The Florida Department of Education recently announced the statistically most-impactful teachers in certain grades and subjects, based on FCAT scores.
ORANGE COUNTY Teacher evaluations can vary with the subjective opinion of each parent, student and staff member, but officials at the Florida Department of Education recently used subjective data to recognize 557 Orange County teachers who had the most positive impact on student learning.
These High Impact teachers’ students showed the greatest achievements in value-added model scores, calculated using three school years of data from 2012 to 2015, FDOE Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart wrote in a letter to such teachers. Reading instructors from grades four to 10, math educators from fourth through eighth grades and Algebra 1 teachers from eighth and ninth grades were eligible for this award, she wrote.
“Whether in a classroom where students arrived already high-achieving or a classroom in which students were underperforming, your efforts provide inspiration and opportunities to young people that may have been otherwise inaccessible,” Stewart wrote. “We know more than we have ever known about the impact teaching has on student outcomes. With this knowledge comes the occasion to celebrate successes and also implores us to support all educators in their journey to become effective in the classroom, and that process starts with recognizing you.”
Robinswood Middle School algebra and pre-algebra teacher Eric Schwalbach, who was recognized and has taught in West Orange County for about two decades, said officials used Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores as the measurement.
WHAT MAKES A HIGH IMPACT TEACHER?
“My heart's for the kids that are struggling,” Schwalbach said.
This motivation emanates from Schwalbach growing up through local schools — including Robinswood — where some students did not have an epiphany like his to stress the importance of academic performance, especially in hard times.
“My dad was an alcoholic, and he left, so I (had) a single parent, so I know what it's like to come from that situation,” he said. “I know that education is the one thing that can level the playing field for everyone. I was lucky enough to start playing sports, and I realized I wanted to continue to play sports ... in high school; I wanted to play sports in college. I kept the grades that I needed to do that after I got kicked off the basketball team for having a 1.3 GPA in ninth grade.”
Schwalbach said he has enjoyed his five years teaching where he had been a student, because he can relate to students' background and stress this importance of academics through using what they like as motivation. This includes coaching stints at Evans and West Orange high schools, where he has seen dozens of athletes earn college scholarships. Once he can convince an 'alpha male' to take this path, the rest tend to follow, Schwalbach said.
To connect on an even deeper level with students, he and his wife – a former teacher he credits with supporting them to the point he can invest better in his students – have opened their home at times.
“I had a former student about 10 years ago who got a girl pregnant, and he basically was trying to raise her – he was in ninth grade -- and my wife and I took him and his new baby and started raising them,” Schwalbach said. “His younger brother, who was (in) eighth grade at the time, also came to live with us, and we raised them all the way through high school and the daughter until she was two. Then the mother wanted to get her back, so we basically just helped raise the daughter until she moved on.”
Schwalbach now has a seventh-grade son with friends in low-income situations with imprisoned fathers, so he tries to be a positive paternal influence by hosting them or playing with them, he said.
“With teachers, the biggest thing is, develop a relationship with kids,” he said. “They'll never care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
IT COULD BE BETTER STILL
Like many of the most important professions in society, teaching children does not pay well: Two teachers' income is barely enough to cover a family, even with raises from certain recognition, Schwalbach said from experience. That was why his wife found another job.
“Right now I really feel bad for teachers, definitely in Florida, because all of the legislation … that makes it basically impossible for teachers to help, and teachers just get frustrated because it's overwhelming,” Schwalbach said. “At the end of the day, just care about your kids. … I wasn't worried about what the state and everyone else told me to do. I was worried about doing what was best for kids, and … then my scores were always higher than everyone else's.”
Robinswood administrators have helped Schwalbach by allowing him to have his students for a double-block and technologies such as clickers and practice websites such as IXL.com for five times better education, he said. Schwalbach recommends families and other locals invest more time into knowing and supporting teachers in their area, which would enhance performance all around and show how other teachers' methods are effective despite differences from his.
Moreover, he thinks more focus should go into what is not working in classrooms, instead of just what does work. But teachers and administrators tend to fear repercussions of speaking up against ineffective laws, standards and programs, he said. To him, this and the associated pay increase help explain why only a small percentage of county teachers get recognized as highly effective, despite the 2014 Broad Prize for Urban Educaton indicating an abundance of exceptional educators.
“My thing is, even though I was in the top 5%, my kids are nowhere near where they need to be … because the system itself isn't as good as it needs to be,” Schwalbach said. “If my best isn't good enough, something obviously needs to be changed. … I'm making big growth, but they were so far behind to begin with.”
WHAT OTHER HIGH IMPACT TEACHERS SAY
Traci Dunbar, SunRidge Middle School
Dunbar has been at SunRidge since its opening in 2012. Last year, she taught algebra and seventh-grade intensive math; this year, she teaches honors geometry and pre-algebra. She taught at Ocoee Middle School for 12 years before that and at Florida Virtual School for about a year-and-a-half.
Dunbar believes it is important for teachers to recognize students in middle school likely have not encountered much of the content and concepts introduced at this age level -- especially in math.
"I start with very simple concepts of what I'm going to be teaching ... so they can do the concepts ... adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing ... fractions and decimals, things like that," she said. "I don't do any real word problems (because) they don't want to read it."
Like Schwalbach, Dunbar said she has used technology to enhance learning, although the only software she uses is IXL.com.
Her teaching methodology is to encourage students to just keep working, that they have the ability to comprehend what she is teaching, she said.
"And the stuff will get a little harder ... but that's just my direct teaching," she said. "Let's see how you do."
In terms of state standards, Dunbar understands the importance of ensuring students are learning particular concepts and keeping up, and data from standardized tests can help her address one-on-one what a child has not grasped. But the most important part for her is ensuring her students have a positive respect for her.
"I think my kids do well because they just like me," she said. "They have respect for me in my classroom."
Sara Thornton, SunRidge Middle School
Eighth grade language arts is what Thornton currently teaches, as well as one class of speech and debate, but the language arts scores earned her recognition. She started at SunRidge Middle School with Dunbar in that first year, 2012, and had taught at Ocoee Middle School for 10 years and at Westridge Middle School in Orlando.
Great mentors along the way, such as longtime Ocoee Middle School principal Kate Clarke and SunRidge Middle School principal Patricia Bowen-Painter, are what Thornton believes helped her become a High Impact teacher. But it all starts with setting the bar high.
"They set the same precedent for us, I believe: high expectations," Thornton said. "In my classroom, I really feel like there's no excuses. Other than high expectations and reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing every day, ... it's got to continue outside the classroom."
One saying she likes to allude to is "Excuses are the nails that build a house of failure."
But when it comes to standardized testing, there is a lot of pressure on teachers and students, which could cause too much stress, she said.
"The pros for it, you get to see all the great work you've done...and the growth that comes from that," Thornton said. "I think if we focused more on that ... it would be more productive, wouldn't be as scary."
Continuing to do away with certain other standardized tests is the way to go, although having some standardized testing is absolutely necessary, she said.
"To put the focus on one final exam in the end of the school year, it's not as bad, but the other testing that comes with it can be a bit much at times," she said.
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].