From Teachers to Teacher Mentors Through Staff Development
by Karlheinz Haas
Director of Math/Science/Technology Education
Southern Regional High School District • Manahawkin, New Jersey
MultiMedia Schools • January/February 2000
The Southern Regional High School District in southern Ocean County, New Jersey, is a grades 7-12 regional district that houses about 3,500 students and almost 300 teachers. An overview of the staff development program was featured in the March/April ’99 issue of MULTIMEDIA SCHOOLS. Here, I would like to present a snapshot of two initiatives undertaken in the areas of math and science.

Building on what had been learned through an already strong staff development program, we decided to take the next step and focus in on teacher leadership and mentorship skills in order to foster a collaborative atmosphere, which could lead us toward an interdisciplinary approach to professional growth. I felt that in my present position as the district’s director of Technology Education, I had the capacity to provide the guidance and support needed to initiate new projects. I could then step back and encourage the teachers to take on responsibility for the activities themselves, bringing other teachers along as the scope of the project and the number of participants grew.

The examples cited here to illustrate the district’s approach to staff development have two aspects in common. The examples show how teachers took an active role in their professional growth and became mentors and facilitators for their peers and how active administrative support is an important ingredient of any staff development project.

Over the past several years, the school communities and the district’s board of education have supported significant investments in new facilities and technology expansion. As access and availability to computers and other forms of technology have steadily increased, the focus of the district’s activities shifted to the improvement of our staff development program. The goal is to empower teachers and their students to use technology as a regular and integral part of their teaching and learning.

Approximately 2 years ago, in an effort to help teachers in math and science integrate technology and develop an inquiry-based approach to curriculum, three high school teachers (two math, one science) agreed to submit a grant under the Standards Implementation Project of the New Jersey State Systemic Initiative (NJSSI) (http://dimacs.rutgers.edu/~njssiweb). The project was funded and enabled the teachers to develop three interdisciplinary curricular units addressing topics from Probability and Statistics, Discrete Math, and Biology. Technology integration throughout each of the projects was substantial. During one of the units (“The River Study”), students took a field trip to the College of New Jersey (http://www.tcnj.edu), which collaborated in the project. Students used laptop computers with the appropriate probes and sensors to collect a variety of data in the field. Immediately upon their return, they began working in groups to analyze the data. Over the next 4 days the students created a variety of media presentations to report the results. The activities were posted on the district’s Web site along with some very creative project results, which were shared with other schools in the initiative (http://dune.srhs.k12.nj.us/ssi/rivers/index.html).

Collaboration and teamwork took place on two different levels. On one level students collected data at different stations, reported their results back to the group, and collaborated to create a picture of what was happening to the environment they were studying. On another level, working on an interdisciplinary project made it necessary for the teachers to act as mentors for each other in two aspects: the tools used for the investigation, and the content (math versus science) that was needed to accomplish the assignment. It helped strengthen the ties between the departments and demonstrated to the students the real-world applications and connections between the two disciplines. The type of activities undertaken by both students and teachers continues to be carried out whenever possible.

Although not every story is one of instant success, Southern Regional is committed to making improvements, including in professional development, for student learning outcomes. About 18 months ago, several teachers expressed an interest in participating in an online staff development project offered by The Concord Consortium in Concord, Massachusetts (http://concord.org). The International Netcourse Teacher Enhancement Coalition (INTEC) supported teachers using inquiry-based learning through technological resources. The project’s focus was on maintaining a collaborative environment of teachers working with teachers, trained moderators, and field experts.

Unfortunately, the initial effort of our teachers to participate in INTEC was unsuccessful. But the curriculum model at Southern is a cyclical one that involves implementation, reflection, evaluation, and rewriting to build in improvements before the next implementation. Using this same paradigm toward professional development curriculum, we evaluated the problems we’d experienced and felt that our local “support system” was not solid enough to produce effective participation.

To remedy the situation, we revisited the idea and formed a local group of interested math and science teachers at the beginning of the 1998-’99 school year. Indeed, it is part of INTEC’s design not to accept individual teachers into the National Science Foundation-funded yearlong course, but only teams of teachers at school districts already in the process of reform.

Concord also expects extensive administrative support. Their Web site for new recruits states: “Administrative support is essential because investigations can be messy and noisy. Assessment measures and format also require change with implementation of inquiry- and project-based instruction. Administrators are not expected to become science and math experts, but issues relating to programmatic and systemic support for inquiry-based mathematics and science should be discussed freely in the face-to-face site-based meetings” (Concord Consortium) (http://intec.concord.org/intec2.html). As the district’s director of Educational Technology, I knew that I would have to play a substantial supporting role if this professional development opportunity was to succeed.

Approximately 14 teachers enrolled and, to varying degrees, participated in the project throughout the school year. INTEC is based on the premise that teachers need to experience inquiry-based learning themselves before being able to facilitate such student-centered learning activities in their own classrooms.

Teachers were introduced to the pedagogy of inquiry to view the “big picture” of inquiry instruction—to answer the question “why is inquiry instruction important.” For instance, participants—and their students—took conceptual probes on the Web (see the "Web-Based Conceptual Probes” sidebar) to assess their level of conceptual understanding of math and science phenomenon. These questions and the results were discussed at Local Study Group (LSG) meetings.

INTEC participants then experienced inquiry through guided interdisciplinary activities, drawn from NSTA’s Craters book. Finally, teachers chose from 11 modules, all of which Concord provided at no cost to the school district. These included software such as VideoPoint, Measurement in Motion, and Texas Instruments Calculator Based Laboratory (CBL).
Concord  Consortium

The Concord Consortium is a nonprofit research and development organization and the developers, with Hudson, Massachusetts, public schools, of the Virtual High School, a Technology Innovation Challenge Grant project. VHS is a collaborative of high schools from around the country, in which for every teacher offering an online course, 20 students at the participating school can enroll in a VHS course (http://vhs.concord.org).

Funded by the National Science Foundation, INTEC (http://intec.concord.org) offered a yearlong graduate course for secondary teachers of mathematics and science to support teachers in implementing the use of student investigations in math and science. A showcase of the final reflections of INTEC participants, including one from a participant at Southern Regional in New Jersey, is available at http://www.concord.org/intec/showcase.

INTEC has had several important outcomes, including a book on inquiry to be published in spring 2000 and a groundbreaking course, “Moving out of the Middle,” for online moderators, which teaches the skills needed in order to facilitate effective online learning. Participants learn to focus Netcourse dialogue to target learning objectives; optimize learning by deepening the dialogue around key topics; foster cohesive online communities; and utilize a variety of voices, tones, and critical-thinking strategies to meet these goals. Sessions begin in January, March, and September (http://ccservices.concord.org/moom).

Web-Based Conceptual Probes

Conceptual probes are slightly unformed questions, aimed at identifying what respondents really think about the phenomenon described. Concord’s are Web-based and anonymous, both of which factors seem to tap into an honesty of responses. For example, one of the INTEC probes asks the participants to imagine a rope wrapped around the equator. The scenario continues: a 1-meter segment is added to the overall length of the rope, which is reformed into a circle around the sphere. There is a space between the new rope circle and the sphere. Participants are then asked to consider if the space between the sphere and the larger string that encircles it would fit a sheet of paper underneath, a finger, an arm, or a person, or whether there was insufficient data to determine the response.

The ensuing online and local discussions showed clearly that respondents bring an array of preconceived notions to the proverbial table. Teachers found that both they and their students chose not to use the mathematics they had at their disposal, but instead answered “from the gut.” Teachers looked at their students’ responses for patterns, to see if there was genuine conceptual understanding or, if students, when asked to do a problem outside the more typical memorization drill, are unable to use critical-thinking skills to solve the question.

The Concord Consortium also provided an expert moderator for each of the applications chosen by the teachers. Here at Southern Regional, the group of 14 teachers subdivided into several smaller groups, each working with one of the applications. This face-to-face local interaction, backed and supported by the administrative coordination of the participants, was critical to the success of the project. Teachers worked with each other, challenged each other, and supported each other as they implemented the newly acquired skills and resources with their students. Indeed, members of the VideoPoint team became local leaders and spoke at the Association of
Mathematics Teachers Annual Conference.

The success of this endeavor is credited, of course, to the dedicated teachers who entered into inquiry themselves, taking the plunge into uncharted territory. Also critical to the success was the ongoing online interaction with other participants across the nation who were using the same materials and were facing similar challenges. With the aid of trained moderators and field experts, teachers mentored teachers informally through online exchange and collaboration.

During the summer of 1999, we decided to expand our staff development model of “teachers teaching teachers” to an administrative application. Over the course of the past 3-4 years, a significant number of teachers had been using Integrade, a commercially available grade book software package. However, the district never put an administrative procedure in place to either use the package uniformly by those already using different versions of the software, or to implement its use by all teachers across all grade levels.

Rather than to mandate use of the software by everybody from a certain date on—something that would be technically possible given the ready access to computers throughout the buildings—we decided to build upon the already existing expertise and the emerging mentoring culture. Offering a small stipend, we brought together a group of 10 teachers who brainstormed as to what they thought was needed in terms of technical and administrative support to make this a successful project. The ultimate goal is to have all teachers in the middle school and high schools use the computers at their desk to record and report all their grades. As a result of these first discussions, on the administrative side we created a network server just for the purpose of grade reporting and maintenance of teachers’ class lists; on the teachers’ side, a simple step-by-step manual on how to use the software was written by teachers for teachers. After “trying out” those procedures on a group of newly hired staff during “new teacher orientation,” we decided to take the next step and put in place a mechanism that would link new users with the group of experienced mentors. As it turned out, the easiest option was to have mentors recruit their own teachers, leaving it up to the individual mentors how many people they wanted to work with. This simple procedure also solved another common obstacle to a successful staff development initiative: matching up teachers with common non-instructional periods, so that they could actually find some time, during an otherwise busy school day, to work with and support each other.

Already this early in the new school year, the group of now 13 mentors has gathered approximately 40-45 additional teachers around them. Again, the administrative support of facilitating planning, allowing teachers to assume leadership roles, and linking the teachers to the technical support staff were important elements in this initiative. Comparable to a “pyramid scheme, “ the new users know who to go to for support—their mentor. Those teachers in turn, know that I am their contact to address technical support needs, to arrange for common in-service time to work on generic problems in the larger group, or to sort out technical issues related to the server-based grading system. This clear delineation of responsibilities certainly assures more direct communication and much less frustration on the teachers’ part as they try to make this transition to “paperless” grade reporting successful and to build a community of mentors.

The success of the projects described in this article has encouraged us to adopt similar models to other projects. Two teachers who participated in a yearlong K-12 online partnership with Stevens Institute in New Jersey (http://k12science.stevenstech.edu/k12partnership/main.html) have now become teacher mentors for some of our Internet courses.

With the help of the Online Internet Institute (http://oii.org) and Tom March, we have put in place a staff development program that is aligned with national technology standards. This program helps teachers to meet the state’s curriculum content standards and provides them with clear paths for restructuring the curriculum and developing a learning community where teachers and students mentor one another and become partners in education.
 
 
 

Communications to the author may be addressed to Karlheinz Haas, Director of Math/Science/Technology Education, Southern Regional School District, 90 Cedar Bridge Rd., Manahawkin, NJ 08050; phone: 609/597-9481; e-mail: khaas@srsd.org.
 
 

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