In Laura Strait’s fourth-grade classroom in Oakland, there are plenty of reasons students might struggle to learn: Gang violence and a high rate of poverty are endemic to the community—94 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch—and many students lack proficiency in English when they enter kindergarten. (The school, ERES Academy, has a 97 percent Latino population.)
Despite these odds, the kids in Strait’s class have made remarkable gains. In recent years, 88 percent scored proficient or advanced proficient in math. They made similar progress in reading. In recognition of her work, TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) awarded Strait the 2014 Fishman Prize for outstanding educators in high-poverty schools. We spoke with her about that honor and what makes her such an effective teacher.
Tell us about your journey as a teacher. Is it true it involved a cross-country trip?
I went to Providence College [in Rhode Island] for a dual certification for special education and regular education. My first job was outside of Boston. I was there for four years teaching fourth grade. Each year I improved a little bit, but I knew I wasn’t making the gains I wanted to make. My principal ended up moving to San Francisco and teaching in Oakland. She became a principal with Aspire Public Schools at ERES Academy. Within the year, I was sure I wanted to follow her because I knew she would make me a better teacher. I did a demo lesson and an interview and got the job. I packed all of my stuff and drove across the country to work at ERES. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve grown as a teacher so much because of her feedback, which is based on doing three or four observations a week.
What’s one of the best ideas that you’ve “borrowed” from fellow teachers?
I was doing individual reading time okay before. But then I saw the sixth-grade teacher at my school having these intense, one-on-one conversations with students about their books. Their reading scores skyrocketed because of that individual attention. I started pulling kids aside and asking them what they were reading to get inside their heads. “What is the book about?” “Which parts did you struggle with?” If they talk about a part of the book that was hard for them, we dig deeper into that section. I’ll say, “Why don’t you read to me, and we’ll figure out where the understanding is breaking down?” I don’t have a list of questions. It’s basically student-driven. It’s really about listening.
Not all schools have a collaborative environment. How do you forge those relationships?
Teachers from districts that don’t encourage collaboration as much probably assume they can’t go to other teachers. That was my situation in my old school. But if you initiate that conversation, more teachers will open up to it. You can say things like, “I’d like to know more ideas about this. Can you help me?” or “Maybe you don’t want me to come into your classroom, but can you come into my classroom and observe me and give me tips?” Sometimes that’s more comfortable. You have to be that bold teacher. That honest conversation is where it starts.
When you observe other teachers, what are you looking for?
It all ties back to the goals I set for myself. Last year, my goals were around questioning and student engagement. Questioning was something I was looking for in every classroom. I went to the first-grade teacher. I was jotting down the questions she was asking. I went into a second-grade classroom and saw the progression of questions that were being asked. When they get to fourth grade, what do I need to do to push them further than what I’ve seen? In my first couple of years’ teaching, I was looking for ways that teachers manage the classroom. I was looking for transitions, such as how much time a teacher allowed for students to move from the rug to their desks. If you go into a classroom and don’t pinpoint what you’re looking for, you can get lost in all the things that are going on. Those specific things can definitely help narrow it down and keep you from being overwhelmed.
Walk me through the process of becoming a Fishman Prize recipient.
I got nominated [by my principal] last November. They started with the 830 people who submitted essays. A hundred of them were selected to submit a teaching video. That was challenging—you want to show everything in your classroom, but you have to focus on something you’re really proud of. Then, about 20 people were selected to get an observation. You didn’t know when they were coming, so it gave them a good view of what your teaching looks like. From there, 10 people were selected to go to New York City and be interviewed by TNTP staff. I got to meet the other finalists. We were sharing ideas and creating a network—sharing teacher practices from across the country. From the interview, four people were selected to win the prize. It was $25,000 and a chance to be in the summer residency program.
As part of the program, we met Doug Lemov, who wrote Teach Like a Champion. We met with these amazing educational leaders. They exposed us to all these different views. You can agree with them, you can disagree with them, but they provided us with all of these ideas about what’s happening in education today.
To apply for the 2015 Fishman Prize, visit fishmanprize.org/instructor. The final deadline is December 16, 2014.
Photo: Courtesy of TNTP