On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001


On Leading a Teachers Institute Seminar, or, How I Became a Professional Educator

By Rogers M. Smith

Not long after I joined the faculty of Yale in 1980, I began hearing about something called the “Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute,” in which New Have public school teachers took seminars led by Yale professors. The program was billed as a way that Yal e could help improve teaching in the public schools. It sounded like bunk to me. Not that I was indifferent to public schools: my elementary, secondary, and undergraduate education had all come in mid-western public institutions to which I was deeply attached. But having recently completed five years of gra duate school at Harvard, I knew that virtually all Ph.D.s, including me, had begun college-level teaching with no explicit preparation for it whatsoever; so we didn’t know much about teaching. I also knew that whether or not we learned anything about teac hing was entirely up to us. The reward systems at research universities paid little attention to that. And I knew that many of my Yale colleagues had far less knowledge about any public schools than I did — much less public schools like New Haven’s, with substantial numbers of students from economically disadvantaged, racial minority backgrounds. Those schools were terra incognito to me as well.

Over time, however, I learned that the Teachers Institute approach was not to have Yale professors tell New Haven teachers how to teach. It was to ask teachers what substantive topics they wanted to learn about; find professors willing and able to offe r such seminars; and then to have the professors help the teachers learn about content, while the teachers drew on their own experiences to discuss and decide how best to teach that kind of content to their students. Also over time, I became more and more concerned about the future of public schools in America. And I eventually got tenure, giving me fewer worries about my university’s reward system!

So some years ago, I asked about offering a Teachers Institute seminar, indicating the sorts of things I could do. It turned out that these included topics that New Haven teachers had suggested in the past. Then I proposed some possible seminars on tho se topics; teachers chose one; and I offered my first New Haven Teachers Institute seminar. Since then I have led four others — and I hope to have opportunities to offer similar seminars many more times.

Why? There are, admittedly, easier ways to get summer money. A typical New Haven seminar draws teachers from all age levels, K through 12; a wide variety of subjects, English, history, math, drama, special education, and more; a number of different sch ools, and often very different educational, regional, political, religious, and racial and ethnic backgrounds. The last is particularly significant for me, because I teach on issues of civil rights and civil liberties. My seminars have been on topics like “Race and the Criminal Justice System,” “Racism and Nativism in American Political Culture,” “Immigration and American Life,” amongst others. These are sensitive topics, and the teachers also bring to them very different levels of experience and, yes, co mmitment and ability. (How could it be otherwise, in a program genuinely open to all?)

Leading these seminars is therefore challenging, and I have not always succeeded in doing it well. The first challenge is to create an atmosphere of trust: trust that the teachers, their experiences and viewpoints, will be treated respectfully by the p rofessor, and trust that the readings and discussions in the seminar really will be worth their while. The key in both regards is something that’s hard for professors to do: you must listen carefully. Listen carefully to teachers’ anecdotes even when they veer off point; listen both to help people feel welcomed and to get a better sense of what their concerns are. Listen especially for comments that can really be built upon to bring the discussion back on topic (if you fake it, most will know), and ones y ou can use to bring in other teachers. Listen carefully to their ideas for their units, however undeveloped, to their accounts of their students, to their reactions to your presentations and readings. Then reflect on what in the material you wish to cover speaks most clearly and effectively to their ideas, concerns, and experiences, and highlight that. If you don’t have enough planned that really does so, scrap parts and add things that will work better.

After a comfortable atmosphere in which people feel free to talk has been established, the next challenge is to sustain a sense of high standards for the work you’re all doing together. Most of the teachers are responsible people who really want to acc omplish something in the seminar, but they’re also human beings with many conflicting job and family demands. The seminar can become something they led slide a bit. Having the teacher who serves as Seminar Coordinator speak privately to any flagging parti cipants can help a great deal. But the basic answer is for the faculty member to show dedication and respect for the work and for everyone involved in it: by always being at the seminar on time and prepared; by making multiple individual appointments to d iscuss unit drafts and keeping them; by providing lots of timely feedback — on teachers’ unit proposals, on their partial first drafts, on their second drafts. For teachers who are uncomfortable writing much, the seminar leader must make suggestions about topics to discuss in the unit’s initial narrative section. For teachers who instead prefer to write what is really a term paper, seminar leaders must spur ideas for the lesson plans that should give pedagogical life to the narrative’s themes. Sometimes t he seminar leader must discourage teachers from pursuing their specific unit ideas; but in so doing, the task must always be to identify what the teacher really wants achieve, and ways of doing so that are more appropriate to the seminar’s theme. The mess age that the seminar leader takes the teacher’s viewpoint seriously must remain clear. Many of the teachers had professors in their undergraduate days whose conduct could credibly be interpreted quite cynically. They want to believe that doing well at the ir Institute work really matters, and that their best efforts will merit respect; but they also want to know that the seminar leader believes that the work matters and believes that the teachers’ efforts deserve respect. The final challenge, after changing the things that you can change, is to accept the things that you cannot. Some discussions will be intensely engaged and inspiring; some units will be amazingly creative and exciting; but some sessions and units will be rather grim. It is hard for any teacher in the New Haven schools not to feel overburdened and dispirited at times, and unfortunately some teachers are struggling to get by with limited preparation and skills. They will not all perform wonderfully all the time. We cannot expect for each and every teacher to finish the seminar with a curriculum unit that, if taught by that teacher, is sure to be terrific for any and all students. We can hope for each and every teacher to be more knowledgeable, more prepared , and more motivated than that teacher would have been without the seminar experience.

And beyond the benefits to the teachers and their students, I have discovered that striving to meet these challenges consistently produces great rewards for me, even when I/we fall short. I have found that, if I structure the discussion properly, the t eachers will eventually present quite sophisticated views on complex issues. Although expressed in different (more accessible!) terms, their views often map the spectrum of the best academic discourse on those topics. And learning how to help the teachers get to that point helps me to work better with my undergraduates and graduate students. I have also found that, structured and led properly, discussions can bring out the great range of conflicting views that can be found in any collection of teachers, w hether they are all black, all white, or very diverse. But if the seminar leader presents issues crudely or artificially or moderates discussion in a one-sided way, open, honest, thoughtful communication across such lines can be very hard to achieve. Thes e are lessons of value to me as a teacher, as a scholar, and perhaps most of all as a human being. Finally, I have learned much about the challenges public school teachers face today; the many outstanding things they accomplish despite all obstacles; and the many things they should be able to accomplish that remain remote, for reasons teachers alone cannot change. Those are lessons that have deeply shaped my sense of both my professional and my civic responsibilities.

Admittedly, because I teach and write about issues of race, immigration, civil rights, and civic education in America, I have had benefits many professors cannot expect. The knowledge I gain through discussions with New Haven teachers provides direct i nsights into subjects that I explore in my other work. But the most important benefit I have gained from offering seminars is one that every faculty member can have. Instead of regarding myself as someone who is, whether I like it or not, essentially a re search scholar, for whom teaching is a secondary activity, and who is far removed from the elementary and secondary schools that train my students, I can now see myself differently. I am now a research scholar AND a teacher; and a teacher who works not on ly in an isolated ivory tower, but also in ongoing partnership with other teachers, at all grade levels and in all subject areas. Through that partnership we all help each other to do a better job in our respective roles; and we get a glimpse of what it w ould be like to have what this nation should have and must have.

What we must have is a truly interconnected, collegial, and professional system of education, in which teachers from kindergarten through graduate seminars know their subjects well, know how to teach them well, and work together to learn more and do be tter in both regards. Because I offer Institute seminars, I can now see myself as someone actively engaged in the vital task of trying to bring that system into existence. And as such, I now see my profession as something that includes being a political s cientist, but that is also larger and ultimately more important. Like the conscientious teachers with whom I am fortunate enough to work, I now at least strive to be a professional educator.


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© 2001 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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