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A win-win model for students and teachers

“One-teacher-one-classroom” is a phrase you hear a lot in education these days: For the past 11 years, that described me. I taught on my own in self-contained third- and fifth-grade classrooms, and I loved my job. But I had enough leadership opportunities, such as mentoring, working with student teachers, and leading professional development, to develop a passion for working with teachers. 

Now, being an Opportunity Culture multi-classroom leader (MCL) — which feeds my new passion of leading a team of teachers while still letting me work with students on a daily basis — is my ideal job. The increase in pay — a supplement of $13,000 — is a welcome benefit, too, as the workload and responsibilities have significantly increased. In my one classroom, I reached just 25 students a year. As the MCL, I tripled that.

Better yet, at my school, Winget Park Elementary in Charlotte, N.C., we combined MCL teams with subject specialization. On the surface, specialization in my Opportunity Culture school looks like what departmentalizing would look like at another school: I take your kids for science, you take mine for math, and we call it a day. But at that level, not much collaboration occurs, as the science teacher focuses on science concepts and the math teacher focuses on the math concepts. As the MCL, I needed to bring the subjects and teachers together so we all focus on the learning of all our kids.

As a first-year Opportunity Culture school in 2014–15, we went from several fifth-grade teachers accustomed to each teaching one group of students all day to two “reach” team teachers (so called because they extend their reach to 75, not just 25, students), an assistant, and an MCL — all sharing 75 students. To go from a “my kids” to an “our kids” mentality, I worked on creating a collaborative team culture. We began each grade-level planning meeting with celebrations of student success as well as personal ones. We shared “specialized snapshots” of what teaching and learning was happening in our classrooms, giving us a “global” view of the grade level. Now, we all know all 75 kids so well that one of us can come in late to a conversation about a student and know exactly who’s being discussed.

Breaking out of our classrooms meant we had to have difficult conversations about “why is he performing for you but not for me?” but it also meant we could say, “I have found this approach works really well for Johnny but it doesn’t for Sue. Does anyone have suggestions for how to help her?”

We also had consistent planning time in which I met with each teacher and the assistant separately to help plan and support the teaching and learning within each subject, digging into data, and deciding what support they needed from me — modeling or co-teaching lessons, or pulling out small groups of students.  

Through all that collaboration, which became comfortable, I’ve seen my teachers grow so much. They’re differentiating their instruction to match students’ needs more now than they ever have, and I don’t think they realized how much more they’re differentiating. It became natural.

And this team teaching plus specializing quickly felt good to students. With multiple teachers in charge of them, our students know that what they may not get from one teacher, they can get from another — whether it’s help or support or a shoulder, they now have five “mamas” rather than just one.

In an end-of-year survey of our students, 78 percent said they liked having different teachers. The collaboration extended to the students; along with academic growth, one noted, “I have socially grown this year because I got more chances to communicate with other students.”

We saw the effect directly on student achievement. End-of-grade state tests showed fifth-grade proficiency rising in all subjects from the previous year — from 61 to 70 percent in math, 49 to 55 percent in reading, and a whopping 69 to 84 percent in science.  

We saw decreases in negative student behaviors as well. The actual movement of switching classes and teachers gave students a few minutes to breathe and prepare themselves for the next class, and start fresh and pull themselves back together if need be — uncommon in elementary schools today. 

And a final plus: Parents have absolutely loved this. The parents realize that we all know every single one of their kids. At the beginning of the year, though it was a scheduling nightmare, the whole team sat down together with each child’s parents during parent-teacher conferences. Now, parents typically email not just one of us, but all of us — they understand how fully involved we are. Parents see that we are a united front. They’ve bought into this as much as the students and staff have.

It is an honor to be on the forefront of such a cutting-edge initiative. I don’t just hope that these roles become common — it’s my personal and professional goal. All students and teachers deserve the opportunity to experience teaching and learning this way.   

This article was originally published on Real Clear Education on November 16, 2015.

Danielle Bellar

Danielle Bellar is in her second year as a multi-classroom leader at Winget Park Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C. She strives to support teachers as together they develop 21st Century learners. She has worked in education for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for the past 13 years.