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Like most schools, teachers at New Milford High School spend time on duty at lunch, in the halls and at in-school suspension rooms.
But this year, the 55 teachers from this New Jersey school didn't have to do these duties for two or three 48-minute periods a week. And only one teacher had these duties at a time instead of two.
This simple policy change enables what's been called the 80/20 principle, a theory practiced by Google that employees who spend 20 percent of their time on company-related projects that interest them will work better.
In similar fashion, New Milford teachers now have more time to follow their work-related passions, Principal Eric Sheninger said. During these professional development periods, the teachers are coming up with interdisciplinary projects, new assessments and ways to integrate technology into their students' learning.
"We really want teachers to be innovative and creative," Sheninger said. "For us to make that possible, we need to empower them to really pursue those areas that they're motivated by."
Math teacher Kanchan Chellani spends her time researching and putting concepts into practice in the classroom. She created case studies where students apply math in the real world using computers in the lab or netbooks in class.
"Once we have a unit and I teach the content, I usually like to integrate technology and make sure the students understand the significance of the material they've been taught," Chellani said.
She finds videos on the secure social learning network Edmodo that lay the foundation for a math concept. Students watch these videos outside of class. The next day, they come to class with questions and apply what they learned by doing projects.
During her search for videos, Chellani discovered that many of them didn't cover foundational concepts. So she started creating her own using the digital content creation software Adobe Captivate. She also started evaluating the concepts she teaches and decided to move away from teaching "to the textbook."
Without this built-in time every week, Chellani said she wouldn't be able to work on these projects.
Through end-of-year conferences, Sheninger found out that other teaches had students blog in their English classes and create YouTube videos instead of traditional lab reports.
"I don't know if that stuff would have happened if this time wasn't made available," Sheninger said.
New Milford's vice principal was concerned about who would take on the out-of-classroom responsibilities in lieu of the teachers. So Sheninger and his two administrators took on the teachers' duties. A school resource officer also helps out. And the school hasn't seen an increase in behavioral incidents on campus, school officials said.
Sheninger and his administrators also free up their own time to help teachers with education technology, social media, classroom management, cooperative learning or anything else that's needed.
This focus on flexibility also entered into the realm of teacher development.
At first, the school specified the amount of video hours teachers needed to watch and reflect on through the on-demand online professional development tool PD 360. They also had teachers participate in Simple K-12's Teacher Learning Community.
But based on teacher feedback and a reassessment of goals, the administrative team gave teachers more flexibility rather than mandates.
Toward the end of the school year, teachers turned in logs that included the topics they studied and how the projects they did enhanced the teaching and learning process.
The teachers also created a portfolio of what they did. Next year, they'll be able to choose a method of putting together their portfolio that they're comfortable with, whether it's a plastic binder or a Google site. They'll keep reflection journals as well.
Just as teachers try to differentiate instruction for their students, administrators need to differentiate professional development for teachers, Sheninger said.
"The ultimate goal or reward will be that we'll start to see more innovative activities, more calculated risk taking, effective integration of technology, and students coming to class more excited and engaged to learn because their teachers are more excited and engaged," Sheninger said.
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