It’s no secret – except maybe to a few administrators – that teachers sometimes roll their eyes when professional development workshops draw near.
Too often, the sessions are the brainchildren of someone, too far removed from the trenches of classroom teaching, who pushes the latest theory in pedagogy – which will only be replaced by the next new idea around the corner.
For years, Beth Lasure, an art teacher at Mallard Creek High School, didn’t put much stock in local professional development workshops, either. But that all changed after the summer she went to Yale University.
In 2005, Lasure was teaching at Vance High School. Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark, who was then principal at Vance, asked Lasure to consider checking out a workshop offered through the Yale National Initiative. Lasure returned with a completely different perspective of what professional development could be.
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“We came back and told her (Clark), ‘It’s phenomenal. This is what we need,’ ” said Lasure. “ ‘It’s content-rich, teacher-led, teacher-driven and intellectually-stimulating. We need to make this happen for CMS teachers.’ ”
Four years later, they did.
Launched in 2009, the Charlotte Teachers Institute is one of only five teacher institutes in the nation developed through the Yale National Initiative.
The Yale program works to strengthen public school teachers in low-income, highly-racially and ethnically-diverse communities by creating partnerships between them and professors from local institutions of higher learning.
Pairing teachers, who are experts in curriculum writing and pedagogy, with scholars, who can provide a deeper understanding of content knowledge, is a collaboration that makes sense, said CTI Executive Director Scott Gartlan.
“Where is all the intellectual capital? It’s in our universities,” said Gartlan. “And if one way of judging an expert is that they do it more than someone else – certainly teachers are developing ideas around teaching and learning at a pretty significant pace.”
CTI is fortunate enough to have two partnerships: UNC Charlotte, where the institute is housed, and Davidson College.
Each year, teachers and professors come together for seven months worth of seminars. The topics are diverse – from African-American literature of the civil rights movement to the science of NASCAR.
Lasure spends her days working with art students. But after the last bell rings, she attends seminars in everything from the history of ancient Mexico to map-making to consumer culture.
It all has helped her become a better teacher, she said.
“I’m more confident because I’m more knowledgeable on a deeper level,” she said. “I can help my kids think broader and deeper because I can pull from these different ideas.”
It’s not just the teacher who attends the seminar who benefits. Teachers who become CTI Fellows, which happens through an essay application process, agree to construct a 15- to 25-page curriculum based on the seminar they attended – and to share it with other teachers.
Surveys by CTI show that, on average, each curriculum written is shared locally at least seven times.
In addition, the curriculums are also shared through a network with the Yale National Initiative, giving even more teachers access to them online.
The institute has the backing of several community partners. Last month, the Wells Fargo Foundation, a supporter since CTI’s initial launch, awarded $50,000 to the institute.
CTI’s success can also be measured in the number of teachers who become its fellows. More than 200 teachers have gone through the institute in the last three years, a number that affects more than 40,000 students in CMS.
Lasure said CTI is popular with teachers because of one key difference that separates it from other professional development programs.
“It’s not someone telling me what to do in my classroom,” said Lasure. “It’s someone saying, ‘You know what your kids need. What do you need to help them?’ ”