North Carolina's public schools start their summer vacation later this month, but the most significant break from the classroom may already have occurred for many of the state's teachers. During the past year, almost 6,000 participated in seminars at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, which offers unusual weeklong and weekend professional development programs at a 30-acre campus tucked into the state's scenic western mountains.
"It's not your cookie-cutter staff development," says Mary McDuffie, NCCAT's executive director. "It's extremely intellectually challenging. But we also nurture the souls and spirits of our teachers while they're with us, and we send them back to the classroom refreshed, reinvigorated, and with a renewed sense of commitment to their profession. And as a result, they provide a higher quality of instruction to their students."
That may sound like a lot to accomplish in one week. But with its $4 million, state-funded budget, its ability to reach 10 percent of North Carolina's public school teachers annually, and its noticeable impact on teacher retention, NCCAT has become a national model for professional development and a haven for teachers rediscovering why they became teachers in the first place.
When these educators arrive at NCCAT's headquarters in Cullowhee--across the street from Western Carolina University--they find a modern mountain lodge with a fully equipped gym, private bedrooms and bathrooms, a formal dining room that overlooks a tranquil pond, and a staff determined to make their stay enjoyable. Far away from classroom crises and hallway hubbub, they also discover a collegiality and an approach to learning that they may have been missing.
"It's been marvelous to blend and mix with people you've never seen before," says seventh-grade social studies teacher DeLois Borders of East Hoke Middle School in Raeford, N.C. "It's a downright pleasure to be in such a great group of teachers. The result is that I can go back personally energized and still have something to bring my students. It's like going shopping and finding something for myself and for my children."
While NCCAT offers special programs for new teachers and advanced certification courses for veterans, it has become best known for weeklong, year-round seminars such as "Green Groceries: Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants," "Writing the Stories of Our Lives," and "Sweet Harmony: Music That Honors Diversity." What's more, says McDuffie, these renewal seminars, as the centers bills them, are not just geared to specialists in the subject areas. They are available to any interested teachers who have worked at least three years in the state's public schools. Teachers can apply for the programs directly; alumni must wait one year before applying for another seminar.
"If you teach physical education and take our Holocaust seminar, you might ask, 'What could possibly be the connection?' " she says. "What that seminar teaches--in addition to everything else--is the importance of teaching our children tolerance.
"Our seminars are very interactive and experiential because we know that that's how people learn best, and we model the strategies that we want teachers to use in their classrooms. They discover a lot about group dynamics and cooperative learning. They learn a lot about working in teams, decision-making, and creating positive climates within the learning environment, all of which transfers to the classroom."
That approach is in full swing one late afternoon recently, as the 20 teachers enrolled in "Sweet Harmony" sit encircled on the floor of an NCCAT seminar room. Facilitator Elise Witt--a professional musician and music educator from Atlanta--is helping them explore different harmonies and rhythms by singing the words for "Thank You" in whatever foreign languages they know. One teacher starts a chant in German and is soon joined by others improvising in Catalan, Icelandic and Norwegian. There's plenty of laughter as they proceed with their musical round, but there's also plenty of good harmony--and a focus, energy and cheer you might not see at the end of an ordinary school day.
The participants in this singing workshop range from elementary and special education teachers to music and foreign language specialists. DeLois Borders says she has learned plenty to help her teach middle school social studies. "I'm trying to make my lesson plans interdisciplinary," she says. "I use various types of music quite often and figured that maybe I could take something back to my students."
Borders also figures that the techniques she is practicing will serve her well when she returns to the classroom. "Like the rounds we were doing today," she explains. "Many times the kids do not like to work together in teams, and what I'm learning is a way to show them how teams can function. And therefore, I can get more compliance with what I'm trying to do academically."
Improving Teacher Retention
The NCCAT staff focuses as well on the longer-range benefits for teachers. "You watch them come in and they're tired and bedraggled. At the end, they're excited and revitalized," observes Associate Director Judith Clauss. "We get a lot of notes afterwards that say, 'I'd been thinking about getting out of teaching. Now I'm not going to.' "
In fact, an in-house survey of NCCAT participants for the three-year period ending in 2001 revealed that 93 percent had stayed in the profession, compared to 86 percent of all public school teachers in North Carolina. In a 1992 study by West Florida's Educational Research and Development Center, two-thirds of the NCCAT alumni interviews said that the professional development programs they had taken there had an impact on their remaining teachers. Clauss says that concerns about teacher burnout and retention have made NCCAT an attractive resource for school superintendents and principals.
"You're looking at a big hunk of money if you're going to replace a teacher, but if you can retain and revitalize a teacher, it's very cost effective," says Clauss. He estimates that it costs an average of $38,000 to educate teachers in North Carolina and as much as $8,000 more to recruit and mentor a new faculty member.
"It costs us roughly $1,800 for a five-day week, and that includes meals, lodging and their substitute teacher back home," she counters.
It helps, school administrators say, that NCCAT picks up the entire tab. "If we had to pay for the kinds of seminars they present, it would extremely limit what we are able to do," notes Tom Daly, the superintendent of schools for Martin Country. At the same time, Daly adds that schools do pay a price to get the benefits. "There is a cost for the district. The first is, although it seems minor, the commitment to free the person for the period of time in terms of a substitute and the willingness to let them be gone."
During the past decade, several other states--including Michigan, Minnesota, Florida and Georgia-have launched their own professional development programs, although none on the scale of NCCAT. In the meantime, NCCAT has formed a foundation and is working with the state and East Carolina University to raise the almost $11 million needed for a second campus at a former Coast Guard station on Ocracoke, in North Carolina's Outer Banks.
"This model is extremely replicable, but you have to be willing to commit to it," says McDuffie "In reality, it's a great bang for your buck. When you think about the fact that we have touched 5,855 North Carolina educators in the last year on $4 million, that's incredible-and in a residential facility and for programs that cost school systems nothing. I think we're one of the best investments that North Carolina ever made."
Still, the experience leaves the participants here pinching themselves, including Debbie Syzmelewicz, a second-grade teacher at South Toe Elementary School in Burnsville, N.C. She has come to five NCCAT seminars already.
"It's unbelievable that the state puts up the money and is so good to us," she says. "Teaching is rewarding, but it can be thankless. And this is such a nice punch in the arm for teachers. We feel appreciated, even if for a short time."
Ronald Schachter is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass.