Teachers flock to summer school at TEACH Academy

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Ask participants in the AFT TEACH Summer Academy about their experiences at this professional development session, and be ready for an avalanche of enthusiastic responses. "It's amazing," says one. "Awesome," says another. "I am just so impressed," says a third.

And it's not just idle flattery. Yes, a reporter representing AFT publications has posed the question—but once the pat answers are delivered, the conversation continues, and the teachers bubble over as they discuss how seamlessly the training will transfer to their home districts. They talk about specific lessons they're planning to take back to share with colleagues, and they marvel at how empowered they feel now that they understand the "why" of the Common Core State Standards. And they agree that, while other trainings can leave them rolling their eyes with boredom or tearing out their hair over complicated (or erroneous) presentations, this training is relevant, engaging and entirely tuned in to the reality of being a classroom teacher today.

A total of 335 teachers and 40 trainers are attending the TEACH academy, July 10-18 in Linthicum, Md. Participants include 160 first-time attendees, drawn in partly through colleagues who have given the conference good reviews—this is the 32nd year the AFT has offered it, first as part of the union's ER&D (educational research and dissemination) program—and partly because this year's session helps teachers fold the Common Core standards into their work. Academy participants will use the experience to train colleagues in their home districts, reaching thousands of teachers nationwide.

Professional development that is designed and delivered by teachers "has proven to be most effective in influencing teaching practice and student growth," AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence told participants. "Your responsibility is to disseminate what you will learn through providing professional development and peer mentoring to teachers in your school districts."

The Summer Academy offers 16 courses of professional development, covering math instruction for various grade levels, reading comprehension and instruction, literacy, and teaching English language learners, plus courses on how to handle anti-social behavior, ways to incorporate family and the community in learning, and instructional strategies that work across all disciplines. Participants include local union leaders, district staff developers and non-members, all of whom take what they learn and share it with colleagues back home, in training sessions of their own. Academy trainers are experienced teachers and trainers.

Jamie Rickman, a first-time attendee, joined the union just a few months ago, and is thrilled that professional development is a big part of what her new union offers. A 17-year teacher, she already trains first-year teachers in Pensacola, Fla., where she is a member of the Escambia Education Association. She found the TEACH academy a perfect fit: "The way it's laid out, it's so easy for me to go back and do it," she says. "I am ready to go."

That's because TEACH takes into account several existing systems: It lines up with the Common Core standards, the Danielson Framework for Teaching utilized by many districts, and the AFT's Strategies for Student Success program. And, it is based on research that has held up again and again: "It's not one of those fads," says Corinne Clark, a teacher and member of the Hartford Federation of Teachers in Connecticut, who came to the academy to "add to my bag of tricks" for the classroom. "I've gotten a lot of great ideas."

Clark's colleague Marcie Wnuk is also enthusiastic. After learning about research that shows young children learn best when the sound a letter makes is presented before the written letter, she plans to change the way she teaches phonics. Alden Payne, also from Hartford, has acquired a new understanding of the reasons behind the Common Core standards, and feels "empowered" to share her understanding with colleagues at home. Through TEACH, she says, "I can advocate for my profession."

The sessions have plenty to offer even seasoned professionals. Carnell Washington, who is president of the East Baton Rouge (La.) Federation of Teachers, attended a course in how to handle anti-social behavior. Washington, who is a tall, imposing man with decades of teaching and coaching under his belt, looks as though he would have no problem controlling a class; but the research on which the course is based has given him new strategies to use and share with teachers in his district.

Washington adds that he is happy to show members—and outsiders—the AFT's commitment to professional development. "People think all we do is represent teachers in trouble," he says. TEACH proves that is just not true. [Virginia Myers]

July 18, 2012