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ASU-developed team-teaching model a hit at Valley schools

December 6, 2022

Next Education Workforce initiative creates collaborative teaching effort

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

Kirtland Kack stands at the front of the room, microphone in hand.

The Mesa Westwood High School ninth grade world history teacher is asking his class to be quiet and pay attention.

It’s not an easy task, given there are 135 kids in the room.

But he has help.

A science teacher sees that six kids at one table have strategically placed a backpack on the table in order to prop up — and hide — a cellphone showing a World Cup soccer game. He tells them to put the phone away.

Math and English teachers — stationed at opposite sides of the room — ask for quiet and get it.

“Do I have everyone’s attention?” Kack asks.

He does.

At the back of the room, watching, is Thad Gates, Title IX coordinator at Florence Unified School District. Gates, along with educators from Fountain Hills, Arizona, Washington D.C., Kansas City and even as far as South Africa, are observing the team-teaching model employed by Westwood for its 900 freshmen students to see if it will be a good fit for their school systems.

“I can see why this would be good for teachers,” Gates says. “The burnout, the feeling of being alone in a class, isn’t there. We’re intrigued by it, and we’ll probably have some deeper conversations after our visits to see if we can start the planning for our district.”

Westwood is one of 50 schools across 10 school systems that have put into practice the team-teaching approach, which was born out of conversations school officials had five years ago with leaders from Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Dean Carole Basile and a team of faculty and staff at the Teachers College developed the design principles of the approach, which acknowledges — and addresses — realities in the teaching profession.

A 2019 study by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy revealed that 13.8% of high school teachers are either leaving their school or leaving teaching altogether. While enrollment in ASU’s teacher-preparation programs has increased since 2016, the national trend is one of decreasing enrollment. According to a Learning Policy Institute Report, teacher education enrollment has dropped 35% in recent years. Additionally in Arizona, 35,000 people who are certified to teach have opted not to do so.

“We have manufactured a system that creates crisis on a daily basis,” said Brent Maddin, executive director of the Next Education Workforce initiative at the Teachers College, which works with schools to redesign staffing and instruction. “Preparing a teacher is really hard work. And if they’re peeling out of the profession after a year or two, this is bad for kids, this is bad for educators, this is bad for our democracy. What we’re doing is totally a retention play.”

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Brent Maddin joins around 35 other tour administrators and educators in listening to Mesa's Westwood High School assistant principals and student ambassadors during a Nov. 29 presentation of the team-teaching model the school has implemented. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

How does the team-teaching model work?

Teachers are no longer on an island, in a single classroom, solely responsible for preparing curriculum, teaching, grading, discipline, planning, etc.

At Westwood, for example, a team teaching more than 130 ninth graders includes an English teacher, agriculture teacher, career exploration teacher, instructional specialist and math teacher. The school, part of Mesa Public Schools, also employs student teachers from the Teachers College.

Kyrene de las Manitas Elementary School in Tempe employs four “learning studios” for students from kindergarten through sixth grade. Each studio includes a lead teacher known as the Teacher Executive Designer, two team teachers and two to three paid student teachers.

“The more eyes we have on these kiddos, the more successful they’re going to be,” said Vatricia Harris, assistant principal at Westwood.

Early data bears that assumption out.

Westwood Assistant Principal Katie Gardner said that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 70% of freshmen were earning the credits needed to stay on course for graduation. In fall 2021, the first semester Westwood used the team-teaching model, 84% were on course. In addition, 93% of the freshmen passed Algebra 1.

Sarah Collins, principal at Kyrene de las Manitas, said that in a survey taken last year, 91% of students felt they had someone they could go to with a problem, 96% of staff expressed satisfaction with their jobs and 90% of families were happy with the school’s teaching approach.

“We know the success of these scores has a lot to do with our model,” Collins said.

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Assistant principals Katie Gardener (left) and Vatricia Harris speak to a tour group of 35 educators and administrators at Westwood High School in Mesa on Nov. 29. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Earlier this year, the Institute for Education Policy surveyed more than 3,000 teachers in Mesa Public Schools, which is the Next Education Workforce initiative’s largest district partner. Seventy-five percent of the teachers in the team-teaching model said they were somewhat or extremely satisfied with their teaching job, compared to 66% of traditional classroom teachers in the district.

But numbers don’t tell the true story of, as Maddin put it, the “retention play.”

Voices do.

Team teachers at Westwood and Kyrene de las Manitas said one of the main benefits of the model is its collaborative nature. At Westwood, for example, the teaching teams meet for two hours each morning to discuss the day’s assignments and create a personalized program for every student.

“We just have more of an opportunity to discuss what students need and then provide that to them,” said Westwood ninth grade teacher Adam Tellez-Difusco.

Just as important is the give-and-take between teachers. They can exchange ideas about how to present the day’s material and, when needed, suggest a different approach when a teacher is struggling to implement a concept or is having trouble connecting with an individual student.

Those discussions are supposed to exist in the traditional model, Maddin said, but teachers rarely have time to engage their peers because they’re too busy taking care of everything they need to do for their own class.

“It can be very challenging when you’re struggling with a student and you’re not sure if you’re doing something wrong,” Tellez-Difusco said. “You can send an email to another teacher, but you’re so disconnected there’s no opportunity to dig in.

“But with the four of us sharing a class, one of us can say, ‘I’ve been doing this with this student, and it’s been working pretty well. Maybe you can implement that.’ Working together makes it way easier to give students what they need.”

Added Kack: “There’s still going to be stress in the job, for sure, but there’s less stress because I have someone to bounce ideas off of, to ask, ‘Is this really the right direction? Do you think maybe I’m wasting the kids’ time with this?’ It’s not all on me.”

Kack said the team-teaching model also benefits students when it comes to teacher-student interactions.

“We have 130 students right now and I’d say there’s probably about 30 I have difficulty connecting with,” he said. “That’s going to be expected. But those 30 have other team members they can connect with, and that allows me to communicate through them instead of always running into that brick wall with a student. I can go through the other teachers and figure out what they need. That’s been amazing.”

During class time, the teachers rotate between one-on-one interactions, group instruction and whatever was discussed in the planning meeting in the morning.

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Westwood High School students work on their website projects on Nov. 29 in Mesa, Arizona. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

The varied expertise of the teachers allows for cross-curriculum training, which aids students as they progress through their academic career because it parallels the interdisciplinary nature of a college education.

“It’s de-siloed that it’s not just biology content, but it’s biology, math and English language arts applied in the context of an authentic problem that the kids find interesting,” Maddin said. “They can use all three subjects to solve a problem.”

Said Harris: “There’s more research and diving in instead of kids just Googling an answer.”

Kyrene de las Manitas fifth grade teacher Kevin Anway taught by himself for more than 20 years and was skeptical when the school asked him to lead one of its learning studios. But he’s bought into the concept.

“I loved having my own classroom and felt really in control. This is out of my comfort zone,” Anway said. “But having six people in a learning studio, saying, ‘We need to change it up,’ or ‘We should be doing this,’ is the coolest part for me as an educator. We get a revamp of what’s working or what’s not working. That’s something I never had before in 29 years.”

One offshoot of the program is that it reduces the need for substitute teachers. Porter said a teacher in Kyrene’s fifth and sixth grade studio recently missed two weeks with ankle surgery but the school didn’t need to hire a substitute because the other teachers in her grouping took care of the class.

“Children aren’t coming into a class with a person who doesn’t know them or doesn’t know where they are in a lesson,” Porter said. “We didn’t skip a beat with our instruction. It’s really worked out.”

Think of team teaching, Maddin said, as having dual benefits: What helps teachers become better at their jobs in turn helps kids.

“A lot of educational reform often focuses on one or maybe the other, but rarely does it actually attend to both simultaneously,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons for its success.”

Top photo: World history teacher Kirtland Kack checks his computer after giving instructions to around 135 ninth graders at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona, on Tuesday, Nov. 29. Westwood is taking part in the Next Education Workforce program, which allows teams of teachers to collaborate in working with large groups of students. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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Holiday humbug hits workforce this year

December 6, 2022

ASU business professor Hitendra Chaturvedi explains what is behind the year-end layoffs

The holiday season is upon us once again. That means gift purchases, time with family and friends, and good tidings all around.

But thousands of workers are part of a year-end trend that seems to be emerging: mass layoffs.

Major companies such as Amazon, Meta, Salesforce, Twitter, Lyft, DoorDash, CNN and, most recently, H&M, are dumping employees en masse at the harshest time possible. No sector seems to be immune, and workers, who had the upper hand during the pandemic, appear to be losing their grip.

Could this be a shift in momentum or a tilt toward recession? Hitendra Chaturvedi, a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, offered some explanation in a Q&A with ASU News.

An expert in supply chain strategy, global logistics, entrepreneurship, sustainable supply chains and digitizing supply chains, Chaturvedi said the layoffs are pointing toward a hunkering down mentality by companies expecting an economic slowdown.

He also says that we may see layoffs increasing in the first quarter of 2023 as we get over the holiday season. It is a risk mitigation strategy by companies preparing and planning for an uncertain 2023.

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Hitendra Chaturvedi

Question: We’ve been reading in the news about mass layoffs since November. They include several high-profile companies such as Amazon, Salesforce and now H&M, which just announced layoffs for 1,500 workers. This is all during the holiday season, which I would think is when they need workers the most to meet demand. Is this unprecedented?

Answer: Yes, layoffs are happening, but no, it is not unprecedented. Layoffs are not only limited to the above-listed companies, but many sectors are seeing layoffs, including banks. We are not hearing this because it’s happening without big announcements and the news has stayed under the radar. The timing of layoffs is raising questions due to the holiday season, but if you look at the scale, it is nowhere near what we call mass layoffs caused due to economic recession. If we dig deeper into the numbers, there is another interesting factoid — layoffs are selective across roles and not across the board. When we were hearing of labor shortages, it was truly a shortage at the farms, on the factory floor, in our retail outlets, etc. The hiring issue was not that acute in middle management or even senior management. Guess where the layoffs are happening? It is not on the factory floor where people are desperately needed. Hiring is in a full frenzy on the factory floor, but layoffs are happening everywhere else.

Q: In your opinion, what is causing these mass layoffs?  

A: In simple terms, it is just poor forecasting of demand. Just as if we are having a party, and we assume our friends will eat a lot, we order a lot of food. Even with RSVPs, many do not show up, and those who show up do not consume food to your expectations, and you have huge leftovers.  

Similarly, companies hired because they expected the consumer buying pattern to continue. Hiring is a lagging indicator as it takes time to hire people and train them. When companies saw indicators (increasing interest rates, global issues, cooling of the housing market) pointing toward an economic slowdown, they laid off some workforce in anticipation of a slowing economy. In the end, it is all educated guessing/forecasting. Sometimes companies win, and sometimes they lose in this guessing game. In the end, we are all humans and fallible.

Q: I’ve heard some economists say the layoffs are ultimately good for the economy because they will combat inflation. Help me to understand that answer.  

A: What these economists are saying is that if layoffs happen, it will curtail buying. As buying is reduced, demand will cool down. As demand cools down, there will be ample supply. Ample supply and cooling demand will result in reduced inflation.  

The problem with this theory is that, if we are not careful, it can cause a very serious spiral toward recession. Let me explain: As demand slows down, companies will start to produce less, and sell less. If they produce less, they will not need workers, and that will lead to more layoffs. This cycle, if left unchecked, can lead to recession, which we need to be wary of.

Q: Are we on the verge of a recession or can we avoid it, and what actions can help us avoid one?  

A: All signs are indicating a soft(er) landing next year — meaning a mild recession. The Fed just announced a possibility of a much less severe interest rate hike in December as they also anticipate a slowing down of inflation. GDP growth was at 3% this quarter, the highest in many months. If there are no major layoffs, and if we can bring inflation under control, starting with energy and grocery prices, we have this battle won and may prove to be a classic case study for future generations. There are a few wild cards though that we need to keep an eye out for — international disputes leading to the energy crisis in Europe, a slowing economy and a strong dollar that makes our exports expensive.

Q: Will these companies ultimately get back to a point where they can hire those workers back, and would they even want to come back?  

A: If we have a soft landing, then companies will come back with a vengeance to hire people, but the key is to identify where is the need. Some jobs may not be rehired, while others may stay vacant for want of workers. Millennials and Gen Z are moving toward a gig working style so companies will have to adjust to this phenomenon if they want to hire, or even rehire their best candidates. The type of loyalty that employees had in the past toward the company they worked for, is just that … a thing of the past.

Q: How does all this impact graduating ASU students? Should they be worried?  

A: Graduating students should realize they are stepping into a work environment that is in flux and they should be adept at finding their path through this flux. As faculty, we should proactively prepare these students, not only with the business basics, but also how to navigate this changing environment, and prepare them to take advantage of this “opportunity.” The onus is on us to help our students, and if we do a good job, our students should be walking into a world where they will have multiple job offers to choose from.

Top photo courtesy iStock

Reporter , ASU News