It’s 7:45am on a Saturday morning and Match Middle School is buzzing with young professionals all dressed in their workday best: ties, slacks and dresses – no jeans or t-shirts allowed.
This is weekly “Group of Six” practice, a core part of the curriculum at the Sposato Graduate School of Education. Every Saturday in the fall, from 8am to 5pm, Match Teacher Residents (MTRs) - candidates in their first year of Sposato’s two-year Masters in Effective Teaching (MET) program – practice classroom management and instruction in a group of their peers, all-the-while observed by eagle-eyed Match coaches who are themselves master teachers with years of classroom experience.
This is one of several aspects of Sposato’s program that makes it different from traditional graduate schools of education, where only 1 percent grades given to students are based on assignments at the heart of teaching, such as designing lesson plans and evaluating student work.
- Each student is placed in a group with five of their peers (hence group of six).
- In each session – or “round” as we call them – students take turns leading their peers through a simulated six-minute lesson. Students who aren’t teaching the lesson play pre-determined student characters: Dylan, who is disengaged; Tessia, the know-it-all; Noel, who struggles to read aloud, and so on.
- As each student delivers his or her lesson, Match coaches (1 or 2 per group) take notes and even occasionally stop people mid-lesson to offer a course correction or encourage him or her to try a specific instructional or behavior management technique again.
- At the end of the six-minute lesson, the student’s peers offer feedback – positive and room for improvement, or as we call them pluses and deltas.
- Coaches give the student specific feedback on the lesson they just delivered, along with one “big takeaway” – a single aspect of instructional practice – that he or she is to focus on next time.
- Every student participates in five rounds, including time in the “challenge room” where 15 actual Match High School students do their best to mimic potential challenges in the classroom. (Match students are paid for their time – it’s the world’s greatest part-time job.)
Most Saturdays the Group of Six begins like this: Sposato staff huddle in a classroom to talk about the key skills students should be focused on during their practice lessons (always aligned with what they learned in Tuesday/Thursday evening classes the week before); students, meanwhile, help themselves to a mountain of Dunkin’ Donuts goodies and quietly rehearse their lessons before the rounds begin.
Skills to practice are varied, but this week the focus for students studying to be English Language Arts/History teachers is effectively cold-calling students, giving feedback on student answers (particularly when the answers aren’t correct) and teaching a close-reading lesson (in this case, the Gettysburg Address).
During the rounds, some students, fly through their lessons – easily getting their “students” to talk through the diction, tone and syntax of Lincoln’s flawless prose. Others get tripped up, either by student behavior or a lack of faculty with the material.
“Big Takeaways” are specific to each student: Carrick, an impossibly tall guy with a bushy red beard, was advised to have his students spend less time on simple tasks. Dakota, who has a tough-love teaching style, was asked to better frame her lesson so that students might better understand her expectations.
Sposato candidates go through these Group of Six exercises every weekend from October through January. It all culminates in mid-January at “The Gateway,” a set of teaching simulations in which candidates must demonstrate competence in basic classroom management and instructional skills. Either they pass, and move on to the second half of their first year in the program; or they don’t. About two-thirds of Sposato students make it past the Gateway assessment.
Teaching is hard, but we know it’s a skill that can be learned – with enough practice and specific, actionable feedback.