By Peter N. Herndon
Over the past three decades, collaborative teaching efforts have strengthened and benefited my professional teaching experience in several ways. When I began teaching in 1968 at Lee High School with a full-year Master of Arts in Teaching internship from nearby Wesleyan University, I assumed that all teachers, particularly beginning teachers, received whatever help they needed from department heads and experienced colleagues. Fortunately for me, I received a great deal of supervision and constructive criticism in my first year, and I became well-grounded in method and content. Our department head challenged his teachers to develop non-textbook curriculum that was theme-oriented and more "relevant" to our kids. These were turbulent times, and we as professionals responded to his leadership by creating multi-texts which we ran off on the mimeograph machine, then collated and put into folders. It was a lot of extra work, but we knew it was worth it. We became excited about developing and teaching our own mini-units that dealt with selected issues in psychology, sociology, philosophy and history. And our students were reading primary source materials and handling it well. And teachers, experienced and inexperienced, were sharing collegial relationships as we helped equip one another to be better educators of kids.
Later, in the mid-70's, under a new department head, the U.S. History teachers at Lee initiated what became known as the History Education Project with Yale University. Under an unprecedented co-operative venture funded jointly by the New Haven Schools and Yale, the New Haven high school teachers met in summer seminars led by members of Yale's history department on topics in their areas of expertise. The teachers then developed four-to-six week teaching units and were given a few hundred dollars to spend on paperback text materials to be used in the classrooms. Teachers discussed the units among themselves, and offered appropriate suggestions to their colleagues. Imagine this: teachers at the high school level were actually getting paid to develop materials they were expected to create anyway, with University resources, including the library, at their disposal. The mini-courses developed during these years were a big hit with students for several reasons: they got to choose the courses for three of the four marking periods, they had the opportunity to change teachers and could sign up to be with their friends. Of course, some students got their second choice, since some courses (and teachers) were more popular than others. Teachers were teaching mini-courses (Women in America, Justice in America, the American Labor Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, to name just a few) they were interested in, and students had the freedom to select teacher and course.
And the University helped make it happen. What were some of the results? As one might expect, teachers who participated became less isolated, more knowledgeable in their field, and there was a heightened sense of professionalism about what they were doing as educators. It was significant to me as a public school teacher that the New Haven School System was saying to its teachers, "We trust you with the freedom to make responsible decisions about what you teach our students." And it was willing to match that statement with funding to help us carry it out. Out of these humble beginnings, the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute began its seminars in 1977, appointing a full-time director and eventually expanding opportunities in curriculum development to virtually all New Haven teachers at whatever subject or level: high school, middle school or elementary school.
For the past two summers, I have been privileged to teach in a two-week "Summer Academy" for New Haven high school students sponsored by the School System and the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute using Teacher Institute curriculum materials as our "textbook." The hallmarks of this experience I would summarize as follows: The two teachers involved had to engage in intensive planning sessions in order to achieve maximum results. We made an effort to integrate arts and field trip experiences into the curriculum and designed activities that would help students to be able to develop a culminating activity, which they would present to parents and students in the middleand elementary school programs. The experience of working closely and team-teaching with a colleague has been quite beneficial, sharing ideas and teaching styles and allowing creative juices to flow freely. We had a four-hour block of time to plan each day, and this allowed us freedom to improvise and engage the students intensely. Students enjoyed the time spent, they were eager to start each day and asked if the program could go longer. Collaboration takes commitment and effort—a lot of it. It can be exhausting, even frustrating. Is it worth the time it takes? Ask your students.
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© 1998 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute