On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001

Teachers Enlightening and Renewing Themselves

By Daniel Addis

Two years ago, when I initially applied to the Houston Teachers Institute, I expected the program to be like one of the innumerable inconspicuous workshops I have attended for the past twenty years, one that would tell me what I already knew or introduce me to teaching strategies that would be ineffective with my English students. I anticipated writing a unit that would merely fulfill the Institute’s re-quirements so I could receive the honorarium. Although I expected to enjoy some of the discussions, I never once anticipated gain-ing anything that would develop me as a teacher or enhance learning in my classroom.

At the start of the seminar, I volunteered to be the first presenter because I wanted to conclude that responsibility as soon as possible. I planned a simple presentation that would consume little time and require little effort; however, during the ensuing days, I gradually and inadvertently became involved in trying to create a superior presentation. I reflected more intently, developed my ideas, and did more reading, writing, and studying that I had anticipated. I could not make a lackadaisical presentation; I had to create one that was interesting and enriching for my fellow teachers and professor.

During the course of the seminar, as I worked on my unit, a similar experience occurred. I originally intended to compose a unit that would entail the least amount of work; instead, I became immersed in the project and could not resist doing more research, devising new strategies, and revising what I had written. My desire to do the least amount of work was overcome by a stronger desire to create an outstanding unit for my students.

This type of experience is, I think, the key to the effectiveness and success of the Houston Teachers Institute and the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. By impelling the teachers to openly discuss their unit in the seminar, publishing their unit on the Internet and in booklets, and requiring them to teach their unit to their students, the Institute creates a situation whereby teachers feel an inner compulsion to learn, introspect, write well, and produce an enriching unit.

Since we autonomously compose the curriculum unit, our integrity is at stake. We are free to produce a lethargic, substandard unit, but if we do, we will wear the crown of incompetence, laziness, and shallowness, for our name is on the unit. Our fellow teachers will hear us present it. Teachers and administrators at the school may read it from the booklet. Anyone throughout the world for innumerable years may read it from the Internet. On the other hand, if we work diligently and produce an enriching and interesting unit, we will wear the badge of intelligence, dedication, and adept educator. Faced with these two outcomes, most of us painstakingly create an enriching unit for our students and improve ourselves as teachers and human beings.

The threat to our integrity, though, is not the Institute’s most effective weapon. A more potent one is the Institute’s challenge to the teachers’ character. Nearly all teachers yearn to do their best to educate their students and not let them down. Some of us feel so compelled to thoroughly teach our students, we make sacrifices, expend great amounts of time and effort, endure worry, live modestly, tolerate debasement, and spend our money on educational items. Teachers will come to school early or leave late if a student asks them for help. Educating and uplifting young people is the reason why we became teachers.

The teachers’ fidelity to the education of their students impels them to work diligently on their unit. I personally worked strenuously on each of the two units I created. When I had free time at school, instead of sitting in the teachers’ lounge, bantering with my colleagues, I went to the library and researched my unit and wrote on the library’s computer. During fall break, I spent many hours of several days researching, writing, and revising. After the dismissal of school for the summer, I spent more hours refining it. My experience is not unique; I have heard other seminar Fellows narrate comparable experiences. Recently, at a teacher representative meeting in Houston, a teacher told us that he worked harder on his unit than on any other project he had ever done.

The result of this intense reading, study, reflection, discussion, and writing is the substantial improvement in the performance of the teachers. This conclusion does not need proof: who can claim that contemplatively reading sophisticated literature, discussing intellectual issues, writing elaborately about an enlightening subject, devoting substantial time to improving instruction, conferring with a professor and fellow teachers, publishing one’s unit on the Internet, and using the unit in the classroom does not increase teachers’ knowledge, sharpen their intelligence, refine their teaching technique, and intensify their commitment to teaching?

I know that I am a substantially better teacher now than I was two years ago, prior to participating in the Houston Teachers Institute. I have mentally digested Plato, Richard Wright, Rousseau, Kafka, O’Connor, Freud, and others. I have discussed pro-found issues with teachers, professors, and students. I have deeply thought and struggled to write precisely. As a result, I know more, think more acutely, and write better than I did a few years ago. My confidence is stronger and my outlook is brighter be-cause a school district and a university entrusted me to create a curriculum unit. I have a stronger stake in the profession of education because, through the publishing of my curriculum units, I have added a stone or two to the edifice of education. The relationships I have developed with fellow teachers and professors assure me that my thoughts hold water and my role as educator carries weight. Discussions with fellow teachers have given me new teaching stra-tegies and lesson ideas. More importantly, though, I teach more intensely and my students read and write more intensely be-cause literature and writing have greater meaning to us because, instead of following a textbook and doing “class work,” we read literature to learn who we are, how we should live, and how we should structure our society, and we write, not to parrot an essay format, but to express what we have learned about ourselves and life and what we think about important issues of life. My interaction with my students is more authentic because the work we do is real life work instead of superficial class work. I am more strongly committed to teaching than I ever was, and my students are more interested and more strongly engaged than ever before. Consequently, the students I teach today learn more than the students I taught in the past.

The Teachers Institute has been a godsend for us teachers who live in times when teachers are often demeaned, lambasted, and ignored. Day after day, we struggle to overcome this negative barrage to maintain our commitment to teaching young people, a vocation that is our lives. However, the Teachers Institute’s acknowledgment that teachers know a great deal about young people and how to teach them and deeply want to teach young people has strengthened our spirit, the educational experience has improved our intellect, and the opportunity to improve the education of our students has renewed our commitment to teaching and spurred us to create enriching educational experiences for our students.

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