Forging Collaborative Relationships

by Alan J. Lee

Philadelphia Team at the Intensive Session, July 2007. (Left to right: National Fellow Stephanie R Wicks; director Alan J. Lee; National Fellows Moses B. Jackson, Stuart Surrey, Samuel A. Reed and Deborah Samuel.)

The proposal for a new Teachers Institute in Philadelphia took on concrete form in this past interesting and exciting year. As Director of the Institute, I had the pleasure and challenges of being closely involved in the establishment and growth of this latest iteration of the Yale National Initiative model. We are very proud of our "pilot year" efforts made possible by strong support of the University of Pennsylvania, specifically President Amy Gutmann and Provost Ronald Daniels. We should note that a "pilot year" is not a normal part of the planning process but is unique to Philadelphia.

To offer a quick summary of our year, it might be noted that we were able to offer four academic seminars to 43 teachers from 14 schools in West and Southwest Philadelphia. We were able to organize an Institute program that gained the support of the Chief Academic Officer of the School District of Philadelphia, Dr. Gregory Thornton, and achieved the necessary agreement of partnership between Penn and the School District.

After Penn President Gutmann solidified our startup financing through generous alumni gifts, we were able to obtain foundation support of a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations that will allow the Institute to continue and grow beyond the pilot program status. Finally, we were quite delighted to send seven of our Teacher Representatives to Yale University for the Initiative's national seminars, who ably represented Philadelphia and who gained valuable experience in the Institute model.

There are two aspects of the Institute model about which I learned through our pilot year experiences that I wish to highlight for the benefit of readers. The first aspect is the role of the Institute Director, who, particularly in the earliest stages of planning and organization, is the one person who works fulltime for the Institute.

The Director has many functional responsibilities including overall leadership, financial and organizational duties, as well as liaison links to other entities, including the National Initiative. One key responsibility is for the Director to maintain, and be the guardian of, the Institute model among the many people who have only partial knowledge or understanding of that larger picture.

I found that the Institute is much more of a network than a hierarchical organization. The Director must function as a connector of individuals and organizations, forging relationships among diverse interests at points where their collaboration is beneficial towards advancing the Institute program and for the mutual benefit of the actors themselves.

A myriad of alliances and working partnerships must be shaped into the network of relationships. As examples, we note the forging of a partnership between the University and the School District; the recruitment of seminar leaders from various schools and departments; the establishment of a corps of teacher representatives as well as a larger group of teacher Fellows from all levels and major disciplines of the public schools; and the organization of an advisory committee of diverse senior university educators, to name just a few relationships.

One of the core values within the Initiative model is the fostering of teacher leadership through the Institute program. Here the Institute Director's position runs into the paradoxical necessity of stepping back to provide space for the emer- gence of real responsibilities and empowerment by teachers assuming leadership positions and authority within the program. The importance of authentic teacher leadership cannot be overstated, and it is the second aspect of our experience in building an Institute that I wish to highlight.

One of the most impressive facets of all of the Institutes is the enthusiastic "buy-in" on the part of teacher participants. Many teachers come to value the program at least in part because they feel valued by the program. In our case, Teacher Representatives have been tireless and extremely effective in recruiting their colleagues, acting as liaisons for the flow of information between the Institute and their school faculties, and presenting ideas to encourage success by participants in the seminar programs. Our Teacher Fellows in the program were not only enthusiastic about the seminars and their topics, but also patient with the growing pains of a new program in its pilot year. I choose to believe that these behavioral aspects were the result of our program that views teachers as responsible, intelligent, and, most of all, professional people who care deeply about their field.

At a time when many outside of public education classrooms view teachers as the objects of various notions of reform, most teachers seem to wish to be the active agents of education reforms and progress. From what I have observed, the experiences of a working collegial relationship with Penn scholars, as well as the networking among teachers from various schools, subject areas, and grade levels have fostered attitudes of competence and confidence. These feelings will surely have a positive impact upon teachers as more effective leaders in the classroom, among their faculty colleagues, and as advocates for public education in urban areas. As Director, I feel little hesitation in presenting my teacher leaders with important issues, and applying their input into policy decisions.

As I stated at the opening, it was an exciting pilot year, as every question and experience was a new one for all of us. Now the excitement in Philadelphia continues as we examine the possibilities of our second session, one we face with a bit of experience, and (dare we say?) a hint of wisdom. We must apply our lessons learned to set the bar higher, and, with the support of the Initiative, to expand our offerings while maintaining high standards. In doing so, we look forward to strengthening the partnership of the University of Pennsylvania and the School District of Philadelphia for the benefit of the teachers, students, and neighborhood communities of Philadelphia.

Alan J. Lee was the Planning Director of the Teachers Institute of Philadelphia and became its Director.