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Thorny issues explored at summer institute for teachers

Photo: Fabiola Cineas

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Fellows at the Teacher Leadership Summer Institute are spending three days doing what they rarely get to do during the school year: They’re developing teacher voice, tackling thorny issues, and thinking deeply about what they can do to change the system in which they work.

“The most powerful thing that the institute does is something that the education system is terrible at,” said Kathleen Melville, a founder of Teachers Lead Philly and a teacher at the Workshop School in Philadelphia. “It give teachers the time and space to develop a vision of who we can be as leaders and what we want teaching and learning to look like.”

The institute, hosted by Teachers Lead Philly, is convening Monday through Wednesday at Swarthmore College with 15 fellows, selected from a pool of almost 100 applicants from District and charter schools. It aims to build community and collaboration among educators to eliminate issues of teacher isolation and feelings of powerlessness.

“The idea is that teachers should be at the center of education change and should be the leaders of it," Melville said. "Change is often imposed by folks not in the classroom, who don’t have an intimate knowledge of what children need.”

The fellows are staying in dorms on the bucolic campus.

“It has to be residential to get the teachers out of the cities, where there’s so much weight put on what it means to be a teacher and it’s so bureaucratic,” said Melville.

The institute is organized into workshops, panels, and mixer sessions. During down time, fellows talk with one another, often finding unexpected commonalities. Even though they teach different grades and in different areas across the city, they identify steps that would be beneficial across settings.

Ismael Jimenez, a fellow from last year’s institute and a teacher of 11th-grade African American history at Kensington CAPA, returned this year as a facilitator. In the workshop about structural racism and social justice, he marshalled discussion about how tensions around race in schools create barriers that keep students from learning and instructors from meeting student needs.

After attending the institute for the second year in a row, Jimenez said there’s definitely a need for conversations about race and racism in professional development spaces like the institute. Moving forward, Jimenez said, he plans to be more vocal.

“I am going to be more purposeful about being a leader in my school and community,” Jimenez said.

Chris Rogers, media and technology teacher at Greene Street Friends School, facilitated the workshop with Jimenez.

“Our goal is to recognize each other’s brokenness and how we all accept messages about Black inferiority and how that creates a hierarchy even in our schools,” he said. Rogers said he attended the institute to have discussions, "but these conversations are not our end goal.”

In the workshop, facilitators worked with the fellows to identify ways to bring the realities of injustice to the forefront of their classrooms, communities, and personal lives.

Other sessions, led by former fellows and other educators, touched upon mentoring and coaching between teachers, writing and publishing as teachers, and education policy and politics.

Institute participants were also expected to design and carry out a Teacher Leadership Project in which they start an initiative that addresses a problem in their classroom, school, or education community.

Jimenez’s project brought his school a paperless classroom, where every student had a Chromebook. Although Jimenez ultimately disliked the model, he said he was happy that he continued to receive support from his peers at TLP, who allowed him to revisit his project.

The institute plans to continue supporting teachers beyond the few days of workshops and panels.

“We will continue to elevate, honor, and highlight teacher voice on different levels, whether it is in school or on a national level," said Chris Angelini, TLP’s operations manager and a teacher at CADI, an alternative school.

He added, “We know they’re capable of mentoring each other and leading professional development and change. It doesn’t have to be top-down.”

TLP is also focused on building community to keep teachers in the classroom. Many teachers who become involved in education policy leave for administrative positions; others leave education altogether.

A 2014 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the New Teacher Center stated that between 40 percent and 50 percent of teachers leave within their first five years. Those numbers and general turnover are much greater in low-income schools.

“We want to cultivate teachers who lead but don’t leave,” said Angelini.

Fabiola Cineas and Michaela Ward are interns at the Notebook.

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