Teachers share ideas in TAP meetings | VailDaily.com
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Teachers share ideas in TAP meetings

Matt Terrell
Vail CO, Colorado

GYPSUM ” Melanie Molloy is showing five teachers at Red Hill Elementary how to spell “different” the wrong way.

On a classrom’s dry erase board, she draws a box divided into three sections, one for each syllable of the word. She plugs in seemingly ridiculous combinations of d’s, f’s, r’s and t’s, the dominant sounds in the word, the ones most easily picked out by a third grader.

Dif-r-nt. Dif-ur-nt. Dif-er-ent. The vowels are tough in this one, and so is the concept of a double “f.”

The trick though is getting them to spell it on their own. Using this box, kids can break-up tough words into syllables and to try out different spellings.

Inside the clusters

The teacher advancement program, also known as TAP, pays teachers according to how well they perform on formal evaluations and how well their students do on standardized tests.

The district is the only in the nation to have eliminated the typical “lock step” pay program which guarantees how much a teacher will make based on experience and education.

The goal of TAP is to put a quality teacher in front of every student. One of the main ways TAP aims to improve teacher performance is through a mentoring system:

– Master teachers spend 70 percent of their time coaching and training other teachers and 30 percent of their time in the classroom. They evaluate other teachers, oversee planning groups and test new teaching methods.

– Mentor teachers spend 30 percent of their day mentoring and evaluating other teachers and leading planning groups, and 70 percent of their time teaching.

– Career teachers spend their entire day in the classroom teaching.

There is typically one master teacher for every 14 to 16 teachers and one mentor teacher for every four to six teachers.

TAP also places a strong emphasis on professional development. Through TAP, teachers are supposed to meet regularly in planning groups to discuss teaching strategies and goals. Mentor and master teachers lead these groups.

They may not always get it right, but at least they’re learning to figure it out themselves.

“There are words in this language that don’t follow any rules,” Molloy tells the teachers in her group. “Most do though. Getting them to learn how to spell words out, breaking it up, they at least try to get close.”

This is what a “cluster meeting” looks like for teachers at Red Hill Elementary. These brainstorming and training sessions are where they learn new ways of teaching, talk about their kids and come up with practical ways of improving school performance.

These meetings are also an integral, and often overshadowed, part of the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP. Cluster meetings are generally the more appreciated and productive aspects of TAP. The controversey over the program comes from the way teachers are paid based on their performance.

No direction

When TAP was first implemented, there was an air of mystery as to what exactly teachers would be doing during their mandated weekly meetings, Molloy said. The directions ” “work on teaching strategies” ” were vague.

And that’s what they did, sort of. The idea of “professional development” could mean several things, and many schools didn’t really know how to effectively use this planning time at first.

Maybe the teachers read books about teaching and pulled out good ideas when they saw them, but there wasn’t much direction, Molloy said. It was hard to pin down exactly how these meetings could help individual children and improve test scores, and that’s where at least some of the ill-feelings toward TAP came from.

“It can be very frustrating as a teacher when you have to do this and have to do this, and it has no purpose and no success with the kids,” Molloy said.

After a while though, it started to make sense. It was just a matter of finding some focus, Molloy said.

Smooth sentences

Last year, teachers analyzing CSAP results noticed that many students lacked basic writing skills like spelling, punctuation and grammar. So, that’s what teachers focused on in cluster group, and that’s what they focused on in class.

Teachers learned very specific ways of helping kids with writing” like that little spelling box and “No Excuse” folders filled with words that students are expected to learn no matter what. They tested them, they talked about them, studied why they worked, why they didn’t, refined them, customized them for every child and set goals for each student.

Mentor and master teachers observed other teachers as they taught classes, pointing out where things worked and where they didn’t. They coordinated lessons with special education teachers and English as a second language teachers, making sure everyone was using the same techniques and working toward the same goals.

Soon, kids were writing more eloquent sentences.

Then came the next round of testing. The scores that went up the most were those areas hit hard in those teacher planning meetings, but there was still room to improve. This time, the writing itself was great, but students still had a tough time giving thoughtful, accurate answers on the page. They were writing well, but not answering the questions.

So this year, the focus is shifting to teaching kids how to understand and analyze questions, making sure they know what questions mean and how to answer them.

Test scores really drive how teachers work at Red Hill, and when you take them seriously, they really add purpose to teacher meetings, principal Anthony Barela says.

“You can have data thrown at you however you want and it doesn’t mean anything, but when you break it down to an individual kid’s level, where the kid is strong, where he’s weak, you can focus on that in cluster,” Barela said.

Photo by Preston Utley/Vail Daily

The weekly planning sessions, like the one these veteran Red Hill Elementary school teachers are having, are perhaps the most popular part of the Teacher Advancement Program, which has been criticized because it ties teachers’ pay to evaluations and students’ test scores.

Preston Utley/Vail Daily

Browse Vail Daily Photos

Sticky notes

Big, dramatic visual aids also help give purpose to the cluster meetings. At Red Hill, student progress on monthly writing assessments is tracked with color-coded sticky notes on a large posterboard. As a student improves, his sticky note is moved up a notch, and teachers examine these in their weekly meetings.

Teachers take it very seriously ” they’re thrilled when they see former students doing better than ever, and disappointed, and a little worried, when they see one falling behind. A P.E. teacher will see the board and realize that his star football player isn’t doing so well in writing.

“Everybody can see every single kid, and it keeps them from falling through the cracks,” Molloy said.

They begin tracking the kids in kindergarten. Scattered on the table in the breakroom at Red Hill are dozens of drawings done by this year’s kindergartners.

These drawings are of family members, but some of the drawings don’t resemble much of anything” a few scribbled lines and an unrecognizable shape or two. Some you can pick out moms and dads and pets.

The kids were also asked to write about their families. Some have what appear to be words, and some have nothing at all. Others have complete, albeit disjointed sentences, which is excellent for a kindergartner.

“This is the first snapshot of a group of kids,” said Sabina Schaller, a master teacher.

A group of teachers are sorting through the drawings and rating them, figuring out where they stand in the big scheme of things. What’s “good” for this group? Where should they be? How much can we expect them to improve? What’s realistic?

They put the names of all the children on the notes and place them one the grid. Not bad, but it could be better.

The next step” finding the best way to move them up.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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