shifts, our students have borne the changes and adapted. When we first began piloting text-based essay prompts a few years ago in my district, many of the students in my class stared at them blankly, merely copied the text word-for-word, or wrote a half-page “essay” that displayed a complete misunderstanding of the task. The writing was often missing the basic components of topic sentences, indention, or even separating paragraphs at all. As I worked to help my students prepare in those early days, for tests that were pilots, my students groaned when we were “writing again.” Even though I worked to make writing fun and to give students opportunities to write for genuine purposes throughout the year, writing assessment preparation was an arduous task for everyone, and students were often frustrated.

Each year, though, the frustration has diminished a bit. In the beginning, just making sure students learned the basics of an essay format seemed an impossible task; now, they come to me knowing how to tackle prompts and organize their thoughts into paragraphs. There is still much room for growth, but where my students start every year and where they end are both well beyond those markers for the class before. Each year is better and better, and—best of all—the groaning is gone. Put two complex texts and a writing prompt in front of my students now, and they set right to work, staying focused for over an hour at a time, writing away. They’re open to revision and work to make changes. They ask for help, and they take pride in making their writing the best they can.

This is progress I would have considered miraculous three years ago, yet it is commonplace now, and I am grateful for the growth I see in students’ abilities each year.

When February comes and brings with it text-based writing tasks for my seventh graders that look more like something I would have learned to do in pre-AP classes in high school, when April comes with a second computer-based test, this one filled with rigorous and lengthy texts to read and a large dose of an entirely new breed of multi-select, drop-down box, click-and-drag multiple choice questions, will my students be ready?

I am not sure that they will be completely ready. Yet.

No matter how my students score on TNReady this year, though, they are undoubtedly stronger for what we’ve done. No matter what problems we encounter with the test and what we need to do to fix it, I hope we never lose sight of the goal behind it. I hope we keep our standards high, I hope we keep striving to make our assessments authentic measures of the skills we want our students to attain, and I hope we see that the end result is students who are ready.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

A Note on PD

Mark Banasiak is a 2015-16 Hope Street Group Fellow in Tennessee. He has taught at Sango Elementary for 15 years and is the Lead K-5 Physical Educator for his district. He loves attending and presenting at local, state, and regional workshops/conferences. Mark was a co-recipient of the 2011 Share the Wealth Puckett-Merriman Physical Education Professional Award. He has published several items and most recently an e-book “I Teach More Than Gym: A Collection of Elementary Physical Education Activities.” Mark is a graduate of Tennessee Technological University (BS ‘98), Austin Peay State University (MS ‘00), and is a National Board Certified Teacher (2013). Mark is an Elder and the Senior High Youth Director at his church. He spent seven years as a volunteer firefighter and eight as a Montgomery County Commissioner.

Thoughts on Making the Most of Professional Development

Recently, I was looking through some old VHS tapes and discovered a video of myself teaching a lesson from when I was student teaching back in the 1990’s. Intrigued by this find, my son and I proceeded to sit down and watch the tape. He found it amusing to see daddy on the TV, whereas I found it to be an interesting snapshot allowing me to glimpse back to where my teaching began. In the tape, I had all of the main parts memorized and was able to regurgitate them, yet my instruction lacked a certain level of comfort and smoothness. That is, my teaching methods were rough. Watching the video caused me to ponder how my methods of instruction had matured since the video was recorded.


Over the years, I have had the benefit of teaching in environments that thrived on collaboration, and I have experienced personal growth through regular participation in professional development activities. I regularly seek out and enjoy participating in these activities within my school, district, state, and nation.


One of my favorite professional development experiences is to visit another classroom. I eagerly arrive and find myself looking at their furniture arrangement, wall hangings, and other items in the room. I inquire about their routines, particular pieces of equipment, and organization. Each visit provides more insight on how to organize a classroom.


What type of professional development activities do you enjoy the most?


Participating in professional development activities improves my instruction in four ways:


First, it gives me the ability to collaborate with other educators while having focused conversations on relevant topics. I try to be like a sponge and “soak-up” as much new information as possible. From these experiences, I have learned a wealth of information and strategies over the years that have influenced my methods of instruction. Conferences in particular give me the unique opportunity to gather ideas from and talk one-on-one with various state, regional, and national teachers of the year.


Which professional development experiences have helped to shape your methods of instruction?


Second, they provide handouts that are added to my files. I keep those handwritten notes and all of the handouts categorized by themes. I find myself perusing these files every so often looking for relevant information and ideas that can help me improve my methods of instruction. In recent years, I have found various education conferences that post their handouts online.


Third, they energize me! They place me in an environment surrounded by others who are passionate about education. I then return to my classroom full of energy and excitement to pass on to my students. In 1999, I met a fellow educator and told myself, “When I grow up, I want to be just like him!” Since then, we have crossed paths numerous times at various conferences, and each meeting is a rejuvenating experience.


Have you met anyone through these activities who has been a positive influence on you as an educator?


Finally, I make connections with fellow educators. Those connections provide me with a cadre of people to bounce ideas off of or simply to ask for advice. When I have an idea or question, those educators are only an email, text, or phone call away.


Each district varies in respect to professional development requirements. In my district, each teacher is required to partake in eighteen hours of in-service outside of the school day at some point during the school year.


Do you see your district’s professional development requirement as a maximum number or a minimum requirement?


I recently read an article that mentioned one sign of a quality educator is one who is humbled by the notion that they can always learn something new. Participating in professional development activities allows me to be the student while collaborating and learning best practices from other professionals.


I encourage you to be the type of educator who is always willing to learn new teaching strategies. I hope you set aside time to review an article, read a book, visit a website, listen to a podcast, participate in a webinar, gather some colleagues for a discussion, sign up for a class, or attend a conference. I urge you to never stop learning and always be willing to expand your instructional methods through professional development activities.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness. www.iteachmorethangym.wordpress.com

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport



Hope Street Group Tennessee Fellows Announced

Hope Street Group recently announced its 2015-16 Tennessee Teacher Fellows. Here’s the press release:

 “In the past six months I have learned how powerful the voice of teachers can be when they are shared.”

These words were spoken by Karen Vogelsang, a former financial analyst turned educator and the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year. Vogelsang welcomes this school year as the start of her first as a Hope Street Group Tennessee State Teacher Fellow.

Hope Street Group is an independent non-profit organization that is working closely in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education  (TDOE), the Tennessee Educators Association (TEA), and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE). This partnership serves to provide a group of diverse public school teachers, who are chosen through a rigorous selection process, with skills around peer and community engagement, facilitating focus groups, and communication strategies while giving them opportunities to amplify teacher voice to inform policy decisions. Hope Street Group launched the program with great success in Kentucky in 2013, replicating in Hawai’i in 2014 and now in North Carolina and Tennessee.

“Teacher leaders are a driving force not only in their classrooms and
buildings, but in their communities,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. “Their insight is incredibly powerful as we encourage and empower our teachers to take on new challenges.”

The work of the first cohorts of State Teacher Fellows (STFs) in Kentucky and Hawaii has led to their establishment as teacher leaders and advocates for their profession. In addition to providing recommendations to their respective Departments of Education, they have met with legislators and hosted school visits, and have independently written op-eds and essays that have been published in news outlets across the nation. The way these STFs have contributed to the state’s education policy decisions was a major reason Mary Elaine Vaughn, a high school math teacher and Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching finalist, decided
to apply to join the program.

“Our educational system will continue to thrive and grow through student academics only if educators collaborate and share ideas for improvement,” Vaughn reflected. “We are all in this together and cannot do our jobs effectively without other educators’ input and support.”

Vaughn, one of the 30 teachers awarded the Hope Street Group Fellowship this year, belongs to a burgeoning teacher leadership movement within Tennessee. This movement is evident up to the federal level, where the U.S. Department of Education has emphasized empowering teachers to improve the  education process through its Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Program, which counts
new Tennessee STF Josalyn Tresvant McGhee as a recent selection, to the Teach to Lead program, a partnership with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

“Educators are on the ground, working with students every day. Their
 insight is critical when it comes to crafting meaningful education policy,” Keilani Goggins, Tennessee State Teacher Fellow Program Director stated. “I’m confident that this cohort of teacher leaders will do exceptional work engaging their peers and collaborating with our partners to gather input and feedback.”

This first year, Hope Street Group Tennessee State Teacher Fellows will
 focus on Professional Learning and Teacher Leadership as the topics of their data collection. Educators can join the professional learning networks of the newly selected teachers here.

The 30 teachers selected to be Tennessee’s first State Teacher Fellows are:
   1.  Jarred Amato, High School English Teacher, Nashville

  2.  Mark Banasiak, K-5th Grade Physical Educator, Clarksville

3.  Michael Bradburn, Instructional Coach, Alcoa

4. Monica Brown, 4th Grade Reading, Language Arts and Social Studies Teacher, Memphis

April Carrigan, K–4th Grade Math Coach, Fairview

6. Lara Charbonnet, 12th Grade AP English Literature and Honors English Teacher, Collierville

Natalie Coleman, 7th Grade Reading and Writing Teacher, Hendersonville

8. Tina Faust, Instructional Technology Specialist, Morristown

9. Rebecca Few, Mathematics Instructional Coach, Murfreesboro

10. Julia Geiger, 5th Grade Teacher, Rogersville

11. Adam Guidry, 10-12th Grade – Engineering Practicum, Computer Aided Drafting, Geographical Systems Teacher, Nashville

12. Debbie Hickerson, 5th Grade Teacher, Murfreesboro

13.  Melinda Hirschmann, 6-8th Grade Reading Intervention and Language Arts Teacher, Old Hickory

 Melody Hobbs, Pre-Kindergarten Teacher/Program Coordinator, Lenoir City

 15. Cheryl Killebrew, Instructional Facilitator/Federal Programs
 Coordinator, Robertson County

Blake Lam, 7th Grade Math Teacher, Memphis

17. Nikki Lavigne, Intervention Specialist, Clarksville

18. Nancy Miles, 3rd Grade Teacher, Johnson City

 19. Brian Moffitt, 7-8th Grade History and Technology Teacher, Union City

 20. Crystal Nelson, Music Teacher/RTI Interventionist, Camden

21.  Michelle Polier, Special Education Math Instructional Coordinator,  Cleveland

Dana Siegel, K-5th Grade, ESL Teacher, Collierville

23. Michael Stein, 10th Grade Tier III Intervention, 11th Grade ESL and English 3, English 3 Honors Teacher, Manchester

24. Alicia (Pam) Thompson, Literacy Leader, Roane County

25. Alisha Thompson, Literacy Leader, Philadelphia

 26. Josalyn Tresvant, 5th Grade ELA Teacher, Cordova

27.  Mary (Elaine) Vaughan, High School Secondary Mathematics Teacher, Oak Ridge

Karen Vogelsang, 4th Grade Teacher, Cordova

29. Marc Walls, High School Science Teacher, Clarksville

30. Comeshia Williams, PLC Coach, Memphis

Hope Street Group is a national organization that works to ensure every American will have access to tools and options leading to economic opportunity and prosperity. For more information, visit: