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    Memphis City Schools teachers get an earbud-ful of class coaching

    Photo by Mark Webber
    Emily Squires uses a walkie-talkie to coach a teacher from the back of the classroom at White Station Middle.

    By Jane Roberts - The Commercial Appeal -

    Some wired-for-sound city school teachers are testing the value of real-time coaching that the NFL has made as common as a Sunday in the park.

    Through earbud headphones, the teachers hear cues from experts observing from the back of the room.

    "Once a teacher understands what it feels like to be successful, it takes root immediately," said Monica Jordan, coordinator of teacher professional development in Memphis City Schools.

    "The teachers get training first. It's not like someone walks in and shoves an (earbud) in your ear and starts rattling in your ear," she said.

    The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the work in Memphis, Tampa and New York, hoping to prove that tailoring professional development raises the needle on test scores.

    When Jordan asked for teacher volunteers, 15 came forward.

    "We have both ends of the spectrum. People either enjoy it or they're saying this is not a good fit for me. That's OK. That's what we are trying to find out," she said.

    Cynthia Law, algebra teacher at White Station Middle, is one of nine teachers in favor. But she had her reservations.

    "I thought, what if they say something in my ear and I lose my train of thought?" she said.

    "And then I thought, so what if I lose my train of thought, I'll figure it out," Law said. "I'm not a play-it-safe person. I'm willing for my kids' sake to look foolish."

    Teachers at American Way Middle and Wooddale High are also participating.

    Teach for America in Memphis sees so much promise it is spending $15,000 to conduct its own earbud research next year.

    "Essentially we are looking at a control group that doesn't get coaching to see to what extent coaching and real-time feedback enhances the process," said Athena Turner, TFA executive director.

    "We want to know, does it speed up the timeline in which a teacher develops?"

    The back-and-forth between the coach and teacher is happening through walkie-talkies now. As early as March 2, the coach could be anywhere in the world, coaching with digital video feeds from Memphis classrooms.

    That alone, researchers say, holds enormous promise for the future of professional development programs, which tend to be delivered to teachers in one-size-fits-all doses.

    As districts push to improve instruction, they're also focused on professional development. Last year, MCS increased its development budget 49 percent to $2.2 million, hoping stronger programs and online access would pay off in test scores.

    "I think this new approach gives you an opportunity to differentiate professional development based on teachers' own strengths and weaknesses," said Thomas Kane, a Harvard University researching working with the Gates Foundation.

    Kane's hypothesis is that teachers who can watch themselves work will see places to improve.

    "Next year, we would hope to have enough classrooms so we can start to answer that question," Kane said.

    Memphis ordered 11 180-degree cameras at $4,500 each. When parent permission slips are returned, the cameras will be set up in classroom corners.

    "We're asking teachers to watch themselves and reflect," Jordan said. "What does it feel like to be your own observer? ... What would you tell yourself if you had to give yourself feedback?"

    The technology is so new that the cameras, which also record audio, are being built as they're ordered.

    "Memphis is right behind Harvard's order," Jordan said.

    If teachers agree, the video could be used for coaching and perhaps eventually as a way principals and other experts will observe teachers for performance reviews and tenure evaluations.

    "There's no reason that couldn't be done by video," said Charlotte Danielson in Princeton, N.J. Her "Framework for Teaching" is the basis for the teacher evaluation rubric currently used in Tennessee.

    "It takes a lot of training to do a good job of observing. It's not just a checklist and going into a classroom, tick, tick, tick.

    "Nothing worth using would be done that way."

    Jordan is firm that those decisions will be left to teachers.

    "Honestly, we are waiting to hear from them: Do you believe this works for everybody or does it need to be tailored specifically to individuals?"

    -- Jane Roberts: 529-2512