Summer School for Educators
What did you do over your summer vacation? It’s the classic question posed to students every year when they return to the classroom. But that’s an inquiry not usually made of teachers.
Instead of trips to the beach or a day at the ballpark, hundreds of teachers went to “summer school” to dive into professional development and to learn from their peers about what’s working—and what’s not—to improve education for needy students at priority schools.
“We came to the profession for student achievement—not for June, July and August,” said Terrel Smith, a 32-year classroom veteran who teaches computer science and coaches track and field in Sherwood, Ore. “That’s a good joke, but it’s not true.”
Smith, who also serves as president of his local union, says members “have more heightened awareness of how reform and student achievement are intertwined. It’s in the forefront of all our minds as teachers, but we don’t just focus on the outcome; we focus on the human development of the child.”
The Oregon Education Association and the Washington Education Association are just two NEA affiliates that hosted summer conferences, academies and universities for members on the issues of school-based reform.
“Educators are working on improving their practice and exploring new ways to use data to inform their instruction,” said Dr. Sheila Simmons, the director of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, which works with affiliates to create partnerships, secure additional investment in educators’ professional development, and engage community agencies and organizations.
“The National Education Association is committed to transforming the nation’s persistently low-performing schools. We’re calling these schools, ‘priority schools,’ and our goal is make sure all students have access to great public schools, regardless of where they live,” added Simmons. “NEA members are learning about resources that can support schools and families because they know strong and supportive families are critical pieces of the school reform puzzle.”
At OEA’s summer conference, increasing cultural competency, strategies for teaching students who are English Language Learners (ELL), tactics to combat student absenteeism and behavioral issues, and workshops on how teachers can become nationally board certified were among the course offerings.
“I’ve been working with ELL students my whole career,” said Scott Jensen, an eighth grade language arts teacher at Centennial Middle School in Portland, Ore. “I still feel like it’s been only recently that I’ve been making tangible strides with these students.”
Jensen says he hopes taking advantage of professional development, like the sessions offered during OEA’s summer conference, will help him foster skills to connect better with students who come from diverse backgrounds and who have a variety of educational foundations.
“I want to make sure my students are not just looking at what I’m writing on the board, but that they really understand the lesson,” he added.
NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign also hosted a session on teacher leadership during the OEA conference. The session was designed to help teachers and educators understand their critical role and responsibility in the school reform agenda.
“Our research indicates that if a school is going to sustain reform efforts, there must be a bottom-up leadership framework that is collaborative and shared by all education stakeholders,” added Simmons.
Becky Dudney, a teacher at Madras High School in Madras, Ore., agreed. “It’s all about education reform,” said Dudney, explaining her reason for enrolling in the teacher leadership session. “The old type of teacher is done. There has to be a new kind of teacher to meet the demands.”
For the first time at WEA’s Summer University, a track especially designed for school improvement was introduced, placing special emphasis on professional development. Educators who participated were eager to share lessons learned during the first year of the federal School Improvement Grant program.
“If the SIG grant wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have started an Algebra class for the first time,” said Tim Hall, a math teacher at Totem Middle School in Marysville, Wash. “It went very well. This gap between the middle school and the high school is going away,” thanks to the additional federal funding.
The WEA-sponsored conference also offered educators a chance to discover common challenges.
“The effects of student poverty are significant hurdles for student achievement,” said Evin Shinn, a language arts teacher at Chinook Middle School in SeaTac, Wash., who attended the four-day Summer University. “Almost every SIG school is a high-poverty school. Educators want kids to succeed, but the fact of the matter is that there are all these other things in the way.”
A graduate of John R. Rogers High School in Spokane, Wash., Kris Freeland has come back to her alma mater to teach math. She was eager to hear from colleagues working in other SIG schools.
“We need to find fun and creative ways to teach math,” said Freeland. “We need to think outside the box.”
The decision to include a new track dedicated to school improvement in the WEA Summer University curriculum also signals how teachers’ unions are changing to ensure all students receive a quality education. Although collective bargaining, grievances and representation are as important as ever, teachers’ unions are increasingly taking on the role of professional development resource, coach, mentor and more for members.
The Association’s commitment was drawn into sharper focus by a session called “Partnerville,” which offered participants a unique opportunity to meet with potential partners—in a speed dating format. Partner organizations in the session ranged from small non-profits to large associations that provide afterschool services, in-school services, health and social service support for students and family and other wrap-around programs.
Shinn saw a possible connection with Kids at Hope, an organization whose motto is all children are capable of success.
“When [some high-poverty] kids go home, there isn’t much for them to do there, so they find themselves getting into trouble and doing things that aren’t school-related,” he said. “When students aren’t getting suspended all the time, they don’t miss hours and hours of school time. If we can get rid of other barriers, it really will help students improve their test scores.”
For educators, their summer days have been anything but lazy, crazy and hazy.
“This is definitely a different way of delivering services from the nation’s largest teachers’ union,” said Simmons. “We’re committed to an education agenda that puts students at the center because that’s what our members want.”