All 13 participating teachers discussed ways in which being a PERC teacher differed from their previous teaching or their current teaching in non-PERC settings. The roles and identities that were special to teachers in PERC classes were common across participants. Similarly, the benefits to role shifts that teachers identified in PERC classes were shared among participating teachers. What differed among the teachers was how challenged they were by making the transition to the PERC model. Within this group of 13 teachers, seven (Bill, Jerry, Paula, Henry, Matthew, Alice, and Lily) described an easy transition, five (Alan, Peter, Mark, Bob, Andrew) described a difficult transition, and one (Hillary) did not transition at all, dropping out of the program after one year. Each of these teachers identified aspects of their experiences and identities that facilitated and/or impeded the transition. Similar patterns in teacher experiences appeared in both case study schools, with no observable differences appearing across sites. Thus, the results are reported together. Typical quotes from the themes that appeared in the data are used to illustrate each theme.
PERC teacher roles and identities
All PERC teachers in the study described experiencing changes in the roles they played in the classroom and shifts in their identities as teachers that accompanied these role changes. A major alteration involved the teachers’ roles and identities concerning content. Matthew, a veteran Algebra teacher, contrasted his roles in the PERC class with his non-PERC classes:
My role in PERC class is completely focused on how each group is progressing as far as working with their TAS and kind of randomly doing small observations of my TAS and trying to make sure that the kids are being challenged appropriately. Whereas in a non-PERC class I am just focused on content and making sure all my students are actually learning math from me. So it’s a completely different experience.
In Matthew’s PERC class, he focused on the students, whereas in his other classes, the students focused on him. In PERC, he assessed the students’ interactions with content, while in non-PERC, he delivered content himself. Similarly, in the PERC classroom, Andrew, a veteran Chemistry teacher, saw himself in a PERC class as, “Facilitator. A monitor. Also a big default go to, it’s even good to see the TAS sometimes, if they do make mistakes they’ll readily own up to it and they’ll say “OK,” and they’ll ask me over to be a corrector of sorts. And I am also there as an encourager.” All of Andrew’s descriptors focus on his interactions with the TAS and how he taught the PERC students through the TAS, acting as their manager and guide. While he retained the role of content expert in the classroom, his new identities mediated the ways in which he implemented that role, becoming a content resource rather than a content dispenser. Alan, a veteran math teacher, mirrored Andrew and Matthew’s prioritizing of students as he described refocusing his planning after becoming a PERC teacher: “you become aware of how much time you used to be spending worrying about what you are going to say rather than what the students are understanding.” This shift from focus on content to focus on students demonstrated a major change in the teachers’ thinking about themselves as educators.
PERC teachers had individual journeys through these identity transformations, but patterns exist across these journeys. For some teachers, participating in the PERC Program enabled them to embody their desired professional identities, resulting in a smooth and fulfilling transition within the classroom. However, some teachers’ pre-existing identities clashed with the ethos and structure of the PERC classroom. In the majority of these cases, the teachers underwent significant identity transformations as they embraced their new roles in the PERC and TAS classes. In contrast, one teacher’s identity remained intractably in conflict with PERC, causing stress for her and her students in PERC and TAS classes, as well as her coach. While this was less than 10% of the teachers who entered PERC, it poses an important challenge to program implementation and scale.
Embracing roles and identities
For many PERC Program participants, the experience was, as Matthew described, “a dream come true for a teacher.” Some of the teachers in the study had been waiting their whole careers to fulfill the roles they found in PERC, arguing that the PERC classroom enabled them to be the teachers they wanted to be. For example, Bill’s PERC coach described him as “a natural” because the PERC instructional model seemed to fit so seamlessly into his teacher identity, even as a second year Algebra teacher. Similarly, Bill’s school-based mentor described him as eager to learn and grow in the PERC Program because he valued the roles that it allowed him to play in the classroom. These easy adopters tended to be teachers who had wanted to implement groupwork in their classrooms, but they had previously been unsuccessful in getting students to remain productive while working in groups and usually reverted to teacher-centered instruction. Paula, a veteran Chemistry teacher, argued that she had always favored cooperative learning but that the typical classrooms behaviors of students she taught made implementation unrealistic. As a PERC teacher, supported by a team of TAS, Paula claimed that she was able to implement the kinds of lessons she had always desired.
Knowing what students are doing
Some teachers discovered additional, unanticipated benefits to implementing PERC. As Matthew explained, “I have a natural tendency to have students working in groups and have responsibility put on the students to focus and stay on task. So I feel like implementing this program is simple for me.” In non-PERC classes, he continued to ask students to work in groups but was never sure whether they were on task and learning when he stepped from one group to another, reducing his feelings of efficacy as a teacher. In particular, he worried about groups composed of English Language Learners who spoke their native language during class. When he did not speak the students’ language, he did not know if they were discussing math or their weekend plans. PERC made Matthew successful in his preferred instructional modality, increasing his feelings of self-efficacy as a teacher. He described the satisfaction he felt knowing that groups were discussing math with their TAS, regardless of the language they were speaking. Teachers such as these readily adopted the roles necessary to share responsibility for student learning with their TAS and felt fulfilled by their success within these roles. Such teachers experienced satisfaction rather than stress during these role shifts. They had wanted and waited to live the identity of facilitator of learning rather than fount of content.
Supporting individual students
In connection with the student-centered nature of the PERC model, PERC teachers described the ways in which the PERC Program enhanced their role of meeting the needs of individual students. While praising the program to potential PERC teachers, Matthew described the insider information that his TAS provided as part of their class discussions about grouping students to maximize success and minimize conflicts. Supporting this perspective, TAS claimed that it was easier for students to be vulnerable and share sensitive information with a peer who could then advocate for them with their teacher. As a second year Biology teacher, Lily argued that because the TAS were keeping all students engaged in PERC class, she was able to sit with groups, have in depth conversations, and support struggling students for extended periods of time. She believed that her role in the PERC class was to deepen the learning experience for individual students rather than ensure that all students were in some way on task. Through their work in PERC classes, participating teachers transitioned from an identity of a teacher of a class to an identity of a teacher of unique students.
In particular, special education teachers quickly embraced the PERC instructional model, while still experiencing significant role shifts. The two special education teachers in the study both taught at the new PERC school, with assignments including partnering with a content teacher in STEM classe into which students with special needs were mainstreamed. Henry was certified in special education and partnered with several different math teachers during his instructional day, including teaching one PERC Geometry class with Bob and one TAS class on his own. Alice was certified in special education and art, teaching several art classes on her own and one PERC Chemistry and one TAS class with Andrew. Employing his expertise as a special education teacher, Henry argued that the student-centered pedagogies of the PERC classroom were an excellent match for their target population, claiming that special education teachers had been attempting to get their general education partners to adopt such approaches for years. However, the two special education teachers also talked about the fact that the TAS were fulfilling many of the student support roles that they played in other classrooms. While this initially led them to question their place in the classroom, they soon realized that the TAS enabled them to employ their expertise in deeper ways. Alice, a veteran special education teacher, explained,
I guess it’s interesting what it does to the role of special education teacher because a lot of times my role when the gen[eral] ed[ucation] teacher is teaching content is conferencing or going around or doing behavior management, making sure kids are on task. All those sorts of things that TAS eliminate, so it actually really allows me to see what students are grasping things and work with them one on one or create strategies on the spot like regrouping or saying something differently or focusing on vocabulary.
Alice, like her colleagues, recognized the vital role she played as an assessor in a student-centered classroom. Eliminating subject expert as the primary role of teachers in a classroom also relieved pressure from teachers who preferred to focus on student learning instead of content. These special education teachers regularly changed subject partners from year to year, needing to master new content annually. The classroom culture of a community of learners matched the special education teachers’ identities of content learner as well, enabling them to feel more successful and useful in their PERC classes than in traditional classrooms. For some special education teachers, the structure of the PERC classroom and the emphasis on their expertise concerning student learning dramatically improved their relationships with their general education teacher partners. Henry, a veteran Special Education teacher, expressed frustration with content specialist partners who lectured the whole class, leaving no room for him as a learning specialist or pedagogies that he knew would be more effective with his population. Administrators and school-based coaches shared the improvements they observed in classroom dynamics and resulting learning opportunities for students of previously contentious teacher pairs. All PERC special education teachers described a true partnership role for them in the PERC classroom, which many of them had not experienced in many traditional classrooms where lecture dominated instruction. They believed that the changing pedagogies and values of the PERC classroom created positive identity shifts for all involved, students and teachers alike.
PERC teachers talked about having been pushed by their administrators to implement student-centered classrooms, particularly because of the new evaluation system based upon the Danielson Framework (Danielson 2014). Although Alice claimed she had always had a student-centered approach to teaching as a special education teacher, she articulated the ways that implementing the model would make all teachers successful, “In terms of PERC it’s totally set up for a successful observation. It’s set up, it just looks right in terms of student-centered learning and interactions and all of that it’s totally where education needs to be.” Administrators shared how impressed they were with the dramatic improvement in observation ratings that their PERC teachers received. They claimed that they had urged their teachers to be more student-centered before with minimal results. Andrew, describing prior frustration, explained that he had never known how to make this work and that the PERC Program enabled him to embrace the identity of a highly effective teacher using current educational definitions. Similar teachers recognized the role shifts required by their changing profession and appreciated that the PERC model facilitated growth into a new identity.
Relinquishing undesirable roles
Another benefit PERC teachers described was that they got to relinquish roles they did not enjoy, as the TAS either adopted those roles or the presence of the TAS in the groups eliminated the role within the classroom. PERC teachers like Jerry, a third year Physics teacher, claimed that they were relieved to abandon their disciplinarian roles, as “classroom management problems disappeared.” He believed that the TASs’ ability to answer questions immediately and quickly refocus students’ attention on the learning task eliminated the need for a disciplinarian in his PERC classes. Lily, while acting as a mentor, explained to a novice PERC teacher that students in PERC classes were not bored because they got their questions answered immediately by their TAS. Bob, a veteran Geometry teacher, was only involved in PERC through his partnership with Henry, a special education PERC teacher. Bob contrasted his PERC and non-PERC classes, raving about what he was able to accomplish in his PERC classes and how much he struggled on his own in his traditional class, largely because of time on task facilitated by TAS. Alice described the reduction in dealing with behavioral issues that was usually a common role for her as a special education teacher, explaining, “I feel like I put out fires in lot of classrooms that I don’t have to in PERC.” The teachers described here seemed relieved that they were not having to focus time and attention on student behavior in their PERC classes at the expense of supporting student learning, which was common in their non-PERC classrooms.
PERC teachers also argued that the TAS removed roles related to simple explanations of content and procedures. For example, Paula articulated the value of the TAS in the classroom and the shift that it enabled in her role, claiming it was “good to have people take on additional responsibility for the small questions so I can focus on bigger misunderstanding.” She appreciated being able to use her content expertise in complex ways rather than spend time assisting students with basic content facts. Mark, a potential novice PERC teacher in the mature PERC school, predicted that the PERC model would reduce the time he spent repeating instructions to each student and enable him to have genuine conversations about the content he loved. As a veteran Earth Science teacher, he looked forward to shifting classroom roles by joining PERC. The elimination of undesirable, largely management roles enabled the teachers to take on more instructional roles in the PERC classroom, supporting their identity as a professional educator rather than a source of instructions and low-level content, and/or a disciplinarian. In fact, Lily claimed that she had progressed much farther in the curriculum during her first year in PERC than in the previous year because of being able to focus on content. Teachers spoke with enthusiasm about their work in PERC classes in contrast to frustrations they expressed about teacher-centered classes in which they constantly repeated themselves, never getting beyond rudimentary instructions or basic content.
A range of factors contributed to certain teachers making an easy transition to teachers’ roles and identities of the PERC classroom. Easy-transition teachers had pre-PERC identities that were consistent with a collaborative classroom culture in which TAS were trusted to share roles common to teachers in traditional classrooms. They did not value being disciplinarians and focusing on the minutia of content and task instructions. They wanted different relationships with their students and to spend time engaging with meaningful content understanding. Thus, easy-transition teachers felt fulfilled by their roles in the PERC classroom and had identities that led readily to success in the implementation of PERC.
Resisting the transition to student-centered instruction
While most teachers involved in the program ultimately embraced and succeeded with PERC, one teacher in the mature school was never able to adopt the model. Her identity was antithetical to the model and she remained resistant to change. Hillary, a veteran Algebra teacher, began PD in the PERC Summer Institute claiming that she had always been successful with having students sit in rows and she did not see why she should do anything differently, describing herself as “old school.” When asked what she meant by “successful,” she did not have an answer. During the summer, Hillary focused on tutoring individual students rather than learning how to collaborate with the TAS and implement the model with the entire class. She continued to hold onto her role as content expert and resisted becoming a facilitator and learning team manager. Her observation records demonstrate that most of her instruction remained teacher-centered, with little work being done in groups led by TAS. Few PERC target behaviors were highlighted, especially in the teacher column. Hillary’s coach reported that her TAS classes focused on re-teaching the TAS content rather than mentoring the TAS to develop the leadership and instructional skills they needed to implement the model with their groups. When the program did not work in her classroom during the academic year, she blamed the TAS, saying that she had not had a choice about which students were selected. Both her PERC coach and school-based mentor claimed that Hillary was unwilling to own any of the implementation problems or fully invest in making changes to the way she related to her TAS. Peter, her school-based mentor who was a veteran math teacher and a former PERC teacher, believed that Hillary ultimately did not believe in students’ ability to learn and grow. Peter had experienced a challenging transition himself, working to overcome his affinity for explaining mathematics in order to give students space to master the content with their TAS. Ultimately, according to his coach, Peter’s belief in students facilitated his transformation from a content-deliverer to a facilitator of an instructional team. Hillary’s journey through the PERC Program was complex. While she reported that she had initially been skeptical about the basis of the program—“students teaching students”—Hillary claimed that the program had “won her over” when she saw TAS from her school performing at a high academic level and fulfilling leadership roles in the PERC Summer Institute. However, while she was able to see these benefits to experienced TAS, she never embraced mentoring the TAS and developing their skills and expertise as part of her role as a teacher. Still, Hillary expressed gratitude for her PERC participation, claiming that she had become a better teacher because of her inclusion of groupwork, getting students to talk with each other, and making students explain their thinking in her post-PERC classes. While Hillary made some pedagogical changes based upon her experiences, she did not embrace the multiple roles and identity transformation required of a successful PERC teacher and exited the program.
While some teachers already possessed or readily adopted identities in line with being a PERC teacher and one did not change, a third group of teachers experienced dramatic identity transformations when implementing the model and achieved success in the PERC Program, executing the model in a way that demonstrated the PERC target behaviors and developing strong mentoring relationships with their TAS. The biggest transformations happened for teachers who entered the PERC Program with lecturing as their preferred mode of instruction. As students, they had been successful learners in that class format and felt competent as lecturers themselves. They loved their content and truly enjoyed explaining it to others. This is why they entered teaching, and it is where they got their greatest professional satisfaction. Teachers with content expert identities genuinely did want students to learn, frequently explaining concepts over and over in an effort to impart the content. Lily, mentoring a reluctant novice PERC teacher during the Summer Institute, shared that one of her own PERC mentors initially had a hard time believing that students could learn anything that did not first come out of her own mouth. This experienced PERC teacher’s transformation gave Lily insight into typical teacher struggles, making her an empathetic and effective mentor herself. For teachers such as Lily’s mentor, their primary identity in the classroom was content expert, and their role was of explainer. Yet, when these content-expert teachers seriously examined the outcomes of this traditional classroom structure for their students—from daily engagement levels to high stakes test performance—they acknowledged that something was not working. Content-expert teachers usually attributed the lack of success in their traditional classrooms to the students, claiming that they were different from the students in suburban schools with whom they themselves had been educated. A principal almost bragged, “Our students have very low tolerance for mediocre teaching.” Thus, these educators realized that it was not that the teachers needed to become more effective lecturers. Instead, the students required a completely different, student-centered pedagogy, one embodied by the PERC Program that involved different roles for teachers as well as their students.
For some content-expert teachers, epiphanies happened quickly. In cases such as Andrew, the first visit to a PERC class yielded a dramatic response, “Within the first 15 minutes I knew that this is what our school needed.” For others, their first summer immersion in the student-centered PERC classroom, surrounded by student success and dominated by TAS leadership, made skeptical teachers into believers. Such teachers commented on the fact that all the students in the PERC classroom were engaged and claimed that they believed that more learning was happening than in other classrooms they had observed. These initially uncertain teachers were committed to student success and ultimately believed that the PERC Program would facilitate that within their schools. They had needed to see it in action in order to believe that peer-led learning could be effective with students in urban classes, but seeing was indeed believing for them.
Learning to implement
While most participating teachers claimed that their induction into the PERC Program convinced them that the model would be effective for their students, that did not mean that the ultimate transformation in identity and practice was easy. Some teachers described feeling like a “novice,” a term the program adopted for PERC teachers during their first summer in order to prepare teachers for that experience. Some participating teachers articulated a significant amount of struggle with learning to trust their TAS, like Alan admitting, “it is hard to let go the first couple of years.” As Andrew shared,
I think the difficulty is the relinquishing of responsibility, sometimes I find myself wanting to say more. And it’s, although I have got better as the year has progressed this year, being able to shut my mouth, but sometimes I feel like an over bearing parent, “No No No don’t do it that way” instead of what you are supposed to do, let the students make mistakes and learn from that.
Andrew describes this group’s common struggle with transitioning from an identity as content expert to an identity as learning manager.
Some participating teachers initially seemed to believe that the TAS had taken over their role in the classroom, making them feel superfluous or redundant. During PERC class observations, such teachers appeared lost in the classroom during groupwork components of the lesson. Observation records for their lessons include a great deal of evidence of TAS success during groupwork but almost no comments about teacher actions during this major lesson component. Teachers who struggled in this area had relinquished their previous role of content specialist but had not yet adopted a teaching team manager identity. In response to such observations and expressed concerns, coaches worked with these struggling PERC teachers to be more active in the classroom. The coaches modeled the PERC teacher roles and provided explicit guidance and encouragement, both during class and in coaching sessions. Teachers who embraced this coaching made dramatic progress in their transformations, taking on new roles in the classroom that developed their identities in relation to teaching the TAS. For example, just over halfway through his first year in the program, Andrew positively glowed as he explained, “I’ve just had one of those days that makes life worthwhile.” That day he had allowed his TAS to take over the PERC class completely, from starter problem to exit slip. During the PERC lesson, Andrew assessed the TAS using the district’s teacher evaluation framework (Danielson 2014), giving them feedback during TAS class and asking them to write reflections about their own performance. Having abandoned his identity as repository of content knowledge, he reveled in his new identity as mentor of his TAS. Further, Andrew shared that his TAS whom he had taught previously were surprised about his different demeanor in the PERC classroom, indicating that he was not as hard on his students this year. He clarified that, “It’s more of a pastoral learning environment than bark-bark-bark,” explaining to his TAS that he relied upon them to play the role of taskmaster in their groups. Similarly, Alan had to learn that he had an important role to play in the PERC classroom as the TAS were leading content exploration—that of assessing student understanding. Once Alan shifted his identity, he claimed that he was doing a lot more listening and assessing. He believed that this new role ultimately had more impact on student learning because in his former role, he was largely ignorant of what the students had actually learned. Teachers like Alan found a new way to utilize their content expertise through their relationships with their TAS. They shifted from believing that the content is the most important thing in the room to believing that the students were the priority. While such participants reported struggling with learning to implement the model, they tended to seek ways to improve their own effectiveness with being a PERC teacher. They adopted an identity as a learner within the PERC Program.
PERC teachers also discussed the new roles that were involved in developing their TAS from marginally successful students to academic leaders. The entire PERC community recognized the challenges of accepting this new role and the shifts required to develop the identity of TAS mentor. As one PERC coach explained, “It’s not just show up and put on the t-shirt and you’re an amazing TAS. There’s a development involved.” One principal argued that effective PERC teachers needed to be analytical thinkers who understand how students learn so that they can teach that to their TAS. When asked what had been difficult about becoming a PERC teacher, Matthew admitted that while the structure of the PERC class was easy for him to implement:
I have struggled through different points of the year with the maturity development of the TAS and their responsibility. Teaching them to be focused and to not fool around with each other has been something that has come up a couple of times and that we worked through, and that’s part of their maturity and development as a person.
However, Matthew embraced this mentoring role and wanted to continue working with his TAS during the summer to ensure their successful progress through the curriculum. These participating teachers appreciated the challenge of developing this new identity of supporting the development of the TAS, acting as their mentor and not just their content instructor.