In difficult budget times, I can honestly say that I don’t envy state legislators who are forced every spring into the uncomfortable position of cutting valuable programs in an effort to save cash. Trying to decide between protecting programs that support teachers or firefighters or cops or senior citizens or the mentally disabled or the poor — and by default, axing programs that support those same groups — has got to be the worst part of being an elected official.
Here in North Carolina, our legislature is making those difficult decisions right now — and one of the programs up for cutting is called The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT).
Known as NCCAT for short, the Center was created in 1985 to provide teachers with a place to engage in deep and meaningful studies of their content areas and curricula.
Unlike traditional teacher professional development — which is typically delivered on isolated early release days scattered throughout the school year, NCCAT learning seminars run for an entire week. Participating teachers from across our state learn together for five straight days — wrestling with ideas formally in structured learning sessions with content experts and informally over meals and in the common areas of residence halls — and often develop supportive professional relationships that last long after they’ve left NCCAT.
Having attended three different NCCAT seminars during the course of my 20 year teaching career, I can tell you that nothing renews a teacher more than having the opportunity to practice reflection, to be intellectually curious, and to share an enthusiasm for learning with like-minded peers for a week. After each of my NCCAT experiences, I returned to my classroom refreshed and excited and feeling valued and appreciated. Those feelings have sustained me throughout my career and have helped to keep me in the classroom even as outside organizations have offered me opportunities to leave the profession.
More importantly, though, each of my NCCAT experiences left me professionally challenged — and professionally changed.
In every case, I understood my content better than ever before simply because I had the chance to wrestle with core concepts as a learner instead of as a teacher. And in every case, I began to tinker with my instruction, identifying and then polishing ways that I could give my students the same opportunities to understand the content that we were studying. The intensity of studying deeply for a week — instead of learning occasionally in rushed sessions over the course of a school year — resulted in the kinds of tangible changes in practice that teacher professional development is designed to produce.
I don’t know what NCCAT costs the taxpayers of North Carolina, but I’m ready to argue that it is worth whatever we pay for it. If we truly believe that the quality of the teachers that stand in front of our students is the key factor in ensuring success for our schools and our state, then investing in a program that creates a space for teachers to reflect and to learn and to network and to grow just plain makes sense.