Teachers work in ‘pods’ to provide support, improve communication
By Monique Harrison
A student in Gloria Hill’s Milam Intermediate homeroom was grappling with math basics earlier this year, becoming so frustrated he stopped even trying to do his homework.
During a teacher’s meeting between Hill and the fifth-grader’s other teachers, Hill was made aware of the problem.
“After I found out he had a problem, I started asking him about his math during homeroom,” the language arts and social studies teacher said. “I reminded him about homework assignments and in a way, I guess I put the pressure on. In this case, it worked. His grades came up – not just because I took an interest in his math and talked with him, but because all of his teachers did the same thing.”
Three years ago, when a concept known as team teaching was restricted to the middle school level, the face-to-face conference between the student’s teachers probably would have never happened.
But, with the introduction of a team-teaching method commonly referred to in education circles as the “pod” concept, the teachers had the meeting and were better able to meet the needs of the struggling youngster.
Under the pod system of teaching, students remain with their homeroom class throughout the school day, traveling from class to class as a group. At the intermediate level, there are four teachers in each pod, representing each of the four primary academic disciplines. Lee County Schools does not use the approach, while Tupelo Middle School, which serves students in grades seven and eight, uses a similar approach. About three years ago, the school started calling their groups “teams” instead of “pods.” But basically, nothing more than the name was changed.
Because the students travel as a class, four teachers all teach the same groups of students, with most teaching about 80 students.
Pod teachers meet regularly, discussing the academic progress of their students. When parents come in for conferences, they typically meet with the entire pod in an attempt to get a better picture of the child’s overall strengths and weaknesses. The team of teachers also formulates overall teaching plans for struggling students, instead of simply working to address problems in a specific problem area.
In about half the pods at Milam and King, one teacher teaches both English and social studies. To accommodate the combined class, students stay with the same teacher for two periods, instead of one.
“A large family”
King Intermediate Principal John Cother said the concept helps give students a sense of belonging.
“The pod is almost like a large family,” he said. “Here at King, I feel like the teachers really get to know their students well. There’s a lot of conferencing and things along those lines. The communication among the teachers really benefits the students.”
When possible, less experienced teachers are placed on teams with teachers who have been in the classroom longer.
“The younger teachers draw from the wisdom of teachers who have been with this longer,” said Milam Intermediate counselor Mablean Grigsby. “Sometimes, when they are having trouble, a younger teacher might just walk across the hall and stick their heads in the classroom of another teacher, asking ‘OK, you know this student, what do I do now?’ They all feed off of each other.”
Second-year teacher Beverly Beane said she has benefited from teaming up with more experienced educators.
“They’ve helped me to work through some minor problems – to make me more effective in the classroom,” the Milam teacher said. “One problem I had was with time management. I needed to develop a schedule students’ could live with, going to recess and the bathroom – things like that. They helped me develop a system that was more reasonable – less chaotic.”
The pod system also lends itself to more lessons that carry over from one subject area to another because the classes travel together and all have the same four teachers.
“We really work across the curriculum a lot,” said King Intermediate science teacher Melissa Smith. “The social studies teacher just finished a unit on Greece and its culture. So, we worked the constellations into the work being done in my class. Then, the language arts teacher taught Greek mythology that discussed the naming of the constellations. It all worked very well together. We reinforced what everyone else was teaching.”
How it started
The pod concept was a backlash to the “schools without walls” movement of the mid to late ’60s, when some schools were literally built without interior walls. Instead, students were placed in small groups within a larger building. The goal of the program was to foster a broad sense of community within the schools.
The pod system – which first surfaced in the early ’70s – is the direct opposite of that movement, often described as a move to create “schools within schools.”
“The goal is to promote a smaller setting within a large school,” Tupelo Public Schools Curriculum Coordinator David Meadows said. “Ideally, teachers and students become more comfortable with each other.”
Because students all move as a group, their classes are all grouped in the same area. Most Tupelo students simply have to walk across the hall to get to their next class.
“It serves to save a lot of time that could otherwise be wasted changing classes,” Meadows said of the system, which is used at all grade levels but is particularly common at the intermediate and middle school level.
Pros and cons
Experts say the system has both pros and cons.
“The problem with teaching in general is that it is a social act, not a technical one,” said Dwight Hare, Mississippi State University Department of Curriculum and Instruction professor. “We need to be careful to remember that what might work for one student might not be so effective for another.”
With that disclaimer, Hare said he did think the idea of developing schools within schools is normally a good one.
“In general, when kids travel together, there becomes a general cohesiveness – a sense of identity. The teachers know them both individually and within the context of a well-defined group. It has the potential to work quite well.”
Carolyn Reeves-Kazelskis, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Southern Mississippi, said she also liked the pod concept, but did see one potential problem.
“I’ve thought for a long time that any time there is an opportunity for teachers to really get to know their students, it should be done,” Kazelskis said. “So, I think team teaching situations work. But, from an administrative standpoint, it can be a problem because if parents or students don’t like a particular teacher, they can’t simply be moved out of that one class. They are moved out of an entire pod. And that’s a massive change for a student.”