Like many of her colleagues, Kacie Oja had a romantic vision of what her career as teacher would be like.
Now beginning her ninth year in education and second with Rutherford County Schools, Oja has a firsthand understanding of the responsibility she has each and every school year.
“I’m never going to be a veteran teacher,” she said. “I’m always going to want to learn new things and find new ways to engage my students.”
Oja was one of 1,021 teachers and administrators from throughout the district who took part in the annual RCS Summer Conference, which was held Tuesday and Wednesday.
It’s the 15th year Rutherford County Schools has offered a districtwide two-day professional development conference. This year’s conference featured 12 national speakers, including Luis Cruz, Ph.D.; Sherry Parrish, Ed.D.; Dave Nagel, Dave Stuart Jr.; Jody Polleck, Ph.D.; Doug Medford; Palma Lindsay and Teri Cox, Ed.D.
During his keynote address, which was titled — “What Can We Do?” — on the opening morning of the conference, Cruz told a standing-room only auditorium filled to capacity with educators, “Our job is to keep learning.”
The conference offered 72 sessions each of the days it was held at Siegel middle and high schools.
Sessions included everything from Visible Learning to collaboration, in addition to classroom and behavioral management. Presenters also covered topics ranging from culturally responsive instruction to differentiated instruction and other.
Dr. Sherry King, principal of Homer Pittard Campus School, is among a group of Rutherford County educators who has attended the annual conference all 15 years.
“There’s just so much to learn,” King said, “so many new things and so many experts are brought in. I just really appreciate the district for providing it for us.”
Rutherford County is the only district in the state of Tennessee to host a national-level conference for its teachers and administrators, and one of only a few in the nation.
“My old district didn’t do anything like this — ever,” said Oja, who was a late-hire last July and attended the conference before she even had a chance to go through her orientation with the district’s Human Resources department.
“It was amazing to see the difference from the county I was at before. It felt like I was more prepared for coming into a new county.”
Oja said she was looking to learn “more jewels” again this year.
One idea she hopes to tailor to her own classroom is the practice of setting up multiple learning stations. While the entire class is working on the same lesson, they are divided into five groups and after eight minutes each group rotates to a new station to work on a another specific aspect of the lesson.
It’s a means of keeping students engaged and interacting while learning.
Kelli Dodson, a math and reading intervention specialist at Whitworth-Buchannan Middle School, referred to the same approach she learned as a fun way for students to work on their vocabulary words.
“I teach intervention,” Dodson explained, “so I’m always looking for a way not to use a book. I’m looking for things that are fun.”
Dodson, who learned about the stations approach at the 2016 conference, said it made an immediate impact in her classroom last year.
“There are so many great presenters,” Dodson said, “and you really get a lot from it.”
Marsha Hopkins agreed with Dodson.
Hopkins is a reading specialist at Oakland Middle School, and like King, has been to the summer conference all 15 years it’s been held in Rutherford County.
“Every year I get something new that I hadn’t thought about or hadn’t heard about,” said Hopkins, who admitted that teachers can often be closed to new ideas. On the other hand, presenters at the conference are experts in their chosen field of study and cite years of successful examples during their respective presentations.
Last year, Hopkins left the conference and started a new school year with a better understanding of how Professional Learning Communities — which are used extensively in Rutherford County Schools to assist students — could benefit her and ultimately impact her classroom.
The collaborative communities are a district-wide initiative in which teachers a grouped together and regularly meet – at Oakland Middle groups meet every other week – to discuss teaching strategies that worked, and just as importantly, those that did not work.
“When we collaborate … we can see how to correct what we’re doing wrong,” Hopkins said.
The collaboration theory dovetails with idea that “it’s not about teaching. It’s about learning.”
The summer conference is a year-long effort led by Nancy Grams and the entire team in the district’s Professional Development Center.
King said the conference is another way in which Rutherford County goes about giving teachers and administrators “as many tools and as much experience as possible” to be successful in the classroom.
“I meet with other administrators from other school districts at statewide conferences and you really have an appreciation for Rutherford County Schools,” King said. “We go above and beyond and so much for our teachers and our district.”