Pittsburgh Teachers Institute Encourages Teachers to Meet Classroom, School District and Career Needs

Teachers look to professional development programs for help in the classroom, extension of their knowledge and skills, and renewal of their enthusiasm for teaching. They may also seek career advancement. Since its establishment in December 1998, the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute has enabled participating teachers to do all of this.

Teachers have the opportunity to increase their knowledge of subjects they teach by participating in Institute seminars while also partially fulfilling State and School District requirements for maintaining their certification. While the Institute has remained teacher-centered since it was established, for three years it has developed a series of three seminars in response to professional development needs of specific groups of teachers that have been identified by the Instructional Support staff of the School District. These seminars, one each in science, mathematics, and United States history, have been funded in part by federal funds received by the district. Teachers who complete these seminars develop curriculum units or other major projects for their own use and that of their colleagues and often are chosen to lead staff development activities for their peers.

In 2001, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed Act 48 which mandates that to maintain their certification all persons holding positions that require certification complete a minimum of 180 hours of professional development every five years. The Act also required every school district in the Commonwealth to submit its plan for creating opportunities for its teachers to engage in appropriate professional development activities and a list of those providers it had approved.

Upon application to the School District, the Institute became an approved provider of Act 48 credit and upon application to the Intermediate Unit within which the Institute is located became an approved provider of credits to beginning teachers who are required to complete a minimum of six credits beyond a bachelor's degree to convert their Instructional I teacher certification to an Instructional II certificate. Their failure to comply with the Act 48 provisions and/or the post-baccalaureate credit requirement will result in the loss of their eligibility to teach in the Commonwealth. With the approval of its applications to the district and to the intermediate unit, the Institute became eligible to grant 90 Act 48 hours and/or two college-equivalent credits to Fellows who fulfill all requirements of the seminars in which they enroll.

The curriculum units and major projects developed by participating teachers are posted on the Institute and the Yale National Initiative Web sites where they are accessible to any interested teacher. The Institute has received inquiries about the units from as far away a British Columbia in Canada and Germany. A Topical Index and Guide to all of the units that have been developed by teachers who participated in the Institute during the five years from 1999-2003, which is also posted on the Institute Web site, was prepared with the assistance of a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon University's Professional and Technical Writing Division in its English Department. (Karen Schnakenberg, Ph.D., who directs the Division of Professional and Technical Writing was a member of the Planning Committee for the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute in 1998-1999.)

All instructional materials used in Pittsburgh school classrooms must be approved by the school principals based on standards set by the State Department of Education as well as local instructional guidelines The Institute has therefore made a strong effort to relate the curriculum units explicitly to the national, state, and local standards that all Pittsburgh Public School curricula must meet.

Relating Institute Seminars to the Classroom

Fellows praise the Institute for making their seminar experiences relevant to their real professional and classroom needs. A teacher quoted anonymously in "Lessons Learned" a report by Cornerstone Evaluation Associates based on that organization's independent evaluation of the first four years of the Institute's operations, said, "You can directly relate what you're learning in the Institute to what you are doing in your classroom."

That relevance results from a combination of factors, according to Fellows, administrators and seminar leaders interviewed by Cornerstone. Among them is the leadership role teachers play in selecting seminar topics, ensuring that those who know their classroom needs best--the teachers themselves--determine the types of seminars that would assist them most. Fellows also credit the independence they have in developing their curriculum units. "I really think--and I believe this with my whole heart--that this is the best professional development opportunity I have ever engaged in," another teacher told the Cornerstone evaluators (p. 8). "It gave me, as a teacher, the autonomy to develop lessons that were culturally and contextually relevant for the group of students that I teach. There's no other opportunity like that."

Fellows also reported they could explore areas of interest and meet the requirements in the School District that all instructional materials fit current curricular needs. "It sounds like a restrictive factor that before you do a unit you have to plan how it will fit into the existing curriculum," a high school teacher and Fellow said in the Cornerstone Evaluation report (p. 24), "but in a way, it is freeing because you can teach something you're required to teach in a more creative way, and in a way that satisfies your job requirements."

Although PTI Fellows prepare curriculum units that address district goals, they have found the seminars gave them the flexibility to approach those goals as they thought best in their professional judgment. "I was able to integrate district standards and the State standards--all of those mandates that teachers have to follow--into my curriculum units," a high school teacher said in the Cornerstone report (p. 11). "We had the flexibility and autonomy to integrate that into our materials in a way that was effective for our students."

Serving Multiple Educational Goals

By enabling teachers to meet Pittsburgh School District standards for classroom instruction and to advance their own professional standing, the Institute serves to improve teaching in many different ways. Fellows work with university faculty members to acquire new knowledge in subject matter areas and also gain additional skills that they can bring to the classroom. Fellows also encounter colleagues from a wide variety of settings and learn from each other. In developing a curriculum unit of their own, Fellows can engage in the instructional process at a much deeper and more creative level than they would by using materials from other sources. Fellows also work to relate their units to their school's specific curricular guidelines, helping them think through the best ways to improve their ability to instruct their students to meet those standards.

All of these experiences increase teacher confidence and professionalism and helps revitalize their interest in and enthusiasm for teaching.

Above all, the Institute helps teachers teach: "After using a Teachers Institute unit," one teacher told the Cornerstone evaluators (p. 28), "I can say that my students look at things differently from the way they did before, and isn't that the point of our teaching."

The Institute which was established as a demonstration site to determine if the Yale-New Haven model of professional development could be replicated in other locations has successfully replicated the model. It has attracted a number of veteran teachers who before their participation in the Institute admitted that they were awaiting the next early retirement incentive so that they could retire. They find the experience has rejuvenated their professional ambitions and commitment to education. Since becoming involved in the Institute two of them have become school principals, one has become a research associate with the tri-state study council of a local university with special responsibility for addressing the curriculum needs of one of the "empowerment" districts in the area, several have become literacy coaches for their own and other schools, and several are using their seminar experiences as data to be included in the portfolios they are required to submit as part of their requirements for National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification. Two of teachers who have retired from public school teaching since their participation in the Institute have been employed by Chatham College, one of the two higher education sponsors of the Institute. One is employed as an adjunct instructor in the Education Department; the other is employed fulltime by the Education Department and administers the Act 48 programs which the college offers.

James R. Vivian directs the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and the Yale National Initiative which is working to establish new Teachers Institutes in states around the country. He says, "From our experience in assisting with the establishment of Teachers Institutes in varied local policy environments, we conclude that the Institute approach can significantly help school teachers address diverse state and local goals to strengthen teaching and learning in their community."

The Pittsburgh 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.