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Relearning the Language

In West Texas, NTC spreads fluency in instructional coaching, and reconnects teachers to the challenges facing English-language learners

In 2016, Nadia Tellez was the elementary English Language Arts Coordinator of the Clint ISD, near El Paso, Texas. Among the “Other Duties as Assigned” at the bottom of her contract was coordinating the training of new teachers.

Nadia quickly discovered that Clint’s summer training programs “weren’t cutting it.” The proof of that was plain. The district’s teacher retention rate was only 67 percent, and a faulty cycle was in place: new teachers came in each year to replace those who had departed; these new hires didn’t receive sufficient training; and many soon left. More new teachers were hired. Repeat cycle.

Poking around online for a better way forward, Nadia found an intriguing piece of promotional literature for a training program. After identifying its source, New Teacher Center, she discovered that NTC had an upcoming symposium scheduled. On a whim, she attended it.

“At first, I was completely confused,” she says. “It was something completely different.” But different, she quickly recognized, was exactly what Clint needed.  Nadia “fell in love” with the programs and tools she learned about at the symposium. She was so head over heels that when she got back to Clint, instead of going home, she went straight to the office and proposed that the district start working with NTC as soon as possible.

Relearning the Language
clint ISD

clint ISD

James Littlejohn, Clint’s District Assistant Superintendent of secondary curriculum and instruction, was quick to respond to the substance behind Nadia’s sudden passion. A former classroom teacher himself, James has been a fixture in the system for nearly 30 years, and his lineage in Clint ISD goes back to his grandmother, who was a teacher and counselor in the district for over 40 years (“the family business,” he jokes). He had the experience to recognize the quality of NTC’s model and approach.

“The conventional thinking is that because you have a degree and you have a certification from the state, you’re ready to walk into a classroom and teach,” he said. “What New Teacher Center has done for us is opened our eyes to a holistic approach to coaching a teacher through their first couple of years of the profession and letting them be comfortable in trying things, and then reflecting on it and using the cycle of tools, so that at the end of the school year they’ve truly had support all along.”

– James Littlejohn

The district quickly adopted NTC’s program content. In 2017, Clint successfully applied for a Texas District of Innovation waiver, which gave them the flexibility to add new NTC programs to those already in place. In addition to new teacher induction support, Clint needed coaching for established teachers transitioning to new curricular content and/or grade levels. The challenges of shifting teaching focus called for strong support. By empowering teachers through coaching dedicated to supporting them in their new roles, the likelihood of them staying in the profession grew.

To increase and intensify coaching on its campuses, James and Nadia recognized that the district as a whole needed to work toward alignment and emphasis on the role of coaches generally. Nadia notes that coaches had always been “a great intermediary between teachers and administration” with urgent administrative tasks frequently falling to them to do and pushing coaching work to the back burner. Nadia organized a session with school leaders and had them “percentage out what they thought their coaches did, versus what they actually did,” she said. “And it was eye-opening to the principals to really see: ’Here I am calling this person a coach, but they don’t get to coach as often as they should.’”

"'Good enough' won't do it. We were failing our kids.."

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Now understanding that gap, James and Nadia recognized that the way to center coaching in the school culture was not by preaching its importance to school leaders. “It wasn’t that they didn’t value coaching,” Nadia said. “It was that they didn’t quite understand it.” Instead, they took a bold step. Together, they created a professional learning session in which Clint’s coaches trained Clint’s administrators and leaders in the tools of coaching: they made coaches of all their educators.

The effect was transformational. Coaching was no longer an auxiliary practice pushed aside when more urgent needs arose. Nor was it a siloed approach, distinct from the daily life of Clint’s campuses. Instead, coaching was integrated into the district’s very way of thinking and doing, absolutely central — indeed urgent — to the educational ecosystem.

Clint ISD kids playing on school yard property
clint ISD

clint ISD

“We’re a heavy coaching district,” James said. “NTC has been a big part of that, because as our administrators have learned the tools to work with our teachers, I’ve also heard them using the tools with custodians, instructional aides, even cafeteria staff. When you get in a coaching mode and you get comfortable with it, you do it all the time. I do it with my own family.”

With that new mindset developing as the year progressed, NTC and Clint collaborated on research into student achievement gaps. The data showed a strong correlation with English language learning. Clint is 90 percent Latinx, with “probably 97 percent bilingual English-language learners at some point in their educational careers,” James estimated. Yet years of workarounds had seemed to make many educators less able to connect ELL to in-class learning challenges. And they were perhaps too close to perceive it in another way, as well: Many of Clint’s teachers are, like their students, native Spanish speakers who acquired English in their youth. “So maybe you start to project that,” Nadia said, and, as a consequence, to distance yourself from it.

Nadia took advantage of one of NTC’s professional learning series devoted to language acquisition to address the issue. Participants were able to “start looking through the lens of English-language learners and then talk about implicit bias,” she said “Even if we grew up in the area, even if we all have the same culture and heritage, what’s the implicit bias that may be there? And those were conversations that I don’t ever think that we had had before.”

Meanwhile, as the district shifted from bilingual education to a dual-language model, NTC helped complement Clint’s training for educators to make sure knew the difference between those two approaches.

The key result was that the critical issue of language acquisition became personal for many more teachers, just as the importance of coaching had become personal for Clint’s administrators and leaders. Between those two professional learning series, Clint saw a profound strengthening of its overall educational culture.

Clint ISD teachers and leaders working together.
Clint ISD

Clint ISD

Perhaps the strongest evidence of that is in the data itself. Three years after starting NTC programs, Clint’s teacher retention rate jumped from 67 to 92 percent. Post-pandemic numbers may influence that increase —  many teachers retired in response to the shutdown in Texas and nationwide — but James sees more improvement on the horizon, even in a district that faces steep challenges every day.

“We have students that don’t have electricity at home, that don’t have running water and come to school to shower. We serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner; all kids in our district eat free, and we prepackage a dinner to go home on the weekend. We had families tell us during the pandemic that they could not have made ends meet if we weren’t providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We have to provide those resources for our kids here.”

And resources for their grownups, as well. Clint has no public library; the local schools are the community libraries, with public hours set aside after school. The district’s campuses also double as clean water facilities for citizens without access at home.

Clint ISD serves more than its students. It’s a civic pillar, and James feels the weight of that responsibility. Yet he’s driven by his dedication, and NTC’s programs are helping him keep moving forward while supporting everyone who depends on the ecosystem his schools maintain.

“We carry the needs of our community in our pocket all the time,” he says. “Do I think we have bias? Sure, whether it’s a bias about poverty or second language learners, or even boys versus girls. But I think effective coaching and the tools that we have from NTC to share with teachers, to give teachers that ability to change their lens and then adjust what they’re doing for all populations — that’s our duty as educators, regardless of what we deal with in our district. It’s very important that we coach our teachers to be able to take the kids they have and move them along as far as they can.”