When Daniel Addis, an English teacher at Houston's Jack Yates High School, began his first Houston Teachers Institute (HTI) seminar in 1999, he says, "I expected the program to be like one of the innumerable inconspicuous workshops I had attended for the past twenty years, one that would tell me what I already knew or introduce me to teaching strategies that would be ineffective with my students. I never once anticipated gaining anything that would develop me as a teacher or enhance learning in my classroom. I was wrong. The Teachers Institute has been a godsend for us teachers who live in times when teachers are often demeaned, lambasted, and ignored." Now attending his fifth seminar, Addis has found these experiences so valuable that he has taken on a leadership role in bringing the benefits of the Institute to other teachers.
Addis, who has taught at his predominantly African-American high school for 22 years, now serves as a Teacher Representative, part of a team of teachers who assist HTI Director Paul Cooke in the overall leadership of the Institute, and he is also a Seminar Coordinator, one of the Fellows attending each seminar who is responsible for its smooth operation. "I used to be a pretty shy sort of person," he says, "but my work with the Institute has made me much more of a leader and much more willing to get out in front of others."
The HTI and the other Institutes in the League of Institutes rely on the Teacher Representatives to reach out to colleagues throughout the school district, and to help in shaping each year's seminar topics and in recruiting applicants. Those Representatives who are also Coordinators help select teachers as Fellows and ensure that the seminars proceed in an orderly, effective way.
The importance of teachers in guiding the Houston Teachers Institute continues to grow. This year, 11 new teachers joined the Teacher Representative team. They serve along with 14 teachers, including Addis, who have returned for a second year, or more, as Representatives. The 25 Representatives teach in 24 different schools throughout the Houston school district. Some of the Representatives-Addis among them-also serve as the nine Seminar Coordinators in the current term. Cooke says, "These teachers are very committed to the Institute and are living proof that we believe a program that's for teachers should, in significant degree, be run by teachers."
Teacher Leadership Is Fundamental
Teacher leadership drives the success of the Teachers Institute program. According to Article 4 of the Articles of Understanding to which all the Institutes subscribe at their founding: "The Institute is led in crucial respects by participating teachers in the district(s), who play a major and indispensable role in the planning, organization, conduct, and evaluation of the programs intended to benefit them and, through them, their students. They are responsible for recruiting other teachers into the program. In order to strengthen teaching and learning throughout the schools, and to have a significant impact upon the school district, the new Institute must involve a significant proportion of all teachers within its initially designated scope, who, in turn, must actively recruit teachers who have not participated before."
The role of teacher leadership extends throughout the year. At the beginning of each school year, the Teacher Representatives canvass teacher-colleagues about their professional development needs and interests for the coming year's seminars. This ensures that teachers throughout the school district have an effective voice in shaping a program of curricular and staff development in which they will then have the opportunity to take part.
Drawing on their colleague's suggestions, the Representatives come together to set the topics for the year's seminar program to be led by University of Houston faculty members. The Representatives then invite their colleagues to apply to become Fellows. "Last year," says Addis, "I went to various schools to introduce the program. Teachers listen more carefully when a fellow teacher talks to them. You know what they're going through. You know what they need." Some of the Representatives also serve as Seminar Coordinators, which includes a commitment to being on the admissions committee. "We're involved in most decisions," says Addis. "Paul really accepts our advice."
A Yearlong Commitment
In the fall, the admissions committee considered 185 applications for the 130 places in the Class of 2004. "It was tough work, and sometimes painful," says Cooke, "to go through the applications and debate which ones we could admit and which ones we had to turn down. The nine teachers really got a sense of the hunger their colleagues have for the program and of our wish to try to help them as best we can." Beside attending their own seminars and carrying out the work required of all Fellows, the Coordinators continue to meet once a week, beginning in late January through May, when the seminars end.
At that point, the Fellows, including the Coordinator, will have, in conjunction with their Seminar Leader, produced their required Curriculum Unit. Addis points out that those teachers who have already participated in Seminars can help first time participants to draft their Units. "There's a deep rapport that develops among Fellows," he says. "We really have a sense that we're working together."
Completed Units get posted on the Institute Web site (and can be accessed through the Curricular Resources button on the National Initiative Web site) where any teacher can make use of them.
Teachers Know Teachers' Needs
Addis says that by having teachers so directly involved in the HTI leadership, the programs offered become much more effective and responsive to the real needs of teachers and their students. For instance, he says, "Standardized test scores are so important now. Principals have to approve of the units so Fellows have to be sure that the units they produce agree with the objectives of the tests. Through their leadership roles, teachers can work to make sure that the seminars are run in ways that meet the needs of the teachers and their schools."
For Addis, the central role of teachers at the HTI is fundamental to its success in improving teaching in schools. He says, "The Teachers Institute's acknowledgement that teachers know a great deal about young people and how to teach them and deeply want to teach young people has strengthened our spirit. The educational experience has improved our intellect, and the opportunity to improve the education of our students has renewed our commitment to teaching and spurred us to create enriching educational experiences for our students."
Teachers all over Houston share his sense that the HTI seeks to utilize their knowledge and skills to make its program of teacher professional development as effective as possible. "Teachers like having a stake in making the Institute a success," says Cooke. "Our teacher-leaders see their involvement truly makes a difference."
The Houston Teachers Institute is a member of the League of Teachers Institutes within the Yale National Initiative to strengthen teaching in public schools. It was established during the National Demonstration Project of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Building on the success of the Demonstration Project, the Initiative seeks to establish Teachers Institutes in states around the country.