Brunswick County Board of Education Vice Chair John Thompson was scraping paint off of his garage floor one Saturday morning when his mind wandered to the plight of teachers in his district.
Teacher pay was low. Education budgets were not where district leaders wanted them. There was debt and the lingering effects of the recession. Teachers needed professional development, but there was little time or resources to give it to them.
“They don’t realize that 10-month employment period for teachers is a real intense period where there is no gap for teachers to grow,” Thompson said.
All of these thoughts led to an idea that started to blossom and grow about two years ago; a Teacher Academy.
At the time the challenges of the school year were making the prospect of providing quality professional development to teachers particularly daunting, said Jessica Swencki, executive director of Quality Assurance and Community Engagement for Brunswick County Schools.
The start of school technically began on the weekend, so the real start had to be pushed back three days. With 180 days of instruction, the district would only have four teacher work days to train teachers. What could the district do to make sure teachers had the development they needed?
Initially the idea of the Teacher Academy was a month-long training where teachers could come together in the district to work in teams and develop their lesson plans for the year. It would be held during the summer. But many teachers have summer employment to supplement their income. Scheduling the academy in the summer would require funding.
“Many of them work not only through the summer, but they have to work throughout the year, too, because they would lose those employment opportunities,” Swencki said.
The district would need to pay them, but the $2 million price tag was daunting. They scaled the program back to a week, and this summer, they launched the first-ever Teacher Academy.
Even at a week, it is not cheap. Just more than 500 of the district’s 860 teachers participated in Teacher Academy in August, receiving their normal daily rate of pay. At that rate, the cost of the program was about $625,000.
But teachers agree, it was money well spent.
“It’s a lot of help,” said South Brunswick High School biology teacher Erica Sypole. “During the school year, when we are implementing our plans, things happen. We have family life, we have things that we have to take care of, so it’s great to be able to think about these things ahead of time.”
The Teacher Academy was held at two campuses in Brunswick County. Teachers were grouped in teams based on similar areas of interest. They were able to collaborate on teaching plans, lesson development, activity preparation, and more.
Paige Garza, another South Brunswick High School teacher, was in charge of designing and managing the academy. She heard talk around the district about the possibility of the program back when she was social studies curriculum coach for the district. Before it had even become a reality, she started working on a proposal for how she would make it happen. She submitted it to the district, and after it was approved, district leaders approached her about leading it. That was in June.
“This is really a year long project that we have done in two months,” she said.
But she made it happen with the help of others like Antoinette Barnhill, a middle grade English language arts instructional coach for the district.
“To see things happening, it’s blowing my mind how great it’s going,” Barnhill said. “I’ve been getting nothing but fantastic feedback from teachers.”
“We’re seeing groups of teachers cross district… plan together that have never planned together,” Garza said. “They’re knocking out their lesson plans and they’re thanking us for giving them time.”
Swencki said the Teacher Academy has three goals: improving outcomes for students, giving teachers an opportunity for planning, and increasing teacher efficacy by reinforcing the idea that they are professionals.
“What we have been struggling with is our identity as teachers in the state,” Swencki said.
Thompson said district leaders hoped the Teacher Academy would “raise the level of self image for a key and critical profession in our state.”
Jessica Lewis, a chemistry teacher at North Brunswick High School said the program was immensely helpful for freeing up some of her time during the school year.
“During school, I leave here, I go home, I sit in the couch and put on…something I’ve already seen 500 times…and I’m either making some worksheets or grading papers,” she said.
“This is the first opportunity that I know of where a school district has brought teachers in for a week of professional development, and after professional development, to take that professional development and actually develop lessons plans for the first nine weeks,” said Brunswick County School Superintendent Leslie K. Tubb.
He was so excited about the program that he volunteered to be the mascot for the week. He wandered around Leland Middle School, one of the staging sites, dressed as a giant apple. He was clearly enjoying himself.
“They’ve had a terrific time, we’ve had a terrific time,” he said. “We’re going to do it again next year, we feel sure.”