By Stefanie Jackson – Jaime Cole, who moved to the Eastern Shore from Arizona about a year ago, brings a fresh approach to her role as the new superintendent of Northampton County Public Schools.
“We really want to focus on strengths and use the strengths of the community to make the schools better. … It’s going to have to take everyone being positive … and bringing out the best in people,” Cole told the Eastern Shore Post on Monday.
Her goal of bringing out the best in people applies to both teachers and students.
Cole wants to move away from the deficit-based approach of assessing teacher performance, which was prevalent in the early 2000s after the No Child Left Behind Act was passed. (It was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015.)
Cole prefers an asset-based approach that seeks not to punish teachers for poor performance but to provide additional training and support to improve teacher performance.
To illustrate, Cole drew an x-y graph in which the x axis, the horizontal line, was divided between willingness and unwillingness, and the y axis, the vertical line, was divided between ability and inability.
Each of the graph’s four quadrants represented a different type of teacher: willing and able, willing but unable, unwilling and unable, and unwilling but able.
Teachers who are both willing and able to excel on the job are given leadership positions.
Those who are willing but unable are provided the additional training and coaching they need to be successful in the classroom.
Teachers who are both unwilling and unable also get additional training and coaching with the expectation that once they acquire the ability they previously lacked, they also will gain the confidence they need to become willing to use their new skills.
Only teachers who already possess the necessary skills but are unwilling to implement them are disciplined. Their administrators document their performance and provide directives to improve or face further consequences.
Sometimes the problem isn’t the teacher’s skill level but the age level of the students. Depending on a teacher’s personality, the teacher might have trouble managing middle or high school students but work well with elementary school students, or vice versa, Cole noted.
In this case, she will make a first-order change, in which only one employee is affected, instead of a second-order change, in which many employees are affected.
That is, Cole would look at unfilled teaching positions in the school division and determine which one would be a better fit for the teacher based on his or her strengths. Cole would not move high-performing teachers to create openings for other teachers.
If a teacher will be teaching a completely different subject or age group, the teacher must take a Praxis test (standardized testing for teachers seeking licensure) and obtain a provisional license.
The teacher will be given a timeframe in which he or she must complete the related college coursework and acquire full licensure.
The key is to strike a balance between support and accountability for teachers. Considering the current teacher shortage, it’s important to support teachers to encourage them to stay in the profession, Cole said.
Nationwide, there’s a huge number of teachers who leave their careers between their first and fifth year of teaching, she said.
Another way to support teachers is to provide them with instructional assistants.
In Northampton County, there is a full-time instructional assistant in every classroom in kindergarten through second grade. Grades 3 and 4 have two instructional assistants per grade level, and grades 5 and 6 have one instructional assistant per grade level.
Cole is interested in getting volunteers to go into classrooms and help out. For example, a retired kindergarten teacher could come in to conduct a small-group reading lesson, she suggested.
A volunteer would be required to be fingerprinted and pass a criminal background check before being permitted in a classroom, she noted.
Cole’s approach of accentuating the positive also applies to student behavior.
“Behavior is just a form of communication,” she said. Students communicate their needs through their behavior, and if one can identify and fill their needs, unwanted behaviors typically will stop.
Cole agrees with Becky Bailey, author of the book “Conscious Discipline,” who says, “You get more of what you focus on.”
For example, if a teacher constantly reminds a student to stop talking in class, that attention will actually reinforce the unwanted behavior.
But if a teacher draws attention to a positive behavior and says, “I like how so-and-so has her book open and is ready to learn,” the positive behavior will be reinforced (and other students may copy the behavior to seek the same affirmation).
Cole also believes that engaging students in team-based activities helps to reduce unwanted behaviors, and she plans to include a study of “Kagan Cooperative Learning” by Spencer Kagan in the orientation for all K-12 teachers.
Cooperating with parents also makes a big difference, and Cole has built more opportunities for parent engagement into the 2022-2023 school calendar.
Previously, parent nights were scheduled once every three months, but now they will be held once a month, always on a Tuesday. That was a strategic choice, as many local churches meet on Wednesday nights and few people are willing to attend school events on Friday nights, Cole said.
Another thing that Cole is approaching differently is the Northampton schools comprehensive plan, which was updated every five years.
The plan was problematic because everyone was trying to work on all the goals all at once. Cole is now working on a strategic plan intended to avoid that pitfall.
Based on recommendations from school principals and others, she has drafted a list of the Northampton school division’s top five values: teamwork, communication, parent and community partnerships, recognition, and respect.
Cole also is recommending the following goals: pursuing academic excellence, increasing two-way communication (between schools and parents), creating a positive school climate and culture, building family and community partnerships, and talent management.
She will present her ideas to the school board later this summer.
Cole is overseeing additional changes intended to help students recover from learning losses that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The school division is hiring a reading coach and a math coach who will model instructional strategies for teachers.
Principals and assistant principals will receive professional development once a month, and each of the remaining three weeks a month will be devoted to providing support for teachers in their first, second, and third years in the profession.
A lack of support is only one of three main reasons why teachers leave the profession. The other two are the affordable housing shortage and a lack of good jobs for teachers’ spouses or partners, Cole said.
But the biggest change that needs to happen is to put students first. That means putting “political agendas” on the back burner.
“We need to put the focus back on children, and that’s why we’re here,” Cole said. “It really does take everyone together, finding the best solution.”
“I can’t imagine growing up … now, as a kid,” she continued. “Everything that they’re seeing and being told … we would hope that the schools would be, you know, clear of all of that and just focusing on … what is best for all students.”
Cole said, “I think this community, honestly is so beautiful. It has everything here to be successful. There’s so much support we’ve got, and there’s some really good teachers here.
“It has everything to be successful. It’s just about working together … to accomplish that.”