From Teacher to Leader: Lessons from a Competency-Based Classroom

I’ve just finished my first week of the 2015–2016 school year—which was also my first week as an assistant principal at E.L. Haynes Public Charter High School. For the past seven years I have been a high school math teacher (both at E.L. Haynes and in Boston), and prior to starting the first week of school, I had no idea what to expect. And honestly, on Monday, I felt a little lost: My week was dominated by dress code questions, parent conversations, and schedule changes. It was overwhelmingly different than welcoming 125 new students to my classroom. Although my practice wasn’t perfect when I was a classroom teacher, I was in a rhythm, and I knew exactly how I wanted to improve. I wanted to foster an environment where students felt comfortable and challenged, motivated and inspired, and most of all, where every student could access high school math.

My experience in the Education Innovation Fellowship has granted me the opportunity to travel to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago to see innovative schools that are devoting time, human capital, and energy to student learning in new ways. I joined the Fellowship when I was a teacher, and I took everything I learned back to E.L. Haynes to build upon the competency-based model I had begun establishing in my classroom.

This competency-based model came to be two years ago when a colleague and I realized that our practices were not adapting quickly enough to serve the wide range of students entering our Algebra 2 classes. We challenged ourselves to address the learning needs of every student—which ranged from 2nd to 12th grade math proficiency levels.

Our planning and teaching went through a huge transformation. We devoted time up front to planning units and classroom time working one-on-one and with small groups as facilitators and coaches. We encouraged students to move at their own pace and required them to master every standard before moving on to the next. Our results were positive: Students mastered more Algebra 2 content over the course of a year than ever before, test scores reflected that mastery, and most of all, students’ confidence grew. We had students who had never experienced success in a math classroom volunteering to participate in discussions and working alongside partners to solve problems.

Then, just when our model was off the ground, I had the amazing opportunity to move into my current full-time leadership position. I have an entirely new set of challenges to face head-on, and if week one has shown me anything, it’s that I will have to work harder than ever. But thinking about entering the second half of my Education Innovation Fellowship at the same time as I am learning my new role is inspiring.

Even though I am no longer in the classroom, I am thinking about how I can continue to bring my passion for and confidence in competency-based learning to my work. The E.L. Haynes community is committed to providing the best education to students in the city—and that ultimately, that was the aim of my classroom work.

When I left Chicago with my Education Innovation Fellowship colleagues, I was overwhelmed by the schools we saw—not just because of the teaching, technology, or even school buildings, but mostly by the engagement everywhere we went. Students not only loved coming to school, but they also loved learning. The schools had fostered such a culture of learning that staff and students had completely bought in. I am still grappling with the impact I want to have in my new role, but—inspired by Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley—some courage might just be my next step: “That combination of thought and action defines creative confidence: the ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them out.”

Emily Hueber, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
E.L. Haynes High School


One thought on “From Teacher to Leader: Lessons from a Competency-Based Classroom

  1. Thank you for sharing your story, I am also an urban educator, teaching algebra, geometry and algebra 2. We have recently adopted a competency based system. Although I am struggling, this way of facilitating learning is what will work best for my under-credited, over age students. I have spent the first few weeks getting students ready for this new way of learning, and they are really starting to get it! Most of my students have never felt successful in math, and now they are starting to understand, apply and explain algebraic concepts. No more do I hear “when are we ever gonna use this” because what we are doing is applying the concept to an actual realistic situation. It’s not teaching slope, equations, quadratic so, etc. In a vacuum, so to speak. So far my students are enjoying working at their own pace, and defending/explaining their way of solving problems. I have a long way to go, but I certainly see the benefits first hand of a competency based, standard aligned approach.


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