Guest column: Harnessing the power of teacher training |

Guest column: Harnessing the power of teacher training

Tamara Tormohlen
Guest column
Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014
Steve Mundinger |

Consider the following from the U.S. Department of Education:

“Students have the potential to increase their achievement by 21 percent if their teacher receives an average of 49 hours of professional development each school year.”

Think about that for a second. It means that, if your child’s teacher receives a total of about four days per year of training, your child can do significantly better in school. If proficiency for as many kids as possible is the goal of public school — and it’s certainly a big one — then helping teachers to constantly improve is vitally important.

According to author and educator John Hattie, “Teachers have six times the impact on student achievement than either their peers, school principal, home or school environment.”

A firm belief in the efficacy of teacher training, backed up by a wealth of research, drove the Roaring Fork School District last year to change its weekly schedule and create more teacher-training time. In 2014-15, the district that runs the Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs schools switched from so-called Late Start Mondays to Early Release Wednesdays and doubled the amount of annual professional-development time provided to teachers from 36 hours to 72 hours.

Not only do the Wednesday-afternoon sessions provide more time for the teachers, but it’s better time. Instead of squeezing the training into a couple of hours before students arrive at school, teachers can now devote all their attention to the afternoon training.

On Wednesdays, students are released at 2 p.m., and teachers typically meet in teams (organized by grade level or academic subject) at their individual school sites. Once a month, they also meet in district-level teams to ensure that, for example, the biology teachers at all of the district’s high schools are striving for the same goals and outcomes.

Teachers emerge from these team exercises with new strategies to reach students and a clear understanding of their classroom targets.

“It could be anything from a teacher organizing lessons to be more fluid or engaging or more tightly tied to specific outcomes,” said Rick Holt, the district’s director of curriculum, assessment and instruction. “It might also be a questioning strategy to get students involved in higher-order thinking.”

The move toward this additional training time was part of Aspen Community Foundation’s Cradle to Career Initiative, which seeks to ensure that all 22,000 school-age kids from Aspen to Parachute are prepared for college or career upon graduating high school. The Cradle to Career Initiative has gathered professionals of all stripes in a multi-pronged effort to improve our kids’ future prospects, and teacher training was a natural fit.

Of course, when school district officials first envisioned Early Release Wednesdays as a way to sharpen instruction, they knew it would pose problems to release kids earlier in the day, especially for the households where both Mom and Dad work full time. That’s when the district and the Cradle to Career Initiative decided to partner on the Enrichment Wednesdays program, which offers a variety of after-school activities to enhance students’ learning while the teachers are training.

The Cradle to Career Initiative specifically underwrites Enrichment Wednesdays in order to facilitate professional development for teachers. And we think it’s an incredible bang for the buck — teachers improve their skills, parents aren’t faced with a job-versus-kids dilemma, and the students receive both after-school activities and the long-term benefits of better classroom instruction.

It may take some years to see the full effects of the weekly professional-development sessions — for example, elementary-level teachers focused on literacy skills last year, and this year they’ll focus on math — but teachers already say the sessions have made a difference.

In the Colorado Department of Education’s 2015 Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning survey, which gives teachers a chance to weigh in on various issues in their schools, 76 percent of Roaring Fork School District faculty members said they received sufficient professional-development time. That’s a big jump from the 55 percent result in the 2013 survey.

In my next column, we’ll take a closer look at what students across the region are doing after school.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.