For teachers across the country, the summer months mean training, not just vacation. They get called back to school to learn about the latest curriculum, reading strategies or behavior-management techniques.
And every summer, hundreds of teachers embark on their own professional development that they design themselves to pursue research or enhance their instruction, and they apply for grants to pay for them. Often, such training happens far from their schools, taking them to the rain forests of Costa Rica or to drumming circles in Brazil for field research and new skills that they can share when they return.
“We ask teachers to tell us, ‘What do you need to be better with your students and your school and your community, and how are you going to share what you learned?’ ” said Karen Webb, executive director of the Houston-based Fund for Teachers, which gives teachers grants to pay for their professional development plans.
The individual grants, in amounts of up to $5,000 for individual teachers and up to $10,000 for teams of teachers, help them pinpoint specific needs as they’re happening. The projects also can give teachers a way to recharge and reconnect with their passions and interests as scholars — an energy that they bring back to the classroom, she said.
Started in 2001 by Raymond Plank, founder of Apache Corp., an oil and gas company, the fund has given out $23.5 million to 6,300 preschool through high school teachers who have pursued research in 141 countries. This year it paid $1.8 million to 487 teachers.
Teachers in the District have participated in an excavation of the ancient Roman port city Ostia, an experience that aims to help students connect with Roman history, and have visited Hiroshima, Japan, where an atomic bomb was dropped, to create an educational documentary about history and cultural memory.
This summer, they are studying conflict resolution in Israel, the Arabic language in Morocco and martial arts in Brazil. One teacher from Capital City Public Charter School is traveling in Tanzania and Kenya to learn about Masai culture so she can build on a project offered at her school.
Another teacher from Paul Public Charter School traveled to Accra, Ghana, to learn about a “Reusable Bag Project,” so she can promote recycling and social entrepreneurship back home.
Heidi Batchelder, a reading specialist at Capital City, took part in two training opportunities to learn how to respond to students who have experienced trauma, as a number of students who live in poverty have, and to learn about the effect trauma can have on learning. She attended workshops in the District and at nearby Eastern Mennonite University and plans to share what she learned with other teachers when she returns to school.
She said that the training has given her some tools to help students in ways that are not solely academic. In the past, she said, if students shared something difficult from their personal life, she did not always know how to respond.
“I’m not a therapist, and that’s okay, but I can still put in place things that are therapeutic for my students,” she said.
Some teachers, like Batchelder, use the grants for workshops or course work that they pursue close to home.
Michael Martini, a world geography teacher at Alice Deal Middle School, said he seeks out travel opportunities whenever possible. He recently returned from a trip to Western Europe, where he studied organizations dedicated to international cooperation.
With stops in Geneva and Lausanne, Switzerland, he visited the International Red Cross and the International Olympic Committee, respectively. In Paris, he visited UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. And in Brussels, he met with someone at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters and toured the European Union Parliament.
He learned about different forms of diplomacy, through sportsmanship or trade or humanitarian aid, and he is bringing back ideas for new lessons and assignments for his students and those who are members of his Model United Nations club. For example, he plans to ask his students to nominate new landmarks to be recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
“I want my students to understand they can find diverse ways of connecting with people across the world,” he said.