Professor Smith: Teachers Institute fosters professional leadership - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

Professor Smith: Teachers Institute fosters professional leadership

Elizabeth Smith, assistant professor of education and chair of the Department of Education at TU, discusses the importance of the Teachers Institute at TU in this article first published in The Tulsa World December 2017: 

This holiday season I am grateful for those Tulsans who work together to improve education despite a lack of political will to act in the state Legislature. A few weeks ago, Tulsa was featured as an exemplar for what is possible when educators and the community partner intentionally. Representatives from Tulsa Public Schools, The University of Tulsa and the city of Tulsa were invited to speak on the Yale University campus to teachers, superintendents and delegates from 16 urban areas around the nation. We described how we have partnered to form the Teachers Institute of Tulsa.

The first Teachers Institute was created by Yale University in 1978 as a unique approach to professional development that emphasizes teacher autonomy, teacher leadership and collaboration with university faculty. Since 2011, Tulsa teachers and TU faculty have been planning with the Yale National Initiative to bring a Teachers Institute to Tulsa. On Nov. 3, the 30 Tulsa teachers selected as fellows in the institute gathered on the TU campus for the first of 12 seminars facilitated by TU faculty on topics chosen by the Tulsa fellows. By April, each fellow will have developed curriculum units based on his or her own research and the seminar content to implement in their classroom and share with other Tulsa teachers and the world through the Yale National Initiative website, which logs more than 1 million visits per year to view and download curriculum units.

The University of Tulsa is now home to the fourth Teachers Institute in the nation with the others at Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Delaware. Amid devastating cuts to public education funding and a demoralizing atmosphere for teachers, how did Tulsa bring this prestigious model to our city?

First, the Teachers Institute for Tulsa is, and always has been, led by dedicated, determined Tulsa teachers. TU faculty and administration are essential to the work, but nothing moves forward without teacher leadership. Recent research shows that in addition to contributing to improved teacher retention, teacher leadership is correlated with higher levels of student proficiency on standardized exams in math and language arts. The Teachers Institute for Tulsa is unique in the field of professional development because fellows pick the topics they want to study and have autonomy to create curriculum units that work specifically for their classrooms.

Another unique aspect of the Teachers Institute for Tulsa that contributes to its success is the approach, which unites partners from across the P-20 education spectrum. Teachers from kindergarten through high school are involved in the work and lead alongside each other. TU faculty participate by providing content expertise and mentoring fellows as they create curriculum units. Fellows share their expertise in teaching, and university faculty learn a great deal about teaching from the K-12 teachers. The Teachers Institute approach works, in part, because it is mutually beneficial and based on collegiality, professionalism and respect among partners.

Community support for the Teachers Institute for Tulsa is vital. Professional development that promotes teacher leadership and student growth costs money. Thankfully, our city does not let a lack of appropriate state funds for education prevent us from doing great things to support teachers and students. The Teachers Institute for Tulsa is indebted to the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation for financial support and is boosted by funding from the University of Tulsa and Tulsa Public Schools. Support from the City of Tulsa provides the conditions under which such partnerships can flourish; creativity and innovation are the norm in Tulsa and the Teachers Institute for Tulsa is proof.