On Common Ground: Number 8, Winter 1998

A Teacher's Learning

By Jean Sutherland

In 1989, I was one of the first elementary school teachers invited to apply to the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Though I did have some hesitation centered around the contribution I might or might not make to a seminar headed by a Yale professor and filled with mostly middle and high school teachers, I was eager to become a member. I had been teaching for twenty-eight years and definitely was in need of a jump-start. At times, I had found myself becoming bogged down with the routines of skill development which are a key element of elementary education. The Teachers Institute provided the springboard from which I could rejuvenate my approach.

Since 1989, I have applied and taken part in a seminar in each of the following years. I have also become actively involved in various other elements of the Institute, serving as a representative, coordinator, Center coordinator, steering committee member, and co-coordinator of the Summer Academy. This participation has influenced both the approaches I take in my classroom and the role I play as a member of my school staff. To some extent, it has also broadened my activities related to the City's school system as a whole.

In my classroom, I naturally have not abandoned the teaching of academic skills, but I now have developed a series of interesting, informative units designed for the students I teach. These units allow me to integrate the development of academic skills across the curriculum within a more meaningful framework. Within my school, partly because of my enthusiastic endorsement, about half of the faculty have taken part in seminars. During three separate years, we have also formed "teams" in which four or more teachers, enrolled in the same seminar, have developed independent units related to an umbrella theme, integrated their teaching during the following year, and presented a culminating activity involving students from the combined classrooms. The team activities have actively involved parents, other staff members, and our principal. In many respects, they comprise the highlight of each school year. Such activities are beginning to radiate from our recently formed Center for Professional and Curriculum Development, an outgrowth of Institute activity. As coordinator of our Center, I am attempting, along with a small group of teachers, to familiarize all staff with Institute materials both on-line and in print. I am hopeful that our work will strengthen curriculum, foster further cooperative teaching, and energize other staff members.

Examining the influence which Institute participation has had upon my broader relationship to the City's system, I find a number of intertwining activities. The work of our school's team has attracted positive administrative attention, capped by a joint City-Institute award. Our Social Development staff was particularly interested in my expansion of their AIDS curriculum. A curriculum document which matches City standards on diversity with Institute teaching units was developed by a committee which I chaired. Some teachers seem to be starting to utilize the results of our efforts. A cooperative Summer Academy involving the City and Institute was held at a City high-school and was open to grades 2-12 students citywide. As one of the two coordinators, I found myself in an administrative position for the first time in my career. The varied roles I have played in the Institute structure have given me the feeling that the ripple effects of my efforts go beyond me to my school and to the system as a whole.

With 37 years of experience, I easily qualify for retirement. Though my involvement with the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute is not the only factor that keeps me in teaching, it undeniably has played and continues to play a major role in doing so.

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