Teach the teachers well

Gwen Bass thinks there’s a natural link between the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools and the Master’s in Teacher Leadership program at Mount Holyoke College.

By A.C. Shilton

The benefits of an all-girl education — including higher academic achievement, increases in confidence and improved leadership skills — have been repeatedly demonstrated around the world.

But every girls’ school is different, and every teacher within each school has their own best practices and lessons learned. Natalie Demers, the director of research initiatives and programs at the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, wondered what might happen if she got the best and the brightest of these teachers together to share their knowledge. 

Demers wanted to build a program where teachers could sharpen their skills through in-classroom research projects and then share their outcomes with other instructors from around the globe. But she needed a place to convene. 

That’s when she thought of Mount Holyoke College.

“Being a [gender-diverse] women’s college and having the Master’s in Teacher Leadership program, it was just a natural fit,” said Demers. She pitched her idea to Gwen Bass, director of the Master of Arts in Teaching, Teacher Leadership of the Professional and Graduate Education program. “The more Gwen and I talked, the more we both got so excited about the potential for partnership,” she added.

Inviting the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools to collaborate on this project was an easy yes on her end too, Bass said. “The work that NCGS is doing to develop a bank of teacher-driven best practices and to empower teachers to see themselves as researchers and leaders in the field aligns perfectly with our mission. There’s also a natural fit between a women’s college and NCGS.”

As a result, Mount Holyoke is partnering in the first-ever Global Action Research Collaborative on Girls’ Education, which kicks off in 2020. The goals of the program are to further the education of extraordinary teachers and share knowledge between institutions.

Selected applicants will spend the first six months of the 18-month program participating in online training in “action research” — research that takes place directly in the learning environment. This coursework uses the existing framework of the Mount Holyoke Teacher Leadership Program, said Bass.

From there, the students will embark on their own action-research projects in their home schools:  They’ll identify a hypothesis and form a method for testing it in their lesson plans. The benefit of action research is that teachers get real-time feedback on whether the teaching methodology or activity worked. It’s an extremely efficient way to test, adjust and retest to find the winning method.

Bass’ understanding and appreciation of action research was one more reason Demers was excited to partner with Mount Holyoke. The Masters of Arts in Teaching and Teacher Leadership is led by educators who are academics—not academics who haven’t been in a classroom in recently. “They get the practitioner’s perspective,” Demers says of Bass and the entire Masters of Arts in Teaching team.

Teachers accepted into this new program will spend the last six months writing up their research. They will present their projects at the Global Forum on Girls’ Education in 2021. Bass and Demers would like to see many of them featured in academic journals. 

They also plan this collaboration will result in a growing database of best practices for educators in classrooms around the globe. “There are amazing all-girls’ schools around the world. Now those teachers can actually pass around information instead of anecdotally sharing it when their paths happen to cross,” said Demers.

The first step is sifting through the robust and diverse set of applications. “We got 38 applicants from 22 schools in seven countries. It was tremendous,” Demers said, especially considering this is just the pilot program. 

Next year, applications will be open to all schools in the National Coalition of Girls’ School network. Mount Holyoke’s involvement in the project is an essential reason for the deep applicant pool, Demers said.

“The academic rigor, excellent reputation and relevant experience in action research with practicing educators makes Mount Holyoke College a natural fit and a strong component of what we believe will make this program successful.”