The Randolph College Nursery School recently became the fourth program in Virginia to earn a top rating (5 stars) from the Virginia Star Quality Initiative, which is a pretty big accomplishment in itself. But in addition to being named a 5-star program, the nursery school also received a perfect score in the teacher-child interactions area of the evaluation—CLASS. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Holly Layne, the director of the program, to learn more about her, her awesome teachers, and how they did what they did.
The article said that it’s extremely difficult to earn a perfect score in the interactions area of the assessment (CLASS) (which you did!). I know a lot of our contacts have asked us if this is even possible. How did you do it?
First, I have an outstanding group of people working with me who are dedicated to improving and being the best they can be.
I was introduced to CLASS about 8 years ago when Virginia first adopted the tool in their rating system and chose to become one of the raters. People thought I might be crazy adding this on top of my full-time job, but I had a really supportive administrator who helped me find the time to get trained. I wanted to be at the forefront of everything. After my first training, I was just so taken with the CLASS tool. I think that helped with our program’s adoption. I knew about the tool and believed in it.
Because CLASS is part of the Virginia QRIS, as a program we had no choice but to adopt it, which can be hard. But we knew we needed to do it. One of the things I really value and I think makes this program great is the relationships between our teachers and administrators and our working environment. I sat down with our staff and talked to them about teacher-child interactions—why they are important, why were were focusing on them, and also acknowledged that it wouldn’t be easy. We went into it with a plan and goals but also a recognition that there might be some aspects we wouldn’t master, but we would do the absolute best we could.
After our second review, we had bumped up our scores, but we didn’t get a higher star rating. I really wanted to be a model program. Especially because we are on a college campus and I knew that in order to do this, we really needed to focus on CLASS.
I got everyone in the program a Dimensions Guide and we started working. We would focus on a dimension at a time and talk about it as a group. Each teacher wrote a goal for herself and implement it in the classroom. I would go and see how they were doing. Then we would meet again and talk through what worked and what didn’t and set new goals.
Emotional Support was almost easy for us, as it is for many early childhood programs, but we saw ways to improve, for example, Classroom Organization and Productivity. What transitions could we eliminate? One teacher suggested putting a “fidget basket” by the sink so kids waiting in line had something to do while they were waiting. Another teacher put up posters with songs on the wall so the kids would sing while waiting.
Instructional Support is hard. It’s really hard. We would work on a dimension at a time for several weeks. I would post reminders in each classroom about open-ended question starters—things that would help teachers remember. One of our teachers was so worried about her feedback. “I’m just so used to saying good job!”—and that’s okay, just follow up with something they can build on afterwards.
We also worked with Teachstone piloting some of the new online courses like Instructional Support Strategies. Teachstone videoed some of our teachers and we found that this was a really helpful tool when focusing on areas to improve. It’s hard to watch yourself on video and you notice things you wouldn’t otherwise notice. For example, I was talking to a teacher after a video session and asked her how many open-ended questions she thought she asked. She thought she had asked a lot, but when we replayed the video, she hadn’t actually asked any. It was great to have something to respond to and something tangible for the teacher to work with.
A lot of our focus in the program is creating a really comfortable, supportive, and healthy environment not only for the children, but for the adults. We focused on our improvements as a group. The teachers had a lot of say on what they wanted to work on and areas they wanted to focus. That helped. We worked on an area until the teachers felt comfortable before moving on.
A lot of early childhood programs deal with turnover. How do you bring new staff in and maintain your progress and that supportive environment you’ve created?
In general, our group has fun together. I also spend a whole lot of time in the classroom—not just observing, but also interacting and modeling. And our staff helps each other. Some of our teachers who have scored well mentor their co-teachers. It works because they also believe in what we’re trying to accomplish and feel good about it. It’s important that I’m there to support them too. I’m very hands on. One of our new teachers wanted to observe another teacher in action so she could see how the interactions work in practice, so I worked to find a substitute for her so she could take that time.
One of the concerns we have heard is that some teachers can feel like CLASS is being “done” to them and it’s just another way for people to check up on them. Do you have any thoughts that might be helpful on this topic?
If you think teaching preschool is easy, then you’re doing it wrong! You might not have learned how to do everything in school. I even look back on some of the things I did when I started teaching and I’m mortified. But look at the fact you’re still here. If you have made one improvement in your classroom, you’ve made that many kids lives that much better. Ask for help, it’s ok. The fact that you’re here and still trying is huge.
CLASS isn’t (and shouldn’t be) punitive. It is something that you need to practice though. Let’s stop with the buts and think, “Okay, but what can I do?” Our program has been doing this for years. It’s not going to happen overnight.
So, now that you have 5 stars and awesome CLASS scores, what’s next?
Oh my gosh, we have so many things we’re working on. We just added a new preschool classroom and are shaking it up. We’re implementing a nature classroom and are taking advantage of the great campus we’re on. There’s a lot of overlap with CLASS and when the kids are outside, Instructional Support kind of naturally happens. I want teachers and children to be able to look at things from many different angles and reflect on what they did, what they learned. We’re not done!
We’re looking at different curriculums that work best for us. I think the curriculum is like the skeleton of what we do and CLASS is the muscle—how you implement the curriculum. You can’t really do much with just the skeleton. CLASS is kind of like a guide, a how-to for teachers. It makes you more of an effective teacher in the classroom with CLASS.
I think it’s really important to understand your role as a teacher. You’re a facilitator and CLASS is kind of your facilitation guide. How can you help kids get the most out of what you’re doing in the classroom?
Any other thoughts to share?
With CLASS, I’m more effective and happier in the classroom and my life is easier. For example, if you could reduce the number of behavioral issues in the classroom, wouldn’t you enjoy the interactions more?
It’s important for people to understand that teaching—and teaching well—is not easy, but using CLASS is so worth the investment. Take the time to do it. It’s more gratifying for the teachers, the kids, the parents. It’s worth the effort.
There’s nothing magic about it. It’s about doing what’s best for the kids.
At Teachstone, we talk to a lot of educators. From coast to coast and around the globe, there’s a common thread that unites them: wanting to be better for their students.
Even when things are tough in education, even in years made even more challenging by the pandemic and its effects on teaching and learning, educators are striving to be their best. That dedication to equitable, ongoing development is what inspires Teachstone’s work. To reach the day when all children are afforded excellent education and care, it’s going to take a systematic, data-driven approach, and we are enthusiastic partners in getting there.
Shared physical presence is a large part of how we’re used to connecting with each other. Strong connections and relationships are important for children who may have recently experienced loss, high stress, or trauma. As teachers connect with children in a virtual setting, it can be more challenging to think about how to create a safe space for learning, sharing experiences, and taking risks.
There’s no sugar coating it - the 2020-21 school year was tough. Teachers, schools, and child care workers shouldered a massive burden, taking work that was already challenging and turning the difficulty up to 11. Well, maybe 12 or 13. Or 15. Who’s counting?
So, as you, educators, prepare for the upcoming school year, Teachstone wanted to recognize all the creativity, flexibility, and impact that teachers have demonstrated. We brought together Teachstone’s Kristin Valdes, Senior Instructional Designer, and Colleen Schmit, CDA Facilitator, in a recent webinar to celebrate the great and important work of teachers and to explore how the smallest moments make big impacts.
Here’s what our hosts shared with and heard from participants.