FAIRFIELD — The new superintendent of schools has brought a new professional development approach to School Administrative District 49 in an effort to make general student understanding a priority above test scores or shifting requirements from the state and federal levels.

Teaching for Understanding, a framework developed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is the approach new superintendent Reza Namin has been working with since he was a chemistry teacher in the 1990s.

“We want to move away from the culture of mandates and the culture of compliance,” Namin told a group of roughly 200 SAD 49 teachers and teaching assistants Thursday morning at the outset of a day dedicated to professional development in the district.

Namin, who started as superintendent in September, has initiated a district partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education that looks to implement the Teaching for Understanding model in SAD 49 schools.

According to the website for Harvard’s Project Zero research program, which has developed the Teaching for Understanding research, the approach “helps educators take students beyond the simple mastery of facts to being able to apply knowledge flexibly in unfamiliar contexts.”

As part of Thursday’s districtwide professional development day, Teaching for Understanding course instructor Patricia Leon Agusti gave a two-hour presentation on the framework.

A former teacher and school director in Colombia, Leon Agusti explained how the framework focuses on bolstering students’ understanding of what they are learning and why they are learning it, rather than working toward meeting a testing or curriculum requirement.

She noted that in today’s world, information is often readily accessible with a simple Google search. The key, she said, is understanding what to do with that information.

“It’s much easier to memorize if we understand,” she said.

Several teachers came up to thank Leon Agusti or Namin after the presentation.

Loren Fields, the band director for grades 7 through 12, said he’s excited about the new approach and its potential applications for teachers working in the arts.

High school Spanish teacher Anna Thomas called the presentation “wonderful” and “inspiring.” Her husband, Isaac Thomas, who teaches high school French and social studies to adults in the district, said the Teach For Understanding approach appears “really flexible” and “lends itself to intellectual freedom.”

Namin called the Teach for Understanding approach “a shift from the culture of compliance … into best practices.” He hopes the new professional development model will “allow teachers to teach, take risks.”

The professional development shift comes after the Maine Legislature rolled back mandated proficiency-based learning diplomas this summer. That statewide change, as reported by the Portland Press Herald, allows individual school districts to decide whether they will move forward with the proficiency-based diplomas.

According to Namin, the funding for the district’s Teach for Understanding initiative — which could include an online class for teachers at the price of $375 per person — is being drawn from existing professional development funds and grants. Leon Agusti’s presentation cost the district $450, he said.

Moving forward, Namin is looking towards developing a new districtwide plan for training its teachers.

“Our first goal is to submit a district professional development plan,” he said, expecting that plan to be submitted to the SAD 49 school board in the next few months.

Namin was also quick to say his predecessor, longtime superintendent Dr. Dean Baker, who retired this year, was “gracious” and “supportive” in the recent leadership transition, noting that Baker “served this community very well.”

“The question right now is, how do we prepare for the 21st century?” Namin said. “What are the next challenges?”

Matt Junker — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @mattjunker

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