Trip to China an ‘eye-opening’ experience for school officials
Jeremy Nash
Staff from Loudon and Knox county schools recently made a trip back to Shanghai, China, for the second year in a row as part of an effort to reinforce the teachings that were learned from the last trip.

Last year, principals from Philadelphia Elementary, Eaton Elementary and Fort Loudoun Middle schools traveled to learn from educators at East China Normal University’s Institute of Schooling Reform and Development, which serves as a national research center on K-12 education effectiveness. The trip was funded by a $700,000 TN LEAD grant from the Tennessee Department of Education.

This time around Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development made the trip possible in part due to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Loudon County Schools Elementary Supervisor Jennifer Malone, three principals, four assistant principals and one lead teacher made the trek to the institute, with a goal to eventually adopt the Teacher Peer Excellence Groups model district wide. The model lets teachers observe others in the classroom and then discuss the positives and negatives on their lesson plans in a workshop.

“That is our goal, yes,” Malone said. “I don’t know that we’ll get there but because it’s a pilot. We’re the first district-wide group to do this in the state of Tennessee. So we’re the pilot group, but that is the goal. ... Now when we say whole school that still doesn’t mean every single teacher, but it means the majority, particularly the majority of core subject areas.”

During their trip, which took place Nov. 1-8, school officials visited six schools from the Minhang District to observe the model in action.

“We got the lesson even though we couldn’t speak the language,” Malone said of one class period. “It was so good because the visuals were so good, and it was structured and the activities were so hands-on that even though we didn’t speak Chinese, we got exactly what he was trying to teach.”

Principals that traveled last year have since implemented the TPEG model schoolwide, and the strategy appears to be working. Test scores have improved, but Malone said it is too early to say if the positive growth is a direct result of the teaching model.

“This is a fluid sort of a process,” Malone said. “It’s not going to happen overnight; it’s not going to even happen in probably months. It’s going to take consistency over time teachers getting used to opening up their classrooms, planning together consistently, watching each other teach, giving each other suggestions.”

Philadelphia Elementary School teacher Patrick Bethel, who served as the only teacher on the trip, called his experience “eye-opening,” and while his school has since implemented the teaching model, he said he still believes the school has room for improvement.  

“We’ve done a good job of collaborating, but we have a long ways to go,” Bethel said. “They collaborate and work on each and every lesson, every single day ... together, where we, right now we’re kind of small scale. We’ll kind of collaborate and work on throughout this TPEG process, you know, one lesson per month or something, where they do it daily. So, and it’s just a process, the different mindset and the culture versus here and what they’ve grown up doing.”

Highland Park Elementary School assistant principal Kathy Winsor said a big takeaway from the trip was the way teachers collaborate. Winsor currently has seven teachers, both in language arts and math, getting accustomed to the model before next year when plans are to get others involved.

Bethel said the TPEG method may take a while for teachers to adjust because “it’s a difference in mindset,” but the overall outcome should be beneficial, not just for Philadelphia Elementary School but for the whole district.

“You know, I mean there’s times you teach things or do things and realize that maybe that wasn’t as successful as I thought it would be, and so you go back and you change it,” Bethel said. “Well, there’s not many of those opportunities because the lessons that they have are already been used and manipulated, so you’re just continually making it stronger and more effective.”

In total, 15 participants made the trip to China, three of which were principals from Knox County Schools. Twelve members were new to the project.

“This was a logical next step because the way — we’re planning on some form of Common Core,” Winsor said. “I know that there’s some challenges and things like that, but just that whole process of teaching where it’s more of a collaboration. It’s not just teaching all skills. It’s teaching a different way of thinking.”