By Madelynn Coldiron
In his first year as superintendent of Bowling Green Independent Schools nine years ago, Joe Tinius was struck by a comment from a veteran teacher as they visited a school.
“As we left, she said, ‘I have been a teacher in this district for 20 years and it’s the first time I’ve ever been in another school in our district during the school day,’” he related. “She said, ‘I’ve learned so much already that will help me when I go back to my classroom.’”
PHOTO: Bowling Green Junior High teacher Joy Luna and itinerant orchestra teacher Patrick O’Rourke observe from the back of the classroom as Kijana Winters answers a question in Anne Padilla’s AP Prep/English IV class at Bowling Green High School, while Daouda Kamara, next to Winters, listens.
Five years later, the comment that had made such an impression on Tinius bumped up against a state cut in professional development funding and prompted the launching of Learning from One Another, a program that allows teachers time to visit classrooms in other schools in the district.
During the course of a school year, one school at a time, half the district’s certified staff get to spend a day at other Bowling Green schools, observing their peers in action. Elementary school teachers visit one or two other elementaries for half a day, and then go to the junior high or high school for the other half. Junior high teachers visit both an elementary school and the high school; high school teachers observe at an elementary and the junior high. A small group of high and junior high teachers also visit the district’s alternative school.
Tinius said the idea is to provide teachers with an opportunity to grow professionally but without the expense of having them travel to training, or of having a speaker come in.
“We thought we have a lot of good things going on in our schools. We don’t always get that information out to everybody across the district and you need to see it, and know it’s happening,” he said.
School board Chairman Michael Bishop compared the situation before this program to living in a community without having visited its major attractions – such as being in Bowling Green without having been to Mammoth Cave National Park.
“And I think that’s sometimes what happens in your school district,” he said. “There’s lots of great things going on right under your nose that you may not have the opportunity to see unless you have programs like this.”
The school board provides funding for the needed substitute teachers, which Tinius said is still a savings over what the district would pay for other types of training.
Tinius and Bishop both cited the program’s potential for improving the transition from elementary to junior high and from junior high to high school.
Bowling Green High School Principal Gary Fields said high school teachers accustomed to advanced content and advanced students are excited about visiting a kindergarten classroom, for example, “to see kind of how it starts from the beginning.” For the elementary and junior high teachers visiting his school, it’s also an opportunity to check in on the students they once taught, he said.
It also opens up communication lines among teachers at all levels, and because of those ongoing relationships that develop, Tinius said, “the professional development continues long after that day they go visit.”
The superintendent said feedback from certified staff “is that it’s one of the best days of professional development that they’ve had.” He said that’s in part because it is specific to the district, and teachers don’t have to figure out how a skill learned elsewhere will work with Bowling Green students.
Bowling Green Junior High School sixth-grade teacher Joy Luna recently visited a third-grade classroom at McNeill Elementary in the morning and then spent the afternoon at the high school.
“Its’ a good way to pick up on each other’s strengths and then implement those – borrowing from one another is a really good outcome of this,” she said.
Luna, who teaches English and on-demand writing, said the district is demographically diverse, and its schools reflect that. Visiting different schools gives teachers a better understanding of the needs of all types of students, she said.
“I feel it makes me more connected with their future. And it also helps me envision my kids in the past and understand,” Luna said. “Going to our lower-achieving elementary schools gives you compassion for how the kids come to us.”
Anne Padilla, whose AP prep-English IV class Luna was observing at the high school, said she doesn’t mind having another teacher sitting in on her lessons. “I’m not putting on a dog and pony show. We’re just doing what we’re doing,” said Padilla, a 30-year veteran.
What teachers learn doesn’t always have to be purely academic. Itinerant orchestra teacher Patrick O’Rourke said while he picked up some strategies for dealing with younger students in his visit to O’Neill Elementary, the best idea he got was from a music teacher who was using a smartphone app “that can make my life a lot simpler” as he travels from school to school.