On a recent Friday afternoon, once students had left for the weekend, the fifth-grade team at the Kauffman School in Kansas City stayed behind and practiced walking down the hallway.
They were working on how to lead students from class to class during passing periods. While six or so teachers played the role of (relatively compliant) students, one teacher would lead them down the hall giving instructions.
Shelli Brown, in her fifth year at Kauffman, carried her commands with quiet but firm confidence.
"Walk to Penn State [the name of a classroom]. Spencer has his hands by his sides. Good. Kirsten has her hands by her side."
When she finished, Abigail Green, another teacher who was acting as a coach for this exercise, gave Brown immediate, detailed feedback.
"Great job scanning the group, but in the future, I'd say, really positively narrate the good behaviors you see," Green told Brown.
Don't 'Crash and Burn'
These weekly practice sessions, where teachers role-play specific classroom situations, are an integral part of how Kauffman trains and develops its teachers. School CEO Hannah Lofthus says this intensive, direct coaching is beneficial for a faculty that averages just three years on the job.
"We want this to be a flight simulator, so that we can make mistakes and you don’t crash and burn in front of kids,” she says.
To extend the analogy, Kauffman teachers need to log a lot of flight time in order to hone their classroom skills. The faculty's three-year average in the classroom is less than half the average for other Kansas City charter schools, and less than a fifth of some suburban districts like Blue Valley and Lee's Summit.
To be sure, these Friday practice sessions aren't the only supports Kauffman offers its teachers. For example, Brown says when she was a brand-new teacher more than four years ago, she spent a year as an 'apprentice teacher', helping in a more experienced teacher's classroom without having full control of the students.
Likewise, teachers like Green who maybe want to have more leadership opportunities get a chance to coach their colleagues in situations like the hallway practice.
This overall approach to supporting young, often inexperienced teachers, appears to be working. This past year, Kauffman had some of the best reading and math scores in Missouri. (More than 80 percent of the school's eighth graders scored at least proficient on both reading and math, compared to statewide averages of 58 and 28 percent respectively.)
Lofthus says that is no accident because the school has prioritized hiring teachers who are open to being coached the Kauffman way.
“I would rather hire a B- or C-level skill teacher who has an A-plus growth mindset. I see much more drastic improvement. That’s the culture we’re trying to build here.”
'Practice Perfect' Method
Kauffman takes much of its coaching philosophy from the best-selling teachers' manual, Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov. In fact, that book urges teachers to "practice perfect," comparing its regimen for mastering classroom instruction to the routines athletes and musicians diligently put themselves through in order to be successful on the field or on stage.
As any athlete or musician will tell you, that type of dedication to craft is not easy.
Staff members say they dissect data weekly in order to prioritize which skills to practice during those Friday sessions. Coaches and administrators will rate grade-level teams throughout the week in classroom observations (called 'audits' by the school). That data is shared school wide, so teachers can compare their strengths and weaknesses to other teachers and other grade levels.
"Initially, I was taken aback," says Kirsten Brown, who came to Kauffman last year after teaching two years at another Kansas City charter school. "I came in and thought I was pretty good."
But Kirsten (who is not related to Shelli) says Kauffman forced her to truly look at the data she was receiving from observations, feedback, and student work.
"“Before I always kind of guessed what my students needed in order to go to the next level. I clearly know now what it takes because I know how to analyze data, get data, and have my students move to the next level academically.”
Is This For Everyone?
But Kauffman's approach, inspired as it is by Teach Like A Champion, may not be for all educators. Andrea Flinders with the Kansas City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers says coaching methods like the ones used at Kauffman can certainly benefit new teachers who often struggle with things like classroom management. But she seems skeptical that more seasoned pros would want to be coached in this way.
“There comes a time [in your career] once you understand classroom management where you can relax and your students can relax and you’re not so overbearing. Where things are more natural,” says Flinders.
She says veteran teachers need to be trusted to craft their own style of teaching, not be given "top-down mandates".
"You can't have a one-size-fits-all approach. Veteran teachers want to try new things, find what works for them and what doesn't and not be told you have to do this with one-hundred percent fidelity."
Interestingly, Shelli Brown — one of Kauffman's most veteran teachers — seems to use similar logic when justifying why Kauffman's "flight simulator" practice methods work for her. She says practicing skills like leading kids down a hall until they become "muscle memory" free her up to be a better teacher.
"When we know exactly what to do and expect when we’re doing things like moving from one class to another, starting a new activity, giving a direction and having that space be consistent, then that means the rest of the time [in class] I can be myself. And the students can feel successful and safe and happy."
Brown admits not all teachers would want to step into Kauffman’s ‘flight simulator’ practices, but she and her colleagues also suggest that with their students’ test scores, maybe more should.
Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and reporter. You can find him on Twitter @kcurkyle.
This story is part of KCUR's 'Teaching It Forward' project, which looks deeply at the changing nature of the teaching profession in the Kansas City metro.