A bit about the person interviewed:
Greetings and salutations! (I am a Charlotte’s Web fan!). My name is Paula Schroeder. My mother told me that my unofficial teaching career began at age 5 when I taught my 3-year-old sister how to read. I have been a PA and NJ certified educator since 1982, teaching a variety of subjects from K-8 in Camden, NJ and Philadelphia, PA. Living abroad for 7 years, I taught both kids and adults in Mexico, Honduras, and Venezuela. After returning to the states, I continued my teaching career and am currently a certified principal and director of a 421-child preschool in Philadelphia for the last 11 years. We have risen to a STAR 4 status using ECERS, but in the last year felt challenged to switch to utilizing CLASS to measure and improve our instruction.
Education is my passion, and I enjoy being a part of children and families’ growth and positive changes. The adage, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for the day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” is my educational mantra. We teach, so that “they” learn, develop, grow, and change to improve their own lives and the lives of those around them. But in teaching others I learn from others, hopefully with a mutual beneficial impact.
Why did you decide to use the CLASS® instrument in your program?
Our program began many years ago using ECERS-R to increase our environmental quality. ECERS-R tends to focus on the physical environment mostly, and we gained stability there, attaining a STAR 4 after a few years. We then changed over to self-assess in ECERS-3, which combines the elements of the physical with a greater mixture of instructional components. In both instruments, we learned our strengths were in the areas of Interactions and Language & Literacy. In order to strengthen these areas even more, we decided to move to CLASS® to improve and gain more insight on the quality of our instruction. Another reason we chose to move to class is due to that fact that our overseeing programs use CLASS® to measure our work. It seems like a natural choice to meet both needs. I’d like to note that we still self-assess our environment with ECERS-3 as well.
How does the CLASS® instrument measure quality and teacher effectiveness?
Quality and teacher effectiveness are measured through the 3 domains that focus on social-emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support. These 3 areas cover the breadth of the role of classroom teachers as related to student interaction. The instrument assesses the environment, daily practices, and implementation (which reveals planning and preparation). The scale of 1 to 7, familiar to ECERS users, reveals how far we have come and how far we have to go, from a negative culture to high quality and consistent overall environment.
Why do you believe that quality teacher/child interactions are important to focus on?
High quality teacher/child interactions set the tone for positive relationships, negotiation with others, and self-confidence. Interactions relate to all 3 CLASS® domains in some way. Quality Social-Emotional interactions improve students’ resilience and flexibility, as they learn to deal with joy, sadness, anger, and other feelings in the classroom and their home lives. Teachers show sensitivity and encourage student perspectives. Under Classroom Organization, providing students with the routines, materials, and activities they need set the base for those positive interactions to enable students to follow behavioral norms. Productivity is increased. Positive teacher/child interactions under Instructional Support facilitate strong experiences in learning language and the feedback they receive from the teacher, which encourages further learning.
Why do you believe the Emotional Support Domain is important?
I believe it is common knowledge that children with emotional needs and self-regulation deficiencies struggle with managing their own behavior. Without self-regulation, positive self-esteem and resiliency, children will not make gains in growth and learning. The Emotional Support Domain provides indicators for educators to understand their role as caregivers, providing children with respectful and encouraging interactions and teaching them the skills and strategies to develop self-control and self-expression of feelings.
Why do you believe the Classroom Organization Domain is important?
Classroom Organization addresses the structure, activities, and organization of materials. I compare this area more closely to the purpose of ECERS, with more emphasis on routines, schedules, and the physical environment. At the crux is behavioral management which allows positive relationships to proliferate, which in turn motivates children to learn from the teacher and one another. When a classroom is managed effectively, everything flows more smoothly to allow for increased learning!
Why do you believe the Instructional Support Domain is important?
This domain is important because this domain measures the educator’s consistency in delivering high quality instruction throughout the day, throughout changes in activities. It shows how teachers not only plan for instruction but how they “think on their feet”, create teachable moments, and facilitate child-led learning. Teachers provide children with prompts and questions that allow students to think more deeply and critically, to predict with accuracy and explain reasoning, and to test the world around them in order to gain more knowledge with their suppositions and experimentation.
Did your program struggle with anything when you began using this tool in your classrooms?
Using a new or additional tool is always overwhelming for staff. I have heard the sentiment, “It’s one more thing” repeatedly used by my staff. As a teacher for 27 years, I said the same thing myself on more than one occasion! Assuring staff that we will move forward one step at a time and that they will see how far they have come so far will help allay fears. I used a “compare and contrast” technique to discuss ECERS and its similarities to CLASS®. Once staff realize that they know and do 50% already, the task is minimized and reduced. Instead of starting at zero, show them how far they’ve come, and how “little” they have to go. Create small, attainable goals: “Hey, we’re at 3.5 in ____ domain. Let’s aim at 4.” As progress occurs, set the bar a little higher. Professional growth is not a sprint but a marathon. Looking back ten years, we were an unlicensed program who scored low in our ECERS evaluations, created CQI plans to address our areas of needs, and grew to STAR 4! Focus on accomplishments, examine strengths, and utilize the strengths to accomplish improvement.
How do you prepare for an assessment?
For us, the cycle of assessment is a year-long process. As a ten-month program, we come back to the new school year reviewing our previous assessment, setting our goals, and making plans for improvement for the year for Continuous Quality Improvement. After discussing our greatest need for improvement through review of our previous assessment, researching and reaching out to resources, we plan for professional development and coaching, for more feedback. There are some strategies, such as partnering, modeling, and co-teaching that can be used to support the teaching staff. It is important to stay focused on the growth area (no more than 2 at a time) because of all our compliances, we become too easily side-tracked. Reassessment and setting future goals is important because it allows the process to continue. On occasion, perhaps due to staffing changes, the growth areas may regress, but can be addressed on a future goal. It is crucial to remember to praise staff for any and all growth, because just like our children, adults need to be recognized and appreciated in order to help them remain motivated.
What happens during a CLASS® observation?
CLASS® assessors come out to your centers, just like with ECERS. Assessors observe in 4 cycles of approximately 20 minutes, write notes, and score each cycle using the entire rubric. What our teachers appreciated is that they have “breathing room” in between the cycles to de-pressurize and take a breath before the next cycle begins. My teachers stated they felt more relaxed than during other observations because they have a moment to “breathe” when the assessors leave them for the moment. In half-day observations, teachers feel nervous and self-conscious of every movement or misstep. Our staff has said that this feels like a pressure valve where some of the steam is released and allows them to prepare themselves mentally for the next 20 minutes.
What would you tell other programs/teachers that are going to be observed?
I would tell others to know who they are as a program and know what their goals are. Be sure that what you do well is stabilized, so that you can confidently set goals for improvement. Choosing CLASS® allows you to understand your strengths and growth areas, and independent observations can provide an objective eye and confirmation of what you already know. The details of the observation help to pinpoint the exact areas needed to help determine the next goals to be set. The temporary discomfort of an hour-long observation can assure staff of how far they have come.
Did you notice areas your program was very strong in right from the beginning?
We learned our strengths through ECERS-R (interactions/positive relationships), which carried over to the CLASS® rubrics. Social-emotional practices, the foundation of every childcare program, shine through both rubrics. Classroom Organization revealed some strengths but also the same growth area through both rubrics in one portion only – student perspectives. We have seen how staff like to have children make the same types of artwork and may not allow for individual differences. We have seen how a fine line exists between staying on tasks or allowing children to take the lead in their learning.
What areas did you notice you wanted to strengthen and work on more closely, based on your assessment feedback?
Based on our feedback, we realized that the area of Instructional Support seemed to lack consistency and quality throughout all the day’s activities and learning. Generally, teachers appeared to be meeting the challenge, but the scores revealed some specific indicators which we could strengthen. Many educators think of learning as rote and repetitious but don’t really know how to take children to the next level. Generally, our Instructional Support is “good” but could be “great”! Questioning is varied and strong in my program, asking children the “whys” and “hows.” But taking children to a higher level of reasoning and critical thinking requires the stimulation of thinking, “What if… I wonder what would happen…Can you explain…” Questions like this are more easily relayed by teachers during an academic lesson, but how do those questions transfer to a meal time, or a walk down a hall, or a trip to the bathroom? This is an area in which we need to consciously challenge ourselves to grow.
What resources have you used to assist your program in learning more about this tool and the practices looked for?
We have the luxury that our local school district assesses our program annually, and this year, supported us by providing professional development in the area of Instructional Support. Our assessor provided us with additional resources related to our quest for self-improvement and growth. We reached out to Teachstone, who has developed new trainings specifically target for teachers rather than the prior route of certification. This flexibility allows those desiring training to take an entire PreK Primer or focus more specifically on an area for growth. We selected the Primer for our administration but to avoid overwhelming the teachers chose the module that focuses on Instructional Support. The PA KEY has also recently developed a training on the CLASS® rubric. Developing partnerships provides a program with a network of opportunities. Our assessor has also been helpful in providing resources as well as our STARS Quality Coach.
Do you feel this tool has been helpful for your program? In what ways do you feel your teachers have grown?
While we believed that we possessed strengths in these domains prior to our official use of CLASS®, we were intrigued to learn how much more we could deepen our quality in these same areas. Feedback from our assessors, School District partners, and self-assessment confirmed some strengths. However, the rubric and feedback showed us that we could improve in consistency across activities and defined areas for personal and professional growth for each pair of teachers. Recently, our teachers have completed taking self-paced training through Teachstone designed for PreK teachers to provide more knowledge and promote self-reflection for growth.
Do you recommend that other programs use the CLASS® instrument in their classrooms?
I would highly recommend the use of CLASS®, especially for programs who have stabilized in creating a developmentally appropriate environment. Focusing more intensely and purposely on the interactions and instructional part of the program will enhance the best use of time in learning by emphasizing emotional security and promoting more child-focused and intentional instruction.
This article was submitted for inclusion in the “Let’s Talk About Quality” Blog. Paula Schroeder is not employed by the Pennsylvania Key and the opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily represent the Pennsylvania Key.