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A Veteran Teacher and a New Curriculum

Every week, Archbishop Lyke first grade teacher Tonya Binns-Simmons and two of her Partnership colleagues get together on Zoom to talk over small parts of first-grade math lessons she has already taught. They meet at 4:20—after school—when there are papers to grade and plenty of other things to do at home.

A few weeks ago, Tonya spent almost an hour talking about dozens of different aspects of teaching a single Eureka math question:

My mom wants to get me bracelets from Korea, Brazil, and France. The problem is she wants to make sure they fit, but the bracelets are over there and my wrist is here! What can she do? Is there any way we can help her?

Given all the demands on a teacher’s time, the fact that Tonya would volunteer to spend so much of it talking through past math lessons in such detail is truly noteworthy. A few other truths about her stand out during the conversation:

  • She is truly an experienced teacher.

She mentions a few other math curriculums she has taught, and it’s clear from the conversation that she has practice predicting where first graders struggle. She has taught at Archbishop Lyke for over twenty years, in fact.

  • She’s down-to-earth.

In talking about one of her students with strong computational skills, she says, “I would trust that student with my money. He gets where we are. I know he’d give me correct change.” She doesn’t hesitate to wrinkle her nose up at the mention of some other math curriculums. And when she talks about watching videos of herself teaching, she grimaces: “It’s hard!”

  • She is eager to find new ways to help students learn.

“When I do the application problem, I’m trying to make myself slow down and have them think about each part,” she says at one point, a determined look on her face. She analyzes everything: from how convincingly she “sells the script” of the detailed Eureka lessons (“they really thought my mother was going on a trip,” she laughs) to how she gets students to think before they respond (“I went slow—step by step—-and it made them think more”) even to where in the room she and the students are when the part of the lesson about bracelets takes place (“on the floor, so I can get a visual about who understands it right away.”)

Tonya works with the remote learners in her class.

Watching Tonya talk about these crucial details with Molly Hanna, who teaches first grade at Partnership-Cleveland’s St. Thomas Aquinas, and with John Bacsik, Director of Professional Development for our network, is like watching major league batters study slow-motion footage of their swings with a coach. They see small, key areas for improvement that others might miss, and they talk about the craft of teaching with zeal for mastering it.

Eureka Math is new to all our Cleveland teachers this year. As Tonya explains frankly, “taking on a new curriculum at this point in my career was very frightening to say the least. I’ve given myself many pep talks and repeat many uplifting quotes and scriptures. One in particular that I repeat over and over is ‘feel the fear and find your way.’ And somehow, I’m finding my way.”

“Oftentimes,” John says, “she is her toughest critic, and she’ll freely admit when she’s struggling with a certain aspect of a lesson.  In addition, she’s a great model of Michaelangelo’s phrase that we use with our teachers in September, Ancora Imparo—I am still learning.”

Not every seasoned educator is open to new ways of doing things, or to being coached. But as her principal Nancy Lynch says, “She always wants to learn. Stellar teachers always want to improve, and she has the respect of her colleagues.”

The payoff for Tonya is clear. Her face lights up as she notes, “a lot of the students are really good at this material—and some who struggle are getting better. They even moved from showing me an empty board, or pictures that make no sense at all, to drawing steps where I can see ‘oh that’s how they got their answer.’”

Teacher coaching in Partnership Schools is intended to be every bit as strategic as the choices the teachers themselves are making. First, we are a curriculum-driven network; we know from the strong results of our schools in New York that high-quality, content-rich curriculum taught with fidelity is a powerful driver of students’ academic growth. But developing expertise in planning and delivering lessons that are guided by the curriculum content isn’t as simple as picking up a teachers’ manual.

As John explains, “This collaborative work group has allowed both teachers to dig into their curricular material, uncovering some of the ‘why’ behind each section. I believe that getting our teachers to understand this, particularly in their first year with a new curriculum, builds buy-in and removes the temptation to bring in additional resources and instead ground all of the lessons in the curriculum.”

All of our teachers have received professional development, and many receive regular coaching from their school leaders. We also know the power of “proof points”—how helpful it is to have a highly effective teacher in the building that other teachers can study live and in person. Both Tonya and Molly came to this round of coaching across school teams with the recommendation of their leaders as individuals who were not only eager to learn but also open to being pushed and hungry to “get it just right.”

As principal Nancy Lynch shares, “Tonya would be the perfect colleague for new teachers to go to and say, ‘can you watch me do this?’ She is approachable and non-judgmental. The teachers talk at lunch, and when the subject comes up of Eureka math, she’s going to be the cheerleader both for the curriculum and for the teachers. This is one more way of living out the root belief that we are better together.”

Tonya explains, “I feel better since we’ve been meeting; I’m more comfortable with the curriculum. I can see: O.K., Eureka is doing each part of the lesson for a specific reason.” And she doesn’t hesitate to share that epiphany with colleagues who are still finding their way.

Finally, how John frames these coaching conversations is important too. As he explains, “Through our lesson studies, our professional development sessions, and meetings like the ones we have with Tonya and Molly, I think we focus heavily on helping teachers understand the why behind things like curriculum and specific routines/systems and how they can incorporate these in their classes, but we don’t go so far as prescribing the what, and that’s important.  We value the expertise of teachers like Tonya and want to build their capacity to make the strategic decisions in her planning and delivery that will lead to rigorous lessons.” Meeting teachers where they are, John says, is as important as doing the same for students.

Eureka, like all of our curriculums, is rigorous, which makes teaching it well both more challenging and more rewarding.  “I love it when they get it,” Tonya told John one day. Supporting Tonya and other teachers as they humbly and ambitiously strive for those a-ha moments is equally rewarding for John and the rest of our academic team.