When I moved to North Carolina 15 years ago from New York, my parents were somewhat mortified! After all, we’d grown to accept the Deep South stereotypes as gospel truth over the course of our lives. ‘Billy,’ my mom said, ‘The schools in North Carolina can’t possibly be as good as the schools here in New York—You’ll be ruining your career!’
Needless to say, our family’s eyes have been opened over the past decade and a half. Turns out, North Carolina is a simply remarkable place to be an educator!
Our state consistently leads the nation in progressive attempts to improve education. We’ve supported National Board Certification in a way that has been unmatched by other states—offering certified teachers a 12% salary stipend for the length of their ten year certificates. We’ve also started a nation-wide effort to focus attention on the connections between Teacher Working Conditions and student achievement. Finally, we’re now leading innovative efforts to redesign high schools and enable students of poverty to attend college cost-free.
One of North Carolina’s best kept secrets, however, is called the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Known as NCCAT for short, the Center is nothing short of paradise! Created in 1985 as a part of the University of North Carolina system, NCCAT is designed to provide teachers with a place for "scholarly activities structured to stimulate intellectual curiosity." It also provides "time for reflection, inspiration and professional networking." Perhaps most importantly, NCCAT provides teachers a time and a place to "renew their enthusiasm for teaching and learning."
Having just returned from a week-long NCCAT seminar, I can attest to the fact that NCCAT meets all of those goals. My seminar was known as a "Scholars-in-Residence" program. Paired with five members of my professional learning team, we were invited to NCCAT’s mountain retreat center (as opposed to the newly opened retreat center on North Carolina’s coast) to spend five full days working together to develop curriculum for our classrooms—a task that we’d been trying to complete for nearly three years!
Our time was nothing short of remarkable. We stayed in a residence building that reminded me of a family owned bed and breakfast. My room—which I didn’t have to share with a roommate—was as nice as any hotel that I’ve stayed in over the past few years. More importantly, there was a commons area complete with rocking chairs, a patio and fireplace that became a center for conversation between colleagues each evening.
Our meals were absolutely unbelievable! Each morning, we had a full breakfast buffet complete with waffles, eggs, biscuits and gravy (it’s a Southern thing, y’all) and bagels. Lunch was typically some sort of sandwich or pasta combination and dinners were sit-down service! We had chicken parm on our first night and New York strip steaks on our last.
Our workspace was nothing short of professional. We had wireless access across the NCCAT campus, which allowed us to videoconference with teachers back at our school as needed. Our meeting room was equipped with an LCD projector and whiteboard that we used to collaborate for an entire week. Everyday supplies such as markers, paper, binders and notebooks were at our disposal—as were copiers and printers.
My team jumped into our work from day one, spending anywhere from 8-10 hours planning together. We deconstructed learning standards, developed "kid-friendly" objective statements, wrote common assessments, and created units of instruction that are directly connected to the curriculum. We were able to get more planning done in one week than we typically would have gotten done in over a year because we were free to work all day, every day.
Oh yeah—and our NCCAT experience didn’t cost our teachers, our school, or our district a dime. NCCAT reimbursed each driver for travel expenses and reimbursed our school for our substitutes for the entire week. How’s that for a good deal!
What was interesting to me about our NCCAT experience was that I originally saw it as a selfish way to gain time to get critical planning done. I didn’t go into NCCAT expecting anything other than to work, to eat and to leave. I got something much more out of the experience, though—I regained the belief that teachers really are valued in our state!
It was impossible not to feel respected. The NCCAT staff essentially catered to our needs every day—providing kind words and celebrations of our efforts. Our facility was nothing short of five stars, with walls covered in beautiful art and with service unlike any that I’d experienced at a "teacher retreat" in years.
And it was impossible not to get engaged in meaningful conversations about teaching and learning. Surrounded by highly motivated and intelligent colleagues—there were 30 from around the state in our session—and given the gift of time away from our classrooms, much-needed reflection was the most valuable reward of the entire week. The mental energy and synergy that I experienced has left me nothing short of jazzed!
The best part is that I can attend an NCCAT seminar every 3 years—and literally dozens are offered on topics ranging from puppetry to the Holocaust. A friend did a mountain stream study a few years back and returned to school with dozens of new ideas and contacts that he’s used to improve the teaching and learning in his classroom. Another colleague attended a session on the history of baseball—something that wasn’t connected to his curriculum, but that was a personal passion.
The seminar I’ve got on my radar for the future is a trip to Poland and Austria to learn more about World War II. Not only will it leave me better prepared to teach my students about a time and a place that we study in our class, it will give me an opportunity to visit a region of the world I’d otherwise never be able to experience.
Sounds pretty remarkable, doesn’t it?
NCCAT is remarkable—and it’s something I’d encourage teacher-leaders nationwide to begin advocating for! Get your unions or elected officials to look into what may be the most powerful teacher retention and renewal tool I’ve ever experienced. Here’s some contact information that may help you to learn more:
North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching
276 NCCAT Drive
Cullowhee, North Carolina 28723