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For two weeks in the summer of 1995, Betsy Chapin studied English literature at its source—in England, at the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford. An English teacher with a master’s degree and a doctorate in her field, she was one of about a dozen U.S. high school teachers who earned a coveted spot in the class.

“We did a lot of reading, and we got the British approach to teaching [English] authors … as well as the current criticism on them,” recalls Chapin. “It was invaluable to be taught—and to observe firsthand—English culture in all its depth, including how each literary work is steeped in it.”

At that time, Chapin was a teacher at Sanford School in Hockessin, which gave her a grant to attend the seminar. “I’m grateful to Sanford School for giving me the opportunity to invigorate my passion for teaching British literature,” she said. “I realized even more that teaching is a way of life, of thinking and of serving.”

The Sanford School Summer Teachers Institute

Sanford School, 6900 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin, 19707

June 20-24, Noon-3:45 p.m.

$295 per person; a $50 deposit is due by June 20.

Now a professor at Gwynedd-Mercy College in Pennsylvania, Chapin wants to provide that type of enrichment to other Delaware high school teachers. She is spearheading the first Sanford Summer Teachers Institute, to be held in June. Chapin herself will lead a workshop on teaching Shakespeare and writing skills. Other workshops focus on teaching history and science. The seminar is open to both public and private school teachers.

“My goal is that private and public school teachers can enrich each other’s professional lives by joining in these workshops and sharing ideas,” she says.

As Delaware strives to identify best practices for cultivating world-class teachers, the state’s private schools offer some innovative models.

Besides sending their teachers to professional development conferences, some private schools, like Sanford, host their own events as well. Tatnall School in Wilmington will hold its third regional SMART Board Users Conference in March. The conference focuses on instructional technology involving the SMART Board, an interactive white board used in more than 1.5 million K-12 classrooms nationwide.

An Independent Endeavor

“The strength of the teachers is dependent on the professional learning environment supported in the school,” says Linda Zankowsky, head of Wilmington Montessori School in Wilmington. The way private schools seek to improve their teachers’ skills is highly individual, reflecting the schools’ philosophy and strategic goals. Professional development strengthens the core values that distinguish a school—such as a dedication to religion or an education approach—and helps to enforce its individual curriculum.

Independent schools  “define their own mission and their own curriculum,” explains Barbara Kraus-Blackney, executive director of the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools (ADVIS), which includes members from eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware and central and southern New Jersey.

ADVIS member schools are not dependent on government funds, but must be accredited by an approved agency, such as the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.

“The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools holds the school accountable for implementing appropriate faculty professional development to reach established goals but does not mandate what that professional development should be,” says Peter Wenigmann, assistant head of school for academics at Wilmington Friends School in Wilmington.

Without restrictions, professional development in independent schools often follows their individual spirit. Professional development at Wilmington Friends School, for instance, is in keeping with the Quaker spirit. Quakers believe in “continuing revelation,” says Head of School Bryan Garman. The truth is continually revealed through seeking, experience, and reflection.

The school often participates in programs tailored to either independent schools or Quaker-based schools, which “provide a helpful professional development network,” says Rebecca Zing, head of Wilmington Friends’ upper school.

Wilmington Friends also looks for training linked to its strategic goals, such as building its global education program and developing a service-learning curriculum. Fifteen upper-school teachers this spring and summer will undergo training to teach the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. Wilmington Friends has offered the IB program for its students since 2002. The special curriculum, developed by an international foundation, includes six academic areas, adheres to international standards, and is considered one of the leading college preparatory programs.

Wilmington Montessori School, meanwhile, focuses on Montessori-oriented training and the best practices that support the Montessori method, which promotes mixed age groups, individual choice of research and work, and uninterrupted concentration.

“Any form of professional development that supports teachers in meeting the child as an individual and supports the concept that it is the teacher’s responsibility to provide a developmentally appropriate environment for children … is appropriate for a Wilmington Montessori teacher,” Zankowsky says.

Professional development is offered to all Wilmington Montessori teachers, from those who work with infants to those who work with elementary school-age children.

Teaching methodology, student-learning styles, studies on the brain, and early childhood development are popular topics. Interest in classroom technology spans both sectors and all grades. Wilmington Friends teachers last August attended a presentation on emerging and interactive internet technologies.

“My classes are better—especially with more meaningful collaboration among students—not because the technology is there but because we are using it effectively,” says Jake Rashkind, an upper school English teacher. Using wikispace , simple Web pages that users edit together, he and the students can create a forum to exchange ideas well beyond the school day. “It’s a great way to hear from students who are sometimes reluctant to speak in class,” he says.

Tatnall first-grade teacher Ramona Dowling feels the same way about the SMART Board Users Conference. “The conference has helped me be more confident when I use it in the classroom,” says Dowling, who uses the technology to teach language arts, reading, handwriting, math and social studies. “I’ve learned from some of the best in the area, and I enjoy sharing how easy it is to use in a first-grade classroom. It’s wonderful to walk out of the [conference] with at least one new lesson to take into my classroom.”

Dowling both attends and presents at the SMART Board Users Conference.

SMART Board Users Conference

Tatnall School, 1501 Barley Mill Road, Wilmington, DE 19807

Saturday, March 5. Registration starts at 8 a.m. Program starts at 9:15 a.m.

$40 per person, which includes lunch for those who register before Feb. 28

(302) 892-4370 or Tatnall.org

As Chapin’s Oxford experience demonstrates, many schools support professional development in content areas. Each summer, Sanford School offers its summer grants. More than half the faculty apply for the grants, and about 90 percent are approved, says Douglas W. “Chip” MacKelcan Jr., head of school.

For the Sanford Summer Teachers Institute, Chapin started with the subjects that she’d like to teach—Shakespeare and writing skills—that were “two very pragmatic options for English teachers.” Shakespeare, she notes, is still widely taught in both public and private schools. She added workshops in history and science when she met two experienced teachers she felt would make effective workshop leaders.

Great Expectations

Professional development comes in many forms—onsite lecturers, workshops, seminars and conferences—and can lead to an advanced degree. Independent school instructors are encouraged to attain advanced degrees. Tatnall School provides funding for two courses per semester at the state university rate. However, unlike their public school counterparts, whose pay is tied to their degree and the amount of professional development they accrue, private school teachers don’t necessarily get a financial reward for sharpening their skills.

In part, independent school instructors further their studies because they’re expected to do so. “There’s a certain peer pressure,” agrees Robert Hampel, interim director of the University of Delaware’s Education Department, a Sanford School board member, and former editor of the Independent School Magazine.

Wilmington Montessori requires faculty to complete 18 hours of professional development each year. Most independent school teachers are on yearly contracts without tenure. At contract renewal time, administrators consider how often teachers have engaged in professional development, says Harry Baetjer, associate headmaster of Tower Hill School.

Sharing what you have learned is expected. After Sanford history teacher Mark Shields toured Southern civil rights sites one summer, he presented his experiences to both faculty and students. An independent school’s small departments make it easier to educate peers about the teacher experiences.

“Being able to spend time at so many historically significant sites has provided me with a personal connection to the civil rights movement, and I will now be able to pass on my new understanding and passion to my students,” Shields says. “In addition, I had the opportunity to meet and learn from many living ‘primary sources,’ people who participated in the movement. Finally, the pictures, video, and written materials from my trip have certainly enhanced my classroom lessons.”

Teachers also engage in activities simply because they want to. “They’re lifelong learners,” says Sarah Baylin, head of the upper school at Tatnall School, who also teaches English. “They’re people who take a great deal of pride in their teaching. They want to the best. I’m sure teachers in public school are also.”

Dollars and Sense

Without government money, private schools fund professional development on their own, from a variety of sources. Wilmington Montessori, for instance, draws on school resources and grants. This year, the school received a grant from the Verizon Foundation that targeted technology training.

Sanford School’s summer study grants are funded through the school budget, as well as the Home and School Association, a parent-run volunteer organization, which holds fundraisers. The association has helped keep programs strong even in the recession.

Still, few would deny that the recession had an effect. “During the height of the recession, some schools trimmed their budget to make them as lean as possible,” says Myra McGowen, spokesperson for the National Association of Independent Schools. “In many cases, that meant cutting back on professional development. Thankfully, many have ramped that back up this school year.”

With an eye on cost, Wilmington Montessori brings trainers to the school to work with large groups, bringing teachers throughout the school to share the culture. Webcasts, which stream information from a single source over the Internet to audiences in various physical locations, also save money and promote an exchange of ideas.

Most independent-school teachers understand any budgetary limitations, Chapin says. “They are loyal to their department and loyal to the school,” she explained. “If they need to wait a year, they will. It isn’t just about getting credits. For them, teaching is a commitment for life.”