Nonprofit Aims to Inspire Teachers and Honor Their Vocation

Academy for Teachers has drawn more than 1,100 for intimate master classes

Academy for Teachers fellows in the Trustees’ Room on Oct. 12.
Photo: Pat Swain

by Leslie Brody, Wall Street Journal

Oct. 20, 2017

Teachers these days get bombarded with training on everything from fighting bullies to analyzing test scores.

Last week, 18 history teachers from public and private schools around New York City joined a workshop about something more fundamental to their calling: How to interpret Abraham Lincoln through his own words.

In a wood-paneled board room at Columbia University, they spent a day under the tutelage of a Lincoln scholar. The nonprofit that brought them together, the Academy for Teachers, aims to inspire great instruction and honor a vocation that some see as suffering from low esteem.

“We want to treat teachers like professional intellectuals, which is pretty rare,” said Sam Swope, founder of the academy. “They’re working their hearts out.”

Now in its seventh year, the academy has drawn more than 1,100 K-12 teachers from the New York City area for intimate master classes with prominent artists and thinkers, including composer Stephen Sondheim, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, historian David McCullough and cartoonist Roz Chast.

Some of the academy’s devoted alumni have formed a softball team that plays against the city’s cultural institutions. They joked about calling themselves “The Detentions.”

These workshops offer a rare chance for teachers from public and private schools to collaborate. That educators in the two sectors “work in separate silos seems ridiculously unhealthy,” said Mr. Swope, who has volunteered as a writing teacher in a public elementary school in Queens. “They always leave impressed by each other despite the differences in resources.”

Teachers must be nominated by colleagues and are picked for their creativity and love of their subject. “To get into a room with just history teachers is fantastic,” said Jason McDonald, a high-school teacher at the private Grace Church School in Manhattan. “The sharing of ideas is manna.”

At Friday’s master class with Andrew Delbanco, an American Studies professor at Columbia, four words were off limits: “Common Core” (the often controversial academic standards in most states), and “Donald Trump.”

Even so, as the group pored over Lincoln’s writings on slavery, racial attitudes and individual rights, there were plenty of references to current events, such as the deadly clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., and debates about football players taking a knee during the national anthem.

Mr. Delbanco brought up Lincoln’s first Inaugural address in 1861, when seven southern states had already seceded from the Union. In that speech, Lincoln pleaded for unity and heeding the “better angels of our nature.”

Public schools pay $250 for the master class, while private schools pay $500 and help subsidize two public-school teachers. Participants face vastly different environments and job descriptions. One teacher at a public elementary in Manhattan has intense involvement with 24 students, while another in the Bronx sees hundreds once a week.

Many said they would borrow from a “pedagogical pot luck” of shared lesson plans. Mr. McDonald, of Grace Church School, showed an 1861 map detailing the percentage of the population in each southern county that was enslaved—more than 90% in some areas.

Anthony Valentin, a history teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, said he tries to convey the Civil War’s devastation through assignments on “sleeveless poetry,” written by veterans who lost limbs in battle.

And Rebecca Lord, a dean of curriculum at Uncommon Schools in Newark, drew gasps when she said fifth-graders at her charter network take parts of the U.S. history Advanced Placement exam as classroom assessments.

Several teachers said it was a joy to dive into the material this way.

“Education in general has been stuck in a rut of testing,” said Alissa Koerner, who teaches seventh grade at New York City Charter School of the Arts. “This type of opportunity is rare because it’s a lot more freeing. We get to be students.”

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