Teachers and Students Are Leading the Way to Better Learning Experiences in Math

This is part two of a series written by Mandy Clark of Impact Florida
Math teacher Michele Knowles from Q.I. Roberts Jr/Sr High School in Putnam County, Florida participated in the Solving with Students Learning Cadre.
Mandy Clark
Blog Post

(To view the first article in this series, go to Florida Education Leaders Forging Ahead for Students.)

This spring, three Florida math teachers found themselves struggling through yet another school year affected by COVID-19.

  • Kellyann Campbell, a math instructional coach, was asked to step into a classroom because of staff shortages in Okeechobee County, a rural district in south-central Florida.
  • Katrice Dixon, a second-career teacher, was missing the chance to connect with other teachers around the state in Broward County, an urban district north of Miami.
  • Anna Stewart, a veteran teacher, was considering leaving the classroom in Nassau County, a rural district north of Jacksonville.

In Florida, brick and mortar schools reopened well before many other schools across the country. But teachers and students were still feeling the effects of COVID in the 2021-22 school year: staff shortages, illnesses and absences, canceled professional conferences, and the lingering effects of forced virtual learning during the pandemic.

It was in this context that these three teachers applied to join Impact Florida’s Solving with Students Cadre this spring. They joined 46 others across Florida in piloting an innovative approach to professional learning based on student feedback about the classroom experience in secondary math using a free tool called Elevate by PERTS.

Why Student Feedback?

The Solving with Students Cadre was a continuation of Impact Florida’s COVID Recovery Cadre, which used continuous improvement methods to address gaps in student achievement in eighth and ninth grade math, a critical pathway for college and career success.

The Solving with Students Cadre used Elevate student surveys to measure student engagement and try new teaching strategies in cycles of continuous improvement. The tool is designed for secondary teachers in any subject area; Impact Florida chose to focus on math. In the spring semester, teachers in the cadre completed three continuous improvement cycles, administering four surveys in total.

The cadre created a learning community to help teachers as they put themselves in the vulnerable position of hearing student feedback – many for the first time. Some of the design features of the cadre included:

  • an open application for teachers, so they could choose to participate based on their own interest,
  • one-on-one check-ins with Impact Florida staff,
  • a stipend,
  • the opportunity for one-on-one virtual coaching with the New Teacher Center, and
  • community Zoom calls where teachers shared and learned from each other.

The results have shown dramatic improvements: on average, the cadre saw a 9-percentage point increase in students having a positive classroom experience in key areas. And, 98 percent of teachers said they made permanent, substantive changes to their teaching practice, and 98 percent also said they would participate again.

Through Impact Florida’s close support of teachers in this cadre, we’ve gained rich insights into their experiences.

A New, Sometimes Scary Experience for Teachers

Teachers administered their first surveys in January, and the feedback was surprising to many.

“I was not okay with my [student survey] data at the beginning. I was devastated,” said Anna Stewart, the Nassau teacher who was considering leaving the classroom.

Just as the cadre gave teachers more choice over their learning, many teachers found that giving students choices was also a successful strategy to better engage them in the classroom. For example, one teacher gave students the option to practice skills by playing a game, pairing up with a partner, or creating an anchor chart for the classroom.

“Before I started, I was in control of everything in my classroom,” Anna said. “Having conversations with the students, I realized if I take a step back and listen to them, it’s going to change how they perceive what they’re doing in class.”

Teachers also found that engaging students directly in reviewing the survey results and in developing ideas for improvement helped them feel more buy-in. One teacher made bulletin boards to display the class’s data.

Teachers made simple, small changes in the classroom that had a dramatic impact on the classroom culture.

Katrice Dixon, from Broward County, realized through the disaggregated survey results that her female students weren’t feeling as comfortable with her as her male students. Before the cadre, she assumed that her identity as an African-American woman would suffice to connect with students of a similar background. Through the feedback, she realized she actually wasn’t reaching the girls.

“When I started purposely engaging with the girls, they became more open with me and began sharing more of their struggles and experiences,” Katrice said.

Kellyann Campbell, who was recently recognized as the Okeechobee Teacher of the Year, began implementing community circles inspired by the survey results and her school’s focus on restorative practices.

“It’s really impacted my survey results tremendously,” Kellyann said. “It’s really helped my students realize that I’m there to stay. I am there to try to help them. And I am there to care about what they’re doing. This experience for me has been a blessing.”

What We Learned

Overall, we have been amazed by how valuable teachers have found this experience, and how dramatic the improvement has been.

Some of our key learnings include:

  • Teachers found the cadre to be a dramatically different (and positive) professional learning experience. They had more autonomy, and the student feedback was directly relevant to their classrooms and teaching styles, making it useful no matter how much experience they had.
  • Sharing survey results in class changed how students viewed their role. When teachers involved their students, students began to take more responsibility for the classroom learning environment.
  • Dramatic improvements in student experience came from small changes. The work didn’t take a lot of time for teachers or students. In fact, 96 percent of teachers said the cadre took two hours or less a week.
  • Teachers leaned on each other for support during this vulnerable experience. Sometimes, hearing the student feedback was tough. They appreciated the chance to go through the learning experience together.

“Being able to do this had a big impact on me – I no longer wanted to quit my job,” said Anna Stewart, the Nassau teacher. “I actually recertified. I’m still here because of this program this year.”

You can learn much more about the teachers and the cadre results at www.impactfl.org/solving-with-students-cadre.

Mandy Clark is the President of Impact Florida, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that believes excellent classroom instruction can move the needle for all students. We focus on supporting education leaders and teachers with the knowledge and resources they need to ensure that great teaching and learning is consistently realized in all Florida schools. Learn more at impactfl.org.