When you visit a school and spend any amount of time observing the interactions of the teachers there, you notice that some of their behaviors resemble nothing so much as disfunctional marriages. You all know what I'm talking about, yes? The brittle sensitivities, the fear of saying that one wrong word, the long silences.
There are lots of reasons schools not only exhibit but even promote such relationships between teachers. A dearth of opportunities for sustained, honest communication between teachers and a history of isolation of teachers form one another, the denial to teachers of knowledge about or imput into how their classroom performance is being evaluated, and stressful and exceptionally demanding jobs in what are often an appallingly inadequate working environment are but three of these reasons.
So if the teachers attending the summer institute 'arrive' at the opening days of the ISI fresh from these non-collegial environments, why do these attitudes and behaviors so seldom carry over to the relationships between teachers in the institute itself?
I put this question to Laura Brown, co-director of ISI 06, and to Kathleen Cohen, SJAWP TC and coordinator of our current one week long summer "open" program. Here's what we three came up with as possible answers:
--there is no "pecking order" allowed in the institute: each participant receives the same stipend regardless of years of teaching experience or grade level taught, and each is expected to prepare and present a 75 minute workshop demonstration to the others in the institute
--in the institute's cross-grade-level environment, teachers command more attention when they give their presentations because only a few other teachers, at best, are teaching at their same grade level; participants command greater respect in the institute than they generally do in their schools because what they have to say about what they do is often entirely new to the majority of the other participants
--this same cross-grade-level environment, unique to the Writing Project and unique to participants' professional development experience, helps teachers 'place' their instruction in a continuum of learning from kindergarten to college
--being in the company of the sorts of teachers that are attracted to the institute experience makes all participants want to be not only better teachers but a better people
--the TIME FOR REFLECTION marks the most salient difference between writing project programs an most school inservice programs: in the morning sessions, time for reflection is built into most workshop demonstrations; in the afternoon writing groups participants are actively encouraged to reflect on what they've learned in that morning session, as well as what they are learning about themselves as an evolving writers
This is a start. A pretty good start. But I've got the nagging feeling that the three of us are missing something essential. Perhaps several essential things. Perhaps even something we can all bring back with us to those disfunctional school year environments I spoke about at the top of this piece.
I invite you to submit your own thoughts and responses on what promotes that unique sense of collegiality that so often pervades the places and spaces that provide settings for writing project invitational summer institutes.