While local students were still enjoying the last little bit of summer vacation, educators in Brunswick County were gearing up for their first Teacher Academy — a weeklong training program for instructional personnel across the district. Brunswick County is the first county in the state to offer this kind of opportunity for professional development and collaborative planning plus an extra week’s worth of pay for the program’s participants.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Amy Conry Davis
Held at several different schools throughout the district, Teacher Academy took place from August 7 to 11 and had a “terrific turnout,” says Antoinette Barnhill, the county’s middle school English/Language Arts instructional coach, who co-designed the program with Paige Garza, a social studies teacher at South Brunswick High School. About 500 instructional staff members participated, which is roughly 60 percent of the instructional staff population.
Garza explains that Teacher Academy was inspired by the vision of Brunswick County Board of Education Vice Chairman John Thompson, who started a conversation several years ago about providing teachers with extra time to plan for the upcoming school year. Thompson understood that planning time is critical to having a successful learning experience in the classroom, Garza says.
“In reality, as a classroom teacher, if you have a family and a lot of other responsibilities, you don’t always have the time to get up-to-date on the latest instructional research and study best practices,” Barnhill says.
Teacher Academy provides the time to do just that.
The planning process for this unique program began in October 2016 when Garza took the initiative to design a project management plan and proposal, for which she obtained approval from the Board of Education. She was asked to come on as co-designer, and a Teacher Academy team was formed, consisting of Teacher Academy Managers, a Project Steering Committee, a Foundations Team, a Teacher Leadership Team and PLC (Professional Learning Communities) Teacher Facilitators. In their project design, Garza and Barnhill outlined three SMART goals for the program’s first year as well as a 3-Year Destination plan.
Goal one was to provide equity in learning experiences across the district, through the development of a common unit, which ensures that a student transferring from one school in the district to another would be “on the same page and same pacing,” says Garza. To achieve this, teachers need to have a common language for teaching and planning. On a foundational level, adds Garza, lesson planning should be about learning, not content. Garza and Barnhill are passionate proponents of a concept called learning-focused process, which “focuses on engaging student thinking,” explains Barnhill. “It’s a backwards design model which focuses on what students will learn instead of what students will do.”
In learning-focused process, Garza says, “You plan in a structured way that operationalizes discovery. You go from teaching to facilitating. It’s an amazing transformation to watch students come in and out of the classroom and become leaders of their own.”
The second goal was to improve the quality and efficiency of planning and instruction, which was accomplished through the very nature of the strategically designed program itself: Teachers were able to tackle lesson plans together. They were given valuable tools to explore and utilize in a practical way, preparing for an actual school year versus creating abstract plans. Teachers were able to learn by doing, modeling the very process by which they’re trying to teach. They were given the chance to take charge of the training by helping to create its structure and leading certain portions of the education. The educators were treated as the experts, Garza says, which is one of the ways Teacher Academy moved away from a traditional professional seminar format.
The Teacher Academy leaders aspired for all subject areas (K–12) represented at the program to walk away from the week with a deeper understanding and firmer grasp of the learning-focused process, as well as with nine weeks worth of unit plans. Not only did they meet that goal, but also many teachers exceeded it, Garza says, with some subject areas completing a full year of unit plans and lesson plans. Barnhill adds that all subjects now have district documents, making it possible for teachers in all parts of the district to teach the same unit topics in the same order.
The third goal was about enhancing professional culture in Brunswick County schools to improve teacher retention. “We [wanted] to improve teachers’ perceptions of being valued,” Garza says, “and if we hit anything, it was that.” She says that teachers have provided tremendously positive feedback about the program, expressing that it left them refreshed, revitalized, encouraged and excited to start a new school year — and that it felt as though they had been celebrated.
The positive momentum cannot stop here, Garza says. “In order for this to truly be a success, it can’t be something that lives only within a week. Teacher Academy has to represent state of mind about teachers being collaborative and collegiate throughout the entire profession and school year.”
Follow the Brunswick County Schools Teacher Academy initiative on Twitter using the hashtag: #bcsteacheracademy2017.