Profound and inspiring professional development? Just another year at AFT’s CSI Leadership Institute

After three intensive days of collaboration, planning, and deep learning, you’d think the teachers, principals, union leaders, superintendents and community advocates who gathered together in New York City for AFT’s Center for School Improvement Leadership Institute would have been ready to head home. But no. Long after the conference’s closing session came to an end, the United Federation of Teachers Teacher Center was still abuzz as teams from places like Boston, Jerusalem and St. Tammany, La., lingered, reflecting on the experience, exchanging contact information with other teams, and marveling at all they’d accomplished during their time at CSI.

It was a familiar scene for veteran AFT and UFT Teacher Center staff who have seen the power of CSI to strengthen labor-management-community teams and launch transformative school improvement plans. This year’s Institute—planned collaboratively by the AFT, the UFT Teacher Center, and a wide array of local and national partners, including NYSUT, the Chicago Teachers Union, Education Austin, and the Institute for Educational Leadership,—focused on helping teams discover how to create sustainable change for students, educators and families. The conference drew dedicated teams from 15 school districts across the United States, as well as a team from a Hand in Hand school in Israel.

Each part of the conference—from communication workshops to sessions on restorative justice and culturally responsive pedagogy to panel discussions with youth activists and union leaders—was carefully designed to set teams up for their ultimate goal, which is to leave the CSI Leadership Institute with an action plan that incorporates collaborative team processes to advance a system of safe and welcoming culture in schools. From the Citrus County (Fla.) Education Association, which created a plan to launch meaningful districtwide professional development, to the Boston Teachers Union, whose team is focused on improving adult culture in schools, each plan is created collaboratively, reviewed collegially and fleshed out in detail by the end of the conference.

A team transformed

For the team from Hand in Hand, the work of creating safe and welcoming schools is priority number one. It’s been a crucial piece of the organization’s five-year learning relationship with the AFT.  Hand in Hand is building integration and equality in Israel through a growing network of Jewish-Arab public schools and shared communities. In six locations across the country, more than 1,500 Arab and Jewish students, teachers, and families come together every day in multicultural, bilingual classrooms, and integrated communities. Hand in Hand is transforming fear and mistrust into friendship and cooperation, proving to all of Israeli society that Arabs and Jews can live together.

Since Hand in Hand’s founding more than 20 years ago, the schools have operated on a truly bilingual basis—Arab and Jewish students learn both Hebrew and Arabic from teachers speaking their native tongues. To ensure equity, Hand in Hand schools have always featured a bicultural co-teaching model: One Jewish and one Arab teacher are always present in each classroom, teaching simultaneously and cooperatively in their native languages. While this model has proven an effective bridge-building tool, Hand in Hand's leadership is exploring other pedagogic models that may help to improve students' language acquisition.

Members of the Hand in Hand team went to CSI knowing that they wanted to re-examine their language acquisition model. They had the “why.” Working together over the course of the conference, they dug into the school’s driving principles, its data and its goals, seeking to formulate the “how.” They left understanding that a sudden, unilateral change to their language acquisition model would not be compatible with the schools’ goals.

For the Hand in Hand team, time spent hearing from AFT members who work in bilingual settings proved invaluable to the work of envisioning not just a new language acquisition model, but a culturally responsive plan to roll out the new model and help it succeed. In work sessions, feedback groups, even over lunch, staff from Hand in Hand heard from educators from places like Austin, Texas, about how dual-language immersion works for their students and communities. “Our experience at the CSI conference was amazing,” said Hand in Hand Education Department Director Inas Deeb. “Hand In Hand is deeply thankful for this outstanding opportunity that is powerful and gives us more practical tools to handle the challenges we face in our schools.”

“Truly life changing” sessions

Although planning and collaboration take center stage at CSI, participants also raved about this year’s deeper-dive modules and plenary sessions, calling the session on restorative practices and trauma-informed schools “truly life changing” and clamoring for continued training on culturally responsive pedagogy. They gave a standing ovation to the four youth activists who joined Education Austin President Ken Zarifis for a panel discussion on the power of young people to create change, calling their insights inspirational and eye-opening. Heeding the warning that young activists must not be treated as “window dressing,” and vowing to check their tendencies to “adultsplain,” educators came away from the panel discussion humbled and energized.

Attendees also had a chance to hear from AFT President Randi Weingarten and UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who shared more about how unions are driving the national conversation around revitalizing education. “The union is the vehicle to build the power that educators need,” Weingarten told the CSI crowd. “We build that power by engaging members and communities around our shared values and aspirations. We saw this in Los Angeles, we see it here in New York, and we see it in the many labor-management partnerships among all of you. We have created community inside and outside the union—by building coalitions, waging campaigns, and reconnecting.  By working together, we accomplish what is impossible to achieve alone.”

Weingarten also spoke about the AFT’s renewed focus on ensuring that schools—pre-K through college—and other public services secure the resources necessary to make a difference in people’s lives. She closed by thanking those assembled for their tireless dedication to creating safe and welcoming schools, invoking the powerful words of former AFT President Sandy Feldman: “Teachers want what children need.”

Before leaving the conference, CSI teams shared the top-line details of the actions plans they’ll be pursuing back home. From Education Austin, which will be strategically building grass-roots support for districtwide restorative practices and community schools initiatives, to the Washington Teachers’ Union, which will be working in partnership with an all-girls K-8 academy to transform school culture, teams left with concrete plans and a promise of support and accountability from the AFT. The 2019 CSI Leadership Institute may be over, but the hard and important work of school improvement continues. 

[Leilah Mooney Joseph]