Teachers make the difference in overall school excellence. And, professional development is a distinguishing factor in the effectiveness of teachers. At Wilson, we put a great deal of attention and resources behind supporting exceptional teachers in a culture of growth. Our Head of School, Thad Falkner, believes Wilson is fulfilling its vision and stands out from other schools in this space. He encouraged us to talk with Andrea Ruth, Assistant Head of School, who is an expert on the specific growth-oriented activities contributing to why Wilson teachers can’t stop learning.
Hi, Andrea, thank you for taking the time to share a about your role and your work with the teachers.
Andrea: Thanks! I'm very happy to share about being Wilson’s Assistant Head of School. I do a lot of work with teachers on professional development, curriculum and planning, faculty meetings, teacher observations and evaluations, teacher goal setting, and more.
Q: That’s quite an encompassing job. What drew you to this role, and how long have you been with The Wilson School?
A: This is my 19th year in education and my 16th year at Wilson. I started out teaching 4th grade before coming to Wilson and partnering with Mara Goldschmidt in 3rd grade. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher and to work with younger children. I have my bachelor's in elementary education and my master's in teaching. Really, it was while I was teaching 3rd grade, as well as working as the faculty coordinator that I started to figure out how much I loved educational administration. I love working with the teachers, observing, and seeing what they're doing and how they're solving problems. One of the things I enjoy most is coordinating professional development.
Q: In your experience, how does the leadership encourage and enable teachers to explore new technologies, techniques, and teaching methods?
A: In my opinion, this is something we do very, very well at Wilson. It's truly a part of our culture. Our focus on continued learning and growth here at Wilson, both with teachers and our students, is an attribute that makes us exceptional.
The concept of sending teachers to conferences for professional development is one part, and one many schools do. At Wilson, though, we put the financial resources behind our commitment to make that happen consistently, and that's another meaningful piece of our culture. We put two to three times the amount into our professional development that other schools do. We're incredibly intentional about how we position our teachers for success and are fortunate to have The Excellence Program at Wilson. Not only is the money available for teachers to utilize, but the autonomy our teachers have in the curriculum to improve what they do and the overall experience for the kids is beyond measure.
At Wilson, we change and adapt as we need without the overarching hierarchy that slows progress down. We make things happen when they need to happen and do so in an environment that fosters creativity, innovation, and autonomy. That goes for not only our teachers, buy more importantly, for our students.
Q: What are ways you've seen Wilson School teachers go above and beyond to further their own expertise in their own areas?
A: Saying yes to so many conferences and workshops for our teachers means we can hear what they bring back from those experiences. Wilson teachers ask to attend different events because they know they're supported. These opportunities include observing teachers at other schools to see best practices they implement, attending conferences and workshops with their peers, and so much more. I think people would be surprised to know a lot of our teachers even take their own personal time to make these events happen, because they believe in them that much.
We've had several teachers attend Forest Park Forever’s Voyage of Learning Teachers’ Academy during the summer to continue developing their skills. Forest Park is an amazing resource in Wilson’s backyard, and we make use of the outdoor learning opportunities it offers. Or, with Level Up Village, our kids connect with students in another country and learn about the water crisis, conservation, creating aquifers, and more. The teacher training for this happened over winter break, where Wilson teachers used their own time to plan and coordinate it because they really believe in what they're teaching. They really want their students to have an extraordinary experience.
Q: When the teachers are going through their curriculum, how are they themselves learning in or through the process?
A: First, I think a big way they learn is through the kids asking questions and exploring. Our teachers go back and research, incorporating these questions into what they teach so they can help their students learn more, faster.
Secondly, they work with colleagues during plan times and outside of the work day. Through all of this, their own curriculum is made better. They're always improving already great things but are never satisfied. I love seeing how our faculty strives for continued improvement.
Q: What kind of hobbies do Wilson teachers pursue outside the classroom? How do they incorporate those interests and passions into what they teach?
A: A great example is Mara, one of our 3rd grade teachers. She's passionate about the environment. Because she believes so strongly in responsibility and advocacy, she incorporates this into her classroom at different points.
Melika, our Director of Educational Technology and Innovation, has turned her love of tinkering, inventing, and technology into Wilson Think Camp. This is a camp held the first two weeks of the summer for students from all across the area to attend. This came out of her looking at makerspaces and innovative organizations and wanting something more for our students here at Wilson.
Q: Do Wilson teachers continue their formal education?
A: We have a great mix of teachers furthering their education through different resources. Some are taking one-off classes, online courses, workshops, and training as well as working toward a higher-ed degree. For example, Diane wanted to learn about choice-based art and took an online course through the Art of Education to learn more. Some of our teachers are continuing their education by pursuing advanced degrees in education. In addition to teachers furthering their education, we also have two teachers who hold doctorate degrees. Our quality mix of trained and educated faculty is one of the things that sets us apart in the St. Louis area.
Q: What kinds of professional development do the teachers engage in? How has this affected their effectiveness?
A: I think anytime you can go out and learn from other experts, speakers, and colleagues, is important. When you come back and implement it, you become more effective as a teacher, or as a leader. The expectation is for teachers to attend a national or regional conference every other year. In the in-between year, they participate in a local opportunity. Ultimately, they come back and share with colleagues what they learned.
We actually have time devoted to sharing at our faculty meetings. During Show and Tell, faculty who attended the event will give a short presentation on what they learned, new strategies they were exposed to, tools they can implement, and other ideas. If anyone at the meeting wants to learn more, they know they can go to that person for a longer, deeper conversation about it. They bring back the knowledge and experience and share it with others. The effectiveness of this person attending this one event is then multiplied throughout the faculty.
In addition to our faculty attending workshops, they also present at conferences. Laurie, our fifth and sixth grade language arts teacher, was recently published in The Missouri Reader and has presented at NCTE on the importance of accountable talk. Linda presented at a regional math conference on the importance of graphing with young children. These are just two examples of how our teachers and faculty just love learning and teaching!
Q: What is the most interesting learning experience you've seen a Wilson teacher engage in?
A: During the summer, we offer a Wilson Teacher Institute the week before returning for official meetings. This is a time for our staff to learn from outside experts and professionals. For example, in the past, we've had guests present and talk about mindfulness and social-emotional learning. One year we had the zoo come in and present on inquiry-based learning.
This past year, we invited teachers back two days before the regular meetings. This was optional for them to attend, but we had 95% show up for two days! They spent the time collaborating and developing new units around integrated learning. Some teachers took existing units and developed ways to improve them. They'd meet with the different content area teachers and explore ways to integrate subjects and topics throughout the classes and grade levels. They spent time developing and refining the units in very real and tangible ways. These teachers were completely immersed in discussion, and at the end of the two-day session, more than 30 units were shared! When they started the school year, they had high-quality, valuable units they were able to implement and teach right away.
Thanks so much Andrea. Wilson teachers clearly are devoted to being the best educators they can possibly be.
Andrea: They certainly are dedicated to doing the best they can for students. Our teachers can’t stop learning; it’s infectious and makes Wilson’s culture of growth unique.
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