Tonya Clarke’s vision for math instruction in Georgia’s Clayton County public schools sounds simple: She wants students to think, reason, and analyze in order to solve real-world problems. But putting that vision into practice is more complicated.
It requires a shift in how teachers plan instruction—focusing on giving students opportunities to problem-solve and discuss different strategies for achieving the same answer, while integrating more project-based learning.
One key component of this shift has been the creation of a team of math ambassadors: teachers who receive training from the district and then mentor teachers in their buildings. Clarke, the district’s K-12 math coordinator, spoke with Education Week about her approach to teacher professional learning and creating districtwide buy-in for instructional change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you help teachers learn and develop in doing that kind of work—helping students become problem-solvers?
The math ambassadors is one way that we are ensuring that there’s some kind of job-embedded support that every teacher has when they’re planning.
It’s an opportunity to brainstorm, to think through strategies, to engage in them yourself. When you come back to your building, not only have you thought about strategies for an upcoming unit, but you’ve also had a chance to engage in what a collaborative planning session should look like. So that way, you can also facilitate more meaningful and effective project planning [with teachers].
Does what teachers need vary building by building? How do you tailor district support?
We have personalized school improvement plans that we developed for each school. We meet with each administrative team and their teachers at the beginning of the school year and talk about what are their goals for this year. Where would they like to be? What are the areas that we need to focus on? We develop a plan specifically for that building.
There are some schools that [my team is] in every other week, every week, and then there’s some schools that they’re in a couple of times a month. And then there are some schools that we just touch base with, either virtually, or we’re connecting with them through the lead teacher or ambassadors, but we’re not necessarily in their buildings consistently unless there’s something specific they need.
What are the challenges you’re still experiencing?
Our scores are still not showing the results we are looking to see in the classroom.
As a district, those are things that we’re working on—to connect better from instruction to leadership, to make sure that what we know needs to happen with instruction is actually being implemented and implemented with fidelity.
We’re preparing ambassadors to support the collaborative planning. But if there’s not a structure in that building to ensure that teachers are getting consistent, undisturbed collaborative planning time, that part is not even going to be implemented in the building.
What advice would you have for other district leaders who are responsible for creating and implementing a vision for math education?
Really think about how you can bring as many people as you can in. Instead of me trying to train everyone, how do we break this into smaller pieces, into smaller groups, and manage those smaller groups?
Don’t be afraid to bring in other departments that can help you build up in other areas that are just not your background.
I’ve had to bring in the ELA department to help us with how do we teach language in the math department. Language development is not our background and especially at the secondary level. So we’ve had to do some training on how do you teach vocabulary in a way that’s meaningful. We’ve learned a few things, at least about the science of reading, to be able to help students that are essentially nonreaders or who are really struggling with decoding: How do I get them, as a math teacher, to at least be able to read the passage?
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