by Henry Bolter
The idea for Teachers as Scholars came out of my experience with professional development in Newton and Brookline. Our PD sessions were usually held at the end of the teaching day. We were already exhausted, and now we faced an hour or two on some new teaching method or on how a mandated reform effort was about to enter our teaching lives.
As I sat in one of those September sessions, two questions bothered me:
- Whatever happened to ideas in professional development?
- Why were school systems holding professional development at a time when teachers were least likely to benefit from it? (As a colleague once said to me at one of the after-school professional development events, “The best professional development for me right now is a nap.”)
I had just returned to teaching from a summer NEH seminar on poetry led by Helen Vendler, the nation’s preeminent poetry critic, and the energy I felt in those five summer days was palatable; teachers finally had time to discuss and reflect with their colleagues about what brought them into teaching: ideas.
So sitting in that September session, I felt the contrast. Every day we were asked to bring the power of ideas to our students, and yet we received little from traditional PD to meet our need to be inspired, to be renewed, and to be invited to reconnect with our intellectual lives.
That disconnect gave me an idea that stayed with me. In 1996 I put together a humanities program of fifteen seminars led by university faculty held at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. I invited two hundred teachers from ten local school districts. The seminars were held during the work week from 9am-3pm with a generous hour for lunch, so that teachers had time to relax, explore Harvard Square, and think about what had happened in the class. I offered districts a one-year trial—I asked them to see what the teachers said about their seminar experience and let that determine if the district wanted to continue.
Not surprisingly, teachers felt the kind of inspiration I felt in that Helen Vendler seminar, and they said so. Largely thanks to teacher word-of-mouth, Teachers as Scholars grew to include over fifty member schools from the Boston area.
Teachers as Scholars (TAS) has expanded to include classes in all the academic disciplines, to welcome private schools, and to incorporate as a non-profit educational organization. TAS faculty are drawn from Boston area schools such as Boston University, MIT, Harvard, Babson College, Wellesley College, and Tufts. Although a majority of our classes meet in Harvard Hillel, we have expanded to offer off-campus seminars at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Public Library, the Harvard Museums, the Arnold Arboretum and other sites. In 2007 I began a Travel Program and offered trips to India, Dublin, Florence, Paris, the French Riviera(La Napoule Art Foundation), and Cuba.
Teachers as Scholars has a national presence with programs at Princeton, Notre Dame, the Five College Consortium (Amherst, UMass, Smith, Mt.Holyoke and Hampshire College) Messiah University, Montclair State College, College of New Jersey, and the Newberry Library (Chicago). Through all this expansion and change, the bedrock principles of TAS remain:
- Small content-driven seminars held during the school day, giving teachers time to reconnect with the transforming power of ideas.
- Thousands of evaluations have proven that teachers need this professional development in a profound way. As one teacher said, “Finally, something for my soul.”
As we look to the future we are developing plans to serve retired teachers, to collaborate with other programs such as the nationally recognized Poetry in America program, and to change the culture of schools to make more present the life of the mind.