The weekend prior to the February and April Academies, first-time recipients of the Sontag Prize in Urban Education attend an intensive two-day professional development (PD) experience at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As Superintendent Riley told us:“We built the professional development weekend at Harvard for the teachers around a pretty simple premise: that 95 percent of professional development in teacher education is garbage and is not worthwhile, even though we know teachers will walk over broken glass to get amazing professional development that they can then bring into their classroom.”
The prospect of spending two full days in professional development the weekend before a demanding week of teaching that would otherwise be vacation may seem daunting, but these highly-skilled teachers are hungry for learning experiences that enhance their practice and contribute to their professional growth.
For the Superintendent and his team, the PD weekend is a critical part of the Academies experience, intended to provide exposure to cutting edge ideas and practices. As important is the symbolic aspect of the experience: signaling to teachers that they are as worthy of quality learning experiences as any dedicated professional in the American workforce.
In addition to sessions that focus on practical knowledge and skills for the classroom, teachers also have access to experts in school reform, building effective teams, neuroscience and brain development, and other topics that provide a broader view of the K-12 educational landscape than teachers typically get in their daily lives as professionals.
Teachers also have access to one another; the opportunity to network and exchange plans and ideas is an oft-cited perk of the Sontag Prize in general, and the professional development weekend in particular.
The content and camaraderie of the professional development weekend are not its only distinguishing features. There also is a carefully crafted atmosphere of celebrating excellent teachers, providing Sontag Prize recipients with a sense of professionalism and of being appreciated – which unfortunately tend to be rare in urban education. For example, on the Saturday evening between the two days of PD, teachers are feted at a festive dinner in a fine hotel in Harvard Square.
Sontag teachers are reminded that the work they do is critically important and undeniably challenging. The Superintendent presents each teacher with a national award and they receive a special jacket, all part of their induction into a fellowship of excellence.