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7 Traits of a Learner-Centered Teacher

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"We guide students to understand the world around them and to ask questions. Our goal is to help students learn how to think critically, regardless of the content or subject area, so that they may take this skill and apply it in many different arenas. A teacher at Harmony must also be able to foster the inquisitive nature of students. We want our students to question the world around them, why it exists and functions as it does, and how we have the ability to alter it both positively and negatively. To accomplish this, our teachers must encourage questioning by students and partake in deeper discussions and inquiry with students."
~ Megan Spears, Harmony Director of Academics, South Houston District

We've spent the past several weeks getting to know Harmony Public Schools, a school network with 46 schools serving over 30,000 students built around the STEMSOS model. Among the 11 Key Elements of this Learner-Centered STEM model are powerful project-based learning, interdisciplinary design and a culture of strong student support.

To learn more about the model, we connected with teachers, students and leaders across the network for the 7-part "Getting Smart on Learner-Centered STEM" series. Our last feature, Putting the Learner in Learner-Centered STEM focused on the learner experience from both the student and teacher perspective. This week, we dive more deeply into what it means to be a teacher in a learner-centered environment.

Based on responses from teachers and leaders in several schools across Harmony Public Schools, we discovered that it takes a real commitment to assuming new roles and responsibilities to teach in a learner-centered environment.

Learner-centered teachers must:

  • Act as Facilitators and Guides
  • Provide Anytime, Anywhere and On-Demand Support
  • Embody Core Values That Support Deeper Learning
  • Truly Encourage Students Drive Their Own Learning
  • Create Real-World and Authentic Learning Experiences
  • Leverage Technology to Personalize Learning
  • Commit to Professional and Personal Growth
  • Act as Facilitators and Guides

    In a learner-centered model, teachers get to act more as facilitators and guides. Teachers find this shift motivating, empowering and validating of their professionalism. Teachers described their roles as facilitators and guides like this:
  • "The role of a teacher to create an atmosphere that generates autonomous student learning. When this happens students are happy, parents are happy and administrators are happy."
  • "With personalized learning, the role of teachers also shifted from traditional teaching to facilitator of learning. Teachers are creating opportunities for students to work in groups, collaborate, experiment, discuss and revise. With students at the center of their learning, teachers are becoming more of a support person guiding their progress and learning. This has also led to more data driven decision making."
  • "Our roles are different from those in other public schools. We are given learning opportunities everyday. A new strategy, a new way of teaching a skill, etc. Our curriculum lends itself to flexibility, and a teacher can modify assignments to meet the needs of all student learning."
  • "Teachers are the facilitators. They are the gateway for the students in all things academic and personal. They are role models, and that is what I find most rewarding. I feel rewarded every single day, and learning/teaching feels personal."
  • Provide Anytime, Anywhere & On-Demand Support

    "Once thing that always strikes me about teachers at Harmony is their dedication to their students. If you walk the halls of the school after hours, it would be difficult to find a school that doesn't have at least a couple of classrooms where students are meeting with teachers and other students. This goes beyond students who are seeking help, and includes students who simply are looking to better their work, or extend their learning further than is possible during the regular school day. Our teachers provide both academic and personal support to students often 7 days a week, providing opportunities for students to not only work on their academic pursuits, but opportunities to have a safe environment and location to go to during non-school hours. Teachers, counselors, and administrators on campuses are often seen going the extra mile to help students in whatever way possible. For example, we have a group of students currently working to complete a high mileage challenge as part of the Shell EcoCar Challenge that are working into the wee hours of the night 6 to 7 days a week to work out the kinks in their design and the function of their vehicle. This requires the support and supervision of staff members throughout this process. This is a level of dedication to students that is impressive and touching at once."
    ~ Math Teacher, Harmony Public Schools

    When learning is anytime, anywhere; so is teaching. In other words, expectations aren't high just for students in a learner-centered model; expectations are high for teachers too. Many of the teachers we connected with described their job as "demanding" and "challenging," but were quick to pair that with words like "rewarding" and "worth it." They explained that while all teachers have a long history of working outside of school hours, in a learner-centered model, this goes beyond planning and grading. Teachers also have to make themselves available to students "anytime and anywhere." Students and teachers are encouraged to connect on an ongoing basis. Not only when there is a problem.

    True commitment to high-achievement for all learners requires a strong system of on-demand support and diverse opportunities for connection. At Harmony this means everything from one-on-one meetings and tutorials to formal office hours and scheduled advisory periods. This also means less formal opportunities to connect like hopping on a Google Hangout with your teacher, meeting on a Saturday morning or even at the student's home. This means creating pre-recorded webinars and tutorials that are available on demand for students if they're working late at night. This also means a "my door is always open" policy.

    Embody Core Values That Support Deeper Learning

    It takes staff commitment to core values to ensure that a positive, learner-centered school culture is built and maintained. For students to achieve deeper learning outcomes like critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, self-directed learning, an "academic mindset," and mastery of core content, adults in the system have to develop and strengthen the same knowledge, skills and dispositions.

    We heard from several teachers who embodied these core values perfectly:

  • "More than being an educator, a teacher at Harmony is a friend who provides guidance and help at any moment. As a teacher what I love the most is when I can truly help a student with something he or she is struggling on. By cooperating with them and allowing them to voice their own opinions, I can better understand their situations and form meaningful bonds with them, in which I am offering the most help that I can. I feel as though I truly deserve my title as a teacher at this position in Harmony. What's different about my job in Harmony is that here I can personally connect with and really get to know my students. I can help them both education and life wise. This is very important to me and to the students too."
  • "Being a teacher at Harmony is like having a big family in which your ideas are valued, cared and implemented, you feel like it is your school home and part of you."
  • "My role as a teacher includes being a role model, a disciplinarian, a motivator, a mentor and an adviser. We have students that come from all different types of homes with problems within our community. Most of students need positive pep talks to keep them engaged in their studies. Some students just need someone to care about them and believe in them; others need a disciplined environment that keeps them on task."
  • "The students are backed by experienced teachers who care about the individual more so than the class. Each student feels like their learning is personal and in my classroom I make sure each student feels they are capable of overcoming all obstacles."
  • Truly Encourage Students Drive Their Own Learning

    "To me, I feel special when I engage my students. Thanks to the STEMSOS model, I can engage my students and have opportunities to meet with my students one-to-one after schools. When I see my students grasp the idea or accomplish something, that is the moment I find most rewarding. This happens a lot due to the projects we assign our students. In the end, each and every one of my students becomes the expert of their project and related topics."
    ~ Teacher, Harmony Public Schools

    In a truly learner-centered environment, teachers "hand over" many traditional responsibilities. For example, students at Harmony often set the agenda for their own meetings and teacher conferences using their own goals, concerns and achievement data. Teachers at Harmony believe this is a key part of helping students to reach their full potential. Giving students autonomy develops "habits of success" and " mindsets" that researchers continue to confirm as important components of lifelong learning and success.

    For teachers, learner-centered models require flexibility. While there are of course goals and standards and frameworks to guide instruction, teachers do not follow a lock-step progression based on the school calendar. One teacher explained, "We teach at our own pace according to what the kids need. Classes are not expected to be teaching the same thing at the exact same time. We are more focused on re-teaching when necessary, and more concerned with kids showing they've mastered the information before we move on."

    It's no surprise that motivating learners also comes down to real-world and authentic learner experiences. At Harmony, this means internships and partnerships with local and regional businesses. Students participate in clubs, academic and STEM competitions, fairs, presentations and expos. Sometimes individual student interests grow from an independent activity to a full club or group. One teacher described how one student's interest in electronics formed the basis of an Electronics Club that the teacher helped establish and other students joined. The teacher explained his reasoning, "I respect my students' thoughts and I listen to their interests. If I can help them, then I help them."

    Leverage Technology to Personalize Learning & Expand Access

    A learner-centered environment leverages technology to boost access and outcomes by customizing student experiences based on powerful student data. Teachers in learner-centered environments don't just use "technology for the sake of technology," and teachers certainly aren't replaced by programs and devices. In fact, teachers in these blended learning environments are more important than ever. They use data from online programs and assessments to get a clear sense of student learning and then differentiate instruction accordingly. Teachers use student data to form intervention and enrichment groups, and for flexible grouping for dynamic small-group instruction. One teacher explains, "Technology allows me to utilize online learning tools for students. I can see the progress and needs of each of my students via various dashboards and online reports." Student data is used on a classroom, school and network level to inform the ongoing development of curriculum, as well as overall elements of the STEM SOS model.

    Blended learning creates efficiencies in the day that free up classroom time for collaboration, experiments, demonstrations and project-based learning. Technology also offers powerful tools for collaboration. In a learner-centered model, the ability to offer ongoing and meaningful feedback is essential. Harmony uses tools like Google Docs for collaborative writing and ongoing feedback while student work is still "in development." One teacher explained, "Students utilize Google Slides to submit their in-progress presentations or YouTube for videos in the development stage. I can easily comment and share my feedback with the groups via the slides or Edmodo during the process, in other words, as they are actively working. No need to wait for a week or two until the students finish the project and share it with me. This allows me to steer them in the 'right' direction in a timely manner."

    Gaining proficiency with technology and various tools also helps students develop unique skills for college and career. They graduate with experiences in filming, editing audio and video, as well as creating their own websites to showcase their work.

    Because Harmony schools serve a high population of economically disadvantaged students, access is a real issue. To bridge the "digital divide," computer labs are available for students after school. All Harmony campuses are also 1:1 in grades 6-12, and students have Chromebooks (funded by a RttT-D grant) that they can take home.

    Commit to Professional and Personal Growth

    "Teachers may need special skills to be able to design gold standard PBL, but implementing such PBL lessons requires a lot of practice and coaching. That is why Harmony created a teacher support structure with mentor teachers, instructional coaches, data analysts, and curriculum directors. Mentor teachers are experienced lead teachers who are PBL champions at each campus. New teachers take advantage of their expertise. Instructional coaches are district level regional support people who are experts in PBL facilitation and project implementation. They train, co-plan, co-teach, observe, and lead PLCs with teachers periodically throughout the year. And finally curriculum directors are central office level administrators who did majority of the heavy-lifting in curriculum and PBL design work and they also train coaches and teachers to sustain the train the trainer model. During PD days, teachers are placed in different groups based on their experience and prior training history to make sure they get the right training that they can put to use in their classrooms. So PD is also personalized and catered to the individual needs of teachers."
    ~ Burak Yilmaz, RttT-D Project Director, Harmony Public Schools Central Office

    While all of the traits outlined above are important to teaching in a learner-centered school, committing to professional and personal growth is probably the most important. No two days look the same. There's always a new tool to learn or a new student interest to research. There are developments in the STEM fields to share and the ongoing curation of resources to support student learning.

    Ultimately, teachers in a learner-centered model must commit wholeheartedly to being learners themselves. This means setting personal and professional goals and seeking out opportunities to build new knowledge and skills. All of this requires Harmony leadership to make and keep professional learning a priority, so teachers have the support they need to thrive. This takes many forms: lead teachers, online PD modules created in-house, coaching and mentoring, training sessions, formal professional development days, informal opportunities to collaborate, two weeks of summer training, workshops, etc. Even with all these opportunities , many teachers acknowledge that they still need more.

    Because we believe teachers benefit from the same blended, competency-based learning opportunities that we know are best for students, we appreciate Harmony's goal to model PD after student learning environments. Megan Spears explains, "Much of the professional development allows teachers to learn and grow in a similar environment we ask them to provide to their students. Many sessions are collaborative, with teachers sharing ideas and working together to achieve certain goals. Our teachers need to be able to foster a collaborative environment in their classrooms, and in order to do this, they need to understand what a successful collaborative environment looks like. Also, since our students are often taught in an environment that provides them the ability to interact and collaborate with their peers, our teachers need to be able to drive class periods designed in this way, and to ensure that learning is taking place and that management of time and behavior is maximized."

    Harmony teachers are also expected to have content expertise, so leadership supports development in STEM fields. One teacher explained, "Harmony supports us for anything to improve ourselves. They support us to take our master degrees, or any workshop in our area. For example, I asked to Harmony to join MIT's Master Trainer program. Harmony accepted my request and paid for it. I took an online education for 16 weeks from MIT for being an APP Inventor Master Trainer and I went to MIT to take 3 days on-site education and I became an MIT APP Inventor Master Trainer. So I am able to educate other Harmony teachers about App Inventor with MIT's curriculum. Our Director of Instructional Technology from the Central Office offered me to take Code.org trainer certificate too."

    Being a learner-centered teacher requires new roles, new responsibilities, new experiences and new approaches. Above all else, it requires setting and meeting high expectations for your students and yourself. As Ahmet Cetinkaya, Harmony Public Schools Director of Accountability explains, "As a teacher at Harmony you have an end goal in mind at the beginning of the year. You do whatever it takes to achieve that personal goal. There is a culture of dedication and high expectations for ALL that drives what we do and motivates us."

    For more see:

  • Moving PD fro Seat-Time to Demonstrated Competency
  • Teacher Talent 2.0
  • How Robotics is Transforming STEM in Elementary Schools
  • This post is a part of a blog series in the upcoming "Getting Smart on Learner-Centered STEM"Smart Bundle produced in partnership with Harmony Public Schools (@HarmonyEDU). Join the conversation on Twitter using #STEMSOS.

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