Learning About Faculty Development at Sessions with Small

Parents were invited to virtually join Head of the Upper School Scott Small for Morning Sessions with Small as he discussed the ways that MICDS fosters faculty professional development and supports both our new and established teachers. Small welcomed everyone to the session and introduced Aaron Proctor, Upper School Math and History & Social Sciences Teacher (he teaches AP Psychology) and Elizabeth Helfant, Coordinator of Pedagogical Innovation.

Small explained that MICDS hires both experienced teachers and those who arrive with promise and potential, and that it’s important to onboard and support new faculty members along with continuing to develop veteran teachers. Proctor and Helfant are both integral members of the community that ensure new faculty are successfully onboarded and that teachers are kept up to date with best practices proven over and also best emerging practices.

Proctor began by talking about the excitement that comes with the arrival of new teachers each year. “We, as a faculty collective, are molded in new ways by new friends each year,” he said, and pointed out that while we use US to denote Upper School, he sees a double meaning. “There’s a new ‘us’ each year.” He channels that passion and excitement into his new role of Upper School Faculty Program Coordinator, the work of which begins the summer before each new school year. He begins by reaching out to newly hired teachers and helping them transition to MICDS, which may include supporting them as they move to St. Louis. Teachers at MICDS have a robust support structure that includes teaching teams, mentors, department chairs, and division heads, all of whom work to support new faculty. Proctor helps make those connections and organize all the components to ensure that new teachers have the resources and relationships they need to thrive.

He also spoke about the MICDS tradition of conducting nationwide searches to find great candidates, who then go through a thorough and vigorous vetting process. He said that being a teacher at MICDS presents unique challenges since the level of excellence expected here is higher than at other schools. He knows that by the time a teacher is hired, they’re ready to join the team and hit the ground running, and he loves helping them through the transition. “The School provides me awesome new friends to work with each year and I learn as much from them as they learn from me,” he said.

Faculty meet regularly throughout the school year to discuss a variety of topics that include, for example, the MICDS community, relationships, and communication; grade reporting; student-parent-teacher conferences; Honor Council; Advisory; library services; Intercultural Development Inventory; professional development; and more. On Monday, teachers will meet to discuss the recent student survey results. Proctor explained that in addition to hearing the quantitative and qualitative results, they’ll discuss how to use the data well. “Receiving feedback is itself a skill we can grow,” he said. “How do we use the numbers and the words that come back to us?”

Teachers also spend time discussing the MICDS community, relationships, and communication. Proctor explained that it’s the first thing the faculty talk about, including discussions on the variety of stakeholders among students and parents and how to effectively communicate with everyone. “We deeply appreciate your support and partnership,” he said. “I talk about this a lot at this meeting about our parent partnership. I talk about how you trust us as experts about education and we trust you as experts about your kid, and we work together.” He shared that he often uses the fitness center by the MAC and that near the water fountain in the 5th grade hallway near the fitness center door, someone has hung a sign that says, “Be a good human.” Proctor said, “It’s a simple take on our core mission. My role is to help our faculty become better humans and, in turn, they help our students become better humans.”

The pandemic has changed how we all work, of course, and for teachers it’s no different. “We all feel like first year teachers again this year,” Proctor said. “We’ve had to vastly increase student supervision, especially during lunch and study halls and before school. We’re eating together now!” Teachers have also had to scrutinize their pedagogy, learning (or re-learning) how to teach in this new, hybrid model. Proctor views all these challenges positively. He said, “One of the reasons I love the call of education is the new challenges we face each year. Most of us are viewing this as a growth opportunity; we are getting better as teachers, new and returning faculty alike.”

Proctor shared that MICDS invests time and resources in the recruitment and retention of teachers. “I feel honored to be a part of this process,” he said, and emphasized that the commitment to teachers and their continuing development is felt from leadership and very much appreciated.

Small jumped in here to comment that as much as the School has a commitment to professional development, it’s successful only because our teachers make that same commitment. He also remarked on the flexibility and resiliency shown by faculty and students alike.

Helfant then took over the discussion and spoke about our professional development program here at MICDS. Faculty use portfolios to track their learning experiencing, setting goals and measuring how well they’re doing. This is especially important in our current environment, where various learning models are required to work around the limitations required by the pandemic. In addition to serving as a resource for teachers, Helfant sends professional readings that help them grow in ways related to their goals; offers meetings throughout the year to track progress and meet emerging needs; researches and provides professional development conferences, webinars, and other resources; and helps troubleshoot or learn something new. “I have the best job of all,” said Helfant, referencing that she gets to work with every teacher.

There’s been a lot for our teachers to learn this year, too. The School invested in equipment that helps teachers bridge an environment where some students are in person and others are at home. Video camera systems, microphones, monitors, iPads, and more are all used to keep students connected no matter where they are, and the hardware and software required presented a learning curve to teachers already reshaping their pedagogy to deal with classrooms happening online and in person, and in various classrooms. One example of a new technology is the arrangement of “virtual whiteboards,” where students work on a “whiteboard” on their own computer while their teacher monitors their work from afar on their computer. This helps overcome the obstacle created by a mandated six feet of distance when teachers are used to roaming their classrooms and looking over students’ shoulders to offer guidance and help.

“It’s a challenge to recreate the spontaneity of traditional in-person learning,” Helfant admits. “But we can use tools to mitigate and keep the learning engaging.” She strives to ensure that all students can see what the teacher is putting on the board and are able to clearly hear the teacher. “We are doing a pretty good job of that, even with the challenges,” she said. Perhaps one of the most vibrant aspects of an MICDS education is the ability to foster full-classroom discussion. “We really miss that,” said Helfant. Single questions work fine but we haven’t yet figured out how to effectively foment full-class discussion between the in-person and at-home learners.

Assessments create another challenge. Traditional assessments are almost impossible in a virtual environment, so tests must either be open-note or teachers have to place a lot of trust in their students to not use their notes when they’re at home. Teachers rely on assessments to see how students are doing and to provide necessary feedback, so learning how to adapt assessments to hybrid learning has been a top priority. Everyone is also focused on homework: ensuring there is the right amount assigned and that it contributes to their educational experience rather than just being busywork.

One thing Small has heard from his teachers is that they’re talking more than they usually do, and they’re not thrilled by it. Technology limitations necessarily drive the educational format more toward lecture and away from discussion. Helfant encourages teachers to go back and watch their lessons on Zoom, even though it’s uncomfortable, and she works hard to create an environment where teachers can share what they’ve learned with their peers. “We’re all novices in this world and we can learn from each other,” she said. “This is a very committed faculty who like to learn, like to be creative, and are continually learning how to do things really well.”

Feedback to students must be delivered in a different way now, too. With kids at home receiving grades by themselves, some of the helpful feedback around those grades can be lost. To help combat this, many teachers have started using video and audio tools to deliver their response to homework or assessments to their students. And, as always, they remain available for one-on-one discussion.

Small then dove into some of the details from the recent student survey. We received 243 responses out of a possible 620 students, and the respondents represented all grade levels.

The Upper School team is keeping an eye on social-emotional learning and where students might be struggling with mental health. The academic support center is open regularly after school, offering students time to work quietly alone or to get help from teachers, and Sam Cummings is reaching out on a regular basis. Small advises parents to check in with their students, too, and to reach out to any of our resources for help.

Sixty-one percent of on-campus learners are reasonably to extremely comfortable coming to campus, while 9% are slightly or not comfortable at all. “This is a challenge and we know it,” said Small. He feels confident about our safety protocols, though. “Our kids are being really good about wearing masks, and social distancing in the classroom,” he said. ”It gets a little more wonky outside of classrooms so we work to limit transition periods.” Small said that in the hybrid model, learning at home provides more challenges, but our faculty are working on how to overcome the known obstacles (audio, tech, etc) and identify some of the harder to define challenges (engagement, etc). One way is for teachers to conduct regular check-ins with their students who are learning at home. Small also acknowledged that it’s not easy for kids working at home to stay focused.

He was pleased to report that almost universally, gratitude is significantly reported on student surveys. “They know their teachers are working hard and doing what they can to support them. It’s a real testament to community, especially with all these impediments to keeping our community connected. Our kids and teachers are working through them to keep us connected.”

“We are more hybrid than we’d like to be because it’s simply more challenging. We would prefer to have all our kids in the classroom with teachers, and the second-best is having them all on Zoom, but we recognize the social-emotional wellness piece of being together and the importance of feeling connected to place.”

What’s working and what’s not with technology? There are definitely audio challenges. We recognize that there are issues with hearing an entire classroom, especially with masked teachers and kids. We are working to mitigate that concern, using “hockey puck” microphones and OWL cameras to help alleviate the problem. Overall, students report positive feedback on the technologies we’ve implemented, whether they are organization tools or collaborative programs and everything in between.

Students were asked how much they connect with teachers outside the classroom. Sixty-four percent communicate with their teachers at least once a week outside of class. Small wants to see more engagement, particularly with distance learners.

Ninety-two percent of students are completing their homework regularly, which is in line with a normal year. Still, teachers are checking intervention points to make sure they stay connected with students who may be struggling with their workload. We’re always trying to find balance with homework,” said Small, “making sure it’s enriching and not busy work.” Seventy-eight percent of students report doing three hours or less of homework each night, and we want to average two to three hours of homework a night. Eight percent report they’re doing homework for four or more hours, which Small finds concerning, and teachers are working with those students to determine how they can improve and what variables might be influencing this. Proctor said parents should encourage their kids to talk to teachers about the amount of time they spend on homework if it’s too much. “We can mitigate that and find out why are they are spending so much time. Are they doing more than they need to?” One way to combat this is to not assign a number of math problems, for instance, but to assign time. He’ll tell students to spend 20 minutes working on math problems and then stop.

Small reports that the days when all classes meet are the most challenging and result in the most homework. He said that if we continue our hybrid model into January and February we may do different things with Wednesdays to alleviate burdens on faculty and students.

Parents asked questions about COVID-19 transmission and post-election mood. Small was happy to report that we aren’t seeing any transmission on campus and that any quarantining we’ve implemented has been strictly precautionary. Post-election mood has been quiet, perhaps because we aren’t yet truly post-election. However, he’s noticed that students and adults are doing a great job taking care of themselves and each other. “We stress support for one another,” he said, “and a great strength is that we are committed to community. We’ve gotten better on holding firm on how we communicate with each other. We engage in thoughtful conversations, and I hope and expect that will continue.”

As always, Small and the rest of the Upper School team encourage open communication at any time, not just during these parent coffees. If parents have any questions or concerns, they are encouraged to reach out to teachers, advisors, deans, or division heads.