Teachers are Learners, Too: Professional development a focus in ESU 4

Teachers are Learners, Too: Professional development a focus in ESU 4

Maranda Gerdes, center, is a high school business teacher in Auburn.

By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Specialist

Learning doesn’t begin, nor end, in the pages of a dusty textbook, as life reminds us all at times.

Sometimes, however, the process does make a return to the classroom.

Just ask a teacher.

When the bell rings, as students sling their backpack full of scribbled notes, covered textbooks and worn-down No. 2 pencils over their shoulders and flood the exits, teachers begin to take stock of the day’s events.

What worked today? What didn’t? Did I engage this student? If not, how can I?

If all goes according to plan, the kids will return home as better students. And their mentors, full of feedback attained through hands-on and tried practices, will take their spot at the head of the class the next morning as better teachers.

“You want to practice what you preach,” said Falls City fourth-grade teacher Phil Janssen. “I’d be a hypocrite if I talked to my students every day about learning new things and always being a learner if I didn’t do the same myself.”

Teachers, generally, have their plates filled high. In Nebraska’s public schools, accommodating the learning needs of every student is a uniform ambition, one that teachers from every corner of the state have gone all in to conquer.

Educational Service Unit 4, which serves districts in the southeast corner of the state (including Johnson, Nemaha, Otoe, Pawnee and Richardson counties), has placed an emphasis on assisting the continued development of their teachers’ careers the last four years with a program called High Impact Instruction Partnership, based off the work of Jim Knight.

ESU 4’s Professional Development Directors Suzanne Whisler and Jen Madison noticed something their separate districts had in common when visiting schools.

“A vast majority of teachers are eager to improve,” Madison said. “If they have reticent, it’s about expectations in terms of ‘What does this mean to me and my role as a teacher?’ The desire to grow and get better at something, and understanding that there is a need to adapt to students and to apply some of the newer research, by and large people get that and have been very receptive to conversations.”

The conversations are crafted to always benefit the teachers, who take what they learn back to the students. In a not-so-complicated roundabout way, everything is done for the kids, a common theme in Nebraska’s schools.

Janssen spent seven years teaching physical education before his career path led him to Falls City, where he spent one year substituting before taking a full-time spot. Professional development was available before, but it was on his own time, a precious commodity to educators.

“As I have started doing this HIIP training, I’ve started to better understand the value and importance of that (professional development),” Janssen said. “Each time I meet with ESU 4, it seems that I come out of there with new ideas to help me reach my students a little better.”


Maranda Gerdes grew up the eldest of four. In other words, Gerdes grew up in charge, as her mother can confirm. She was organized, able to look around her room and instantly sense if an intruder (one of her younger siblings) had been on the premises.

Gerdes always wanted to be a teacher.

“When I got to college, I didn’t really know what kind of teacher I wanted to be,” Gerdes, in her fourth year teaching high school business in Auburn, said. “I took a couple of business classes, and I loved accounting, so that’s what drew me into this content area.”

In a conference room on the bottom floor of ESU 4’s unique building, which previously housed a funeral parlor, Tiffany Anderson, sitting to the left of Gerdes, shares her path to becoming a teacher. Like Gerdes, she knew the job was one for her at a young age.

Anderson, in her 13th year, teaches kindergarten in Auburn, and grew up in her mother’s classroom, cleaning hamster cages and helping in any way she could.

“There were also a couple of teachers that I had in middle school that actually followed us up to high school, and they had such an impact on my life,” Anderson said.

Whisler and Madison are in their second year of offering HIIP training for teachers in Auburn, while the program has been active in Falls City for three years and Nebraska City for four. Anderson and Gerdes didn’t know what to expect when the collaboration with ESU 4 started, but have capitalized on the opportunity.

“I kept wanting to learn more and more, and I think your students change and anytime you move to a new district things change,” Anderson, who had a few stops before landing in Auburn, said. “It soon became a high priority for me to be adaptive and meet the needs of a diverse group of students.”

In her first couple of years, Gerdes exhausted herself just trying to make assessments. Now she’s revamping those assessments to align with the goals she sets out in HIIP.

Madison remembers the meeting with Gerdes when the breakthrough occurred.

“I remember that conversation when you said ‘I have the part about sharing and learning goals down. I’ve figured it out. I do it when I’m in different classrooms throughout the day. And then I realized my assessments weren’t exactly where they need to be so that’s my next step’,” Madison recalls Gerdes saying. “That was kind of a lightbulb conversation.”

Gerdes thinks back to that exchange, and nods.

“Otherwise, without that collaborative conversation, I don’t know that I would have realized that,” she said.

The area of focus for Anderson, which each teacher partaking in HIIP hand selects, has been learning goals. At the end of each day, she would have her students state back the learning goals to show that they understood the day’s subject matter.

“Sometimes, the end of the day is so hectic, so they came up with ideas like “Partner Pair Share”, or “Four Corners”,” Anderson said. “I have used both of those at the end of the day instead of just asking ‘What were our learning goals today?’. That brainstorming is still something I use this year from last year.”

Finding the time to have professional conversations, and to engage in dialogue about practices, is what it’s all about for Whisler and Madison. Their purpose is to aid the educators in their district, and it’s one they are passionate about.

“They are so busy in the classroom, and they don’t have a lot of time to do research and studying and seeking out information, so that’s really what Jen and I do,” Whisler said. “We have some resources. We have some research. Here are some ideas, but you have autonomy. You get to choose what works best in your classroom, because you know what works best with your students.”


“If you’re going to try and graduate, you have to pass my math class,” Sterling teacher Josh Pfeiffer jokes with his students. He’s not lying.

With five years of previous experience in Kansas and Weeping Water, Pfeiffer is in his first go-around in Sterling, where he teaches math to students from 7th-grade up until their senior year.

For about 20 minutes every other month, Pfeiffer meets with ESU 4. His focus area within the program is setting goals and tracking progress. He was drawn to HIIP because of a desire to be the best teacher he can possibly be.

“I want to be the best that I can be at everything I do, and continuing to improve professionally is the best way to do that,” Pfeiffer said. “The reason I feel so strongly about that is because I want to do the best I can for all of my students.”

Class sizes at Sterling, given its enrollment, are manageable, which is advantageous for Pfeiffer and his colleagues.

“You get to know each student and work with them one-on-one during the class period,” Pfeiffer said. “We’ve tried to develop ways we can reach students with curriculum and help prepare them for wherever they go next, whether that is a job, a community college, or a university.”

HIIP has been a big part of turning that goal into a reality. The district’s administrators, Pfeiffer said, understand that to provide top-of-the-line education to its students, it must employ top-of-the-line teachers.

“They are very supportive of us going out and getting that professional development,” Pfeiffer said. “I think the program is really cool, and it’s been something that has been good for me as a teacher.”

Receptivity to new ideas, and the willingness to share classroom experiences with fellow teachers, comes up several times in discussions with teachers in ESU 4. Without it, their ongoing professional development would almost be for not.

“People that allow themselves to be closed off and unreceptive to other ideas limit their growth,” Pfeiffer, who often talks with other math teachers from around the area, said. “In fact, you can’t grow if you are not willing to change in any way. It’s really important to be willing to share ideas. We do that as a staff at our school.”

The “P” does stand for “Partnership”, after all.

“We are talking to people that have had that experience, they have been in the classroom, they are experienced enough to see what strategies can really be successful and what strategies haven’t worked as well,” Janssen said.

Like Pfeiffer, Janssen sees improvement in himself as a teacher, and is grateful to the professional development opportunities his public school system provides.

“Now that I’ve been put in the situation where it’s brought to me, and I didn’t have to go out and find it myself, it’s tenfold I’ve become a much better teacher,” he said.


Nebraska City’s Kelli Jensen keeps a full agenda.

In her 12th year, Jensen teaches Chemistry, Physics, second-year Chemistry in addition to directing science and robotics clubs at the high school, an after-school engineering club, and a biology club for 3-6th graders.

Jensen, whose career started in the field of chemical research, is a believer in research-based practices. The stuff that has been tried, and proven to be successful. For someone who took a slightly different path into the world of education, content hasn’t really ever been an issue.

“Delivery and practice are where the focus needs to be,” Jensen said. “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel on what the solutions to some potential problems are, and the professional development has been a thing that has shown me ‘Oh wow, this already exists!’,” Jensen said.

Jensen is currently in graduate school, and says she’s always willing to try research methods that others offer. Her goal is to try three new practices per year. Jensen is the only chemistry and physics teacher in her school, adding importance to her participation in HIIP.

“They are always helpful,” Jensen said. “If I have stumbled across something I want to explore some more, when I contact them they always have resources or they can steer me in the right direction and it decreases the feeling of isolation. They are helpful, convenient and always nice.”

Jensen, with teaching being her second career, has a unique perspective on Nebraska’s public schools, and the teachers that fill them.

“We are always hearing things in the news like ‘We are not doing this, or public schools are not doing that’, and that’s not true,” she said. “We are doing it, and we are doing it every day. You don’t have to look far to see examples of that going on in every public school.”


Gerdes makes it a point to talk with each student that comes in or out of her classroom. She wants them to know she cares. The genuine consideration of every kid’s needs expands across the state.

“So many teachers do so much more,” Gerdes said. “I could give a million examples of things like putting money in a kid’s lunch account, or bringing a bag of clothes.”

The HIIP program is designed to provide teachers with effective curriculum delivery methods. It’s designed in the best interest of students.
“Kids are the reason we do what we do every day,” Anderson said. “You lose sleep when things aren’t going the right way. That’s why having people to go to for help is so important, because you want every student in your classroom to feel successful.”

Public schools, Madison said, are faced with more challenges, heavier accountability, and higher stakes issues than ever before.

“In Nebraska, at least, there is a very powerful attempt to meet the needs of every student that walks through the door,” Madison said. “That’s special.”

Special, indeed.