Bringing Best Practices Home
Fairfield Warde High School - Fairfield, CT
Volunteers often describe their NEASC Visiting Committee service as one of the best professional development experiences of their careers. In addition to gaining experience in evaluating educational practices outside of their own institution, which in and of itself is a valuable professional development experience, there is a second benefit: Visiting Committee members get to see first-hand how other schools implement standards. The experience often inspires them to examine their own work back home as they simultaneously help another school evaluate and plan for improvement.
Nilda Irizarry, an English teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield, CT, recently served on a NEASC Visiting Committee. Currently entering her 13th year of teaching and finishing her sixth year in Educational Leadership, Irizarry found her experience gave her exposure to best practices that she is working to implement in her current and future professional work.
“My work on the Visiting Committee made me realize that our department needed to clarify our vision and mission,” Irizarry says. She worked with the curriculum coordinator and other teachers on a new English department vision of classrooms that are challenging, constructive, creative, and collaborative places of learning. Irizarry’s Visiting Committee experience has also inspired changes in assessment and data usage at Fairfield Warde. While the English department uses reading screens at mid-point and year-end to measure growth in reading comprehension, different departments use different assessment tools for this same measure. “After looking at the other assessment practices, I understood that we needed a consistent evaluation system and the same tool to ensure students were being measured similarly across departments,” Irizarry says. She and her colleagues are now collaborating to create a rubric to measure reading across grades and across all departments.
In addition, Irizarry’s work at the visiting school highlighted a need to clarify how data is used effectively. Fairfield Warde schedules all teachers into a collaborative professional cohort. In monthly meetings, cohort teachers review quality instructional and assessment practices. Irizarry reports that the English department videotaped teachers during writing conferences, watched and debriefed about what they saw, and talked about what they need to improve. Due to this review of practice, Irizarry and her team went back to the drawing board to decide exactly what an effective conference entails, which will inform the process of evaluating teacher conferences. “My work with NEASC helped me understand that when you collect data, you need to be able to do something with it; either change instruction or assessment practices and see how this changes student achievement,” she says.
After observing many classrooms on the Visiting Committee, Irizarry says she realized that instruction should always be a focus for school improvement. “NEASC’s standards for Instruction make sense. They include personalized instruction, student engagement, and innovative and authentic learning objectives and tasks. Each school system must honestly examine how teachers can increasingly excel in those areas,” she says. Improving instruction is a district initiative in Fairfield; Irizarry reports that Instructional Rounds have been completed in Science and English departments, and teachers are improving their methods after observations.
As a visiting committee member, Irizarry also saw first-hand the roles of the school board, administration, teachers, parents and students in making a school more effective. “As a teacher, you are isolated in your classroom and you don’t see the entire picture as to how all stakeholders work together,” Irizarry says. Serving on the Visiting Committee provided Irizarry with an invaluable 360-degree view. She adds, “As I work toward a future in educational leadership, it was helpful for me to see what building principals should do. I noticed that clear communication and positive working relationships with all stakeholders is critical.”