Nobody in Major League Baseball hit more home runs in 2022 than the Yankees’ Aaron Judge. Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Guardians is pretty amazing too. It’s safe to say that Aaron Judge and Jose Ramirez both know how to hit a baseball.
Still, they both have hitting coaches. More than one, in fact.
Like Judge and Ramirez, Cleveland’s own Rhonda Rutkowski is not in her rookie season. The middle school English-Language Arts at Archbishop Lyke is a veteran educator. But in the last three years—since Archbishop Lyke joined the Partnership Schools—she’s been getting more professional development than ever before in her career. “And what we’re learning in trainings, we’re doing in class. Not just because Nancy Lynch and Aaron Dukes [the principal and assistant superintendent] will be coming in looking for it, but because it works.”
Professional development and teacher coaching haven’t always been a feature of Catholic education; day after day, teachers have largely been left on their own to figure out what helps students learn. Yet they are at the center of how Partnership Schools operates.
To drive the kind of growth we know our students can achieve, we provide even seasoned educators frequent opportunities to study best practices, rehearse them with their peers, and implement them with the support of principals who share a common understanding of what great instruction looks like.
“If we want students to get more out of class, we’ve got to put more in—and we do that by giving teachers the sustained support they need to teach worthwhile material well, every day, to every child,” explains Aaron Dukes, Partnership assistant superintendent.
Joe Manning, a supporter of Partnership Schools in Cleveland and a teacher-turned-lawyer, observed some of the training early this fall and shared a perspective unique to someone who has experienced teaching and another profession. “Teachers can easily feel ‘under-respected’—after all, which “real” professionals have no business card, no office, no phone line, no secretary/assistant, no title? Arranging a first-class workshop goes a long way toward reminding the teachers that they are professionals with a highly significant mission!”
Joe added that he observed “a sense of common purpose and unity” emerging among teachers from the four schools. “It takes a lot of planning AND intentionality” to achieve that in days of training.
Just after the Christmas holidays, all the Partnership teachers in Cleveland were back together for more training. Rhonda and her colleagues focused on what might seem as elemental as swinging a bat: giving clear instructions.
“If you’re given a tool but don’t know how to use it, it’s no good.”
As St. Thomas Aquinas first-grade teacher Shannon Altenbach explains, giving clear instructions takes a lot more planning than it may seem. She started teaching for the first time in January of 2021—the middle of the first full pandemic school year. “I was handed the scripted reading curriculum, and I thought I could just read it out of the teacher’s guide; I quickly learned that doesn’t work.
“If you’re given a tool but don’t know how to use it, it’s no good. That’s what we’re learning in these professional developments: How to plan. Now, I go through the lesson, sometimes with my principal, and we plan what the focus should be. I plan when I want to cold-call, when I need to check for understanding—those are all steps the training has helped me understand are particularly valuable to do.”
Every lesson in the Partnership moves toward independent practice—a moment when students try a new skill or apply new knowledge on their own—and both Rhonda and Shannon agreed that a lesson is most likely to go awry in that independent practice time. ”When I answer one student’s question, the rest can become disengaged,” Rhonda notes. And it’s not just a matter of behavior management to keep all the students thinking and working independently.
“That’s why the PD is so clutch,” Shannon explains. “The planning of the lesson up to that point determines whether the students can try things on their own.”
Both Rhonda and Shannon appreciated the January professional development’s focus on another simple step: having the aim of the lesson visible to all the students on the board. Rhonda finds it helps focus her students; Shannon notes that “my first graders are just starting to read, so they may not be able to read it yet, but it helps me focus.”
And while they don’t deal with the kind of challenges to focus that a major league batter does—a spinning fastball approaching at over 90 mph while a crowd of tens of thousands roars—they do have lots of factors to take in as they teach. “In a reading skills lesson with nineteen first graders, there might be blending practice, tricky words, letter teams, a word story—and there might also be a child who’s having a bad day and one who needs to go to the bathroom. It can be hard to budget time, so the aim on the board helps make sure I stay focused on the main thing to learn that day,” Shannon notes.
Rhonda adds that the kind of continual improvement she experiences as a result of her investment in the professional development and coaching she receives is one reason why she still enjoys teaching after many years.
We have more than student achievement to gain from investing in teachers’ professional growth. While teachers may not get the kind of adulation or compensation professional athletes get, if they share the same “rage to master” their craft that drives even experts like hall-of-fame bound athletes to keep learning—and they get the support they need to continually grow that mastery—then they may be more inclined to persist as teachers, at a time when our nation needs good educators more than ever.