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Staff Leadership and Management / Storytellers

Don’t Curse in Front of Kids: Improving Staff Development

staff development

I’m going to tell you a story, which I hope has something to do with after school.

When I was 21, I went to Cameroon, West Africa to teach elementary school. This might have been a bad idea – I’d never taught anyone anything, had a spotty reputation as a babysitter, and was more comfortable with dogs than kids. But, I knew more about kids than about irrigation systems or artificially inseminating cows so it seemed like my best option to get to Africa.

I was signed up to teach English … but when I got there in September, the 3rd grade teacher had just quit. I was recruited to fill in. What I didn’t know was that the class of 30 3rd graders shared one classroom – in the school’s concrete block and dirt floor building – with the class of 40 4th graders. So, 70 kids sat on benches – 10 to a row – in one small room. For the first week, I optimistically stood at the front of the classroom writing up sentences and equations and asking for volunteers to respond. The responses were few and far between and as the week progressed, their startled stares – at having a white woman standing in front of the class – transitioned to wiggling, giggling and whispers. By the middle of the week, they were wiggling each other off the benches. That’s when I learned about classroom management. The

The 4th grade teacher came to my side of the room, waved a switch over the kids, and yelled, “Be quiet or I’ll beat you.” They were quiet, for a few minutes. I was traumatized and depressed. I soon realized why the kids weren’t responding to me – besides the crowding and the beating and the lack of teaching skills. They couldn’t understand my American accent. They didn’t know what I was saying. In a devastating culmination to my first week of teaching, I threw my chalk on the ground, yelled, “I can’t take this @$*& anymore” and stomped out of the classroom – more like a 3rd grader, than a 21 year old.

Sadly, this self-incriminating story does have something to do with after school in California. All too often, classes are thrown together at the last minute.

Staff are dumped in front of classrooms with no training, no time to prepare, and no knowledge of kids’ skills and needs.

Classroom management is left up to inexperienced staff, but daytime teachers often step in with a heavy hand if kids are unruly. Managers are too busy with logistics and paperwork to visit classrooms and support staff (or at a minimum, to make sure they aren’t losing it in front of the kids.)

My story, however, has a positive end. The school director hired a real 3rd grade teacher. I met a wonderful kindergarten teacher from Holland who was volunteering at the school. She took me under her wing and showed me how to teach. She knew that a lot of the kids in the school – even the middle schoolers – couldn’t read. Together we planned and co-taught a phonics-based reading program to groups of 20 to 30 students across all grades. She showed me how to plan a lesson with minimal lecturing and lots of action. She demonstrated how to deliver it. She taught me not to YELL over the kids but to get their attention with whispers and silence. She helped me assess progress and adjust my lessons. By the time, she went back to Holland in January, I knew what I was doing and loved it. Over the next 5 months, the kids made real progress in reading and in the English lessons I created. They were enthusiastically participating and eagerly engaging with me in and out of class.

By the time, she went back to Holland, in January, I knew what I was doing and loved it. Over the next 5 months, the kids made real progress in reading and in the English lessons I created. They were enthusiastically participating and eagerly engaging with me in and out of class.

The point is … people are trainable but they need to be trained. This requires experienced teachers and staff to share their knowledge, tools, and materials. As happened with my Dutch friend, one of the best ways to transfer knowledge and build skills is to have good teachers model their approaches and mentor new staff. Then, there need to be opportunities to apply this learning in other areas – I took what I learned about planning and teaching phonics lessons and used it for the English language lessons. When the English lessons worked, I felt more confident about my teaching skills overall.

The other point of my story is that managers can and should make it easier for their staff to succeed.

For training to work, managers need to be aware of staff strengths and challenges. This means program managers, district coordinators and site coordinators need to visit sites and classrooms frequently and hold staff meetings regularly so that they can see and hear what’s happening, assess what needs to change, and identify the practices that are so good they need to be shared across the program. Had the school director visited my classroom he would have immediately seen that I needed more training, and hopefully, provided support before the chalk went flying.

At the most basic level, managers have to make sure teachers have the right kind of space. It’s probably just as hard to do homework help in a cafeteria with 84 elementary school students as it is to teach 3rd graders in a group of 70. Getting classroom space after school can be challenging but it is essential if programs expect to reach their goals. Managers also need to know about what the students need and what they’ve already learned. Then, they have to make sure teachers know, too.

It would definitely have been helpful to know that my students had never heard an American accent! It would have been even better to know what and how they had been taught the previous year, and how well each child had absorbed the learning. For after school managers, both these efforts – getting space and assessing kids’ needs – require strong support and active participation from principals and other school staff.

The good news is that program management and staff development are improving across California, and there are more and more examples of excellent programs every year.

The first few years after Prop. 49 rolled out were harried and hairy, but, at least in the Bay Area, we are seeing more and more programs maturing. They are planning and implementing comprehensive staff development plans that include training, peer mentoring and on-site coaching. They are building stronger connections to experienced school day staff and administrators, to other after school programs with longer histories and stronger infrastructure, and to networks of trainers and technical assistance providers. After school managers – district and site coordinators – are scheduling time for regular classroom visits and staff meetings to make sure their support is present and consistent. Not surprisingly, these changes mean front-line staff are staying longer in their positions, allowing more consistency for programs and children.

When I came back from Cameroon, I decided to leave teaching and took a job in housing development. I lasted about 10 months before realizing how much I wanted to be around kids. I got a job as an after school teacher and have been doing after school ever since.

Oh … I’m supposed to tell you what I had for breakfast – a bowl of cereal and a banana, not very interesting. I’m a dinner person, not a breakfast person. If you can’t have beer or ice cream … I guess coffee is good.

Author Profile: @katiebrackenridge

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