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Teachers for Teachers

As school days offer less time for prep and collaboration, teachers find what they need elsewhere—in networks all over the city

Like so many new teachers, Lisa Hantman entered the classroom ambitious and enthusiastic, with grand plans for how she would engage her young students at the very beginning of their school careers. What she lacked was the experience to bring all those ideas into the classroom. Hantman tried to turn to her colleagues for help—but found their teaching styles and philosophy so different from hers that they could barely communicate. “I’m an innovative teacher, and they were more traditional,” she recalls.

So Hantman sought out like-minded teachers from throughout the city through the Philadelphia Teachers Learning Cooperative (PTLC), a network of educators that meets a few times a month during the school year in a member’s home to hash out real solutions to problems they face in the classroom. “It offered me a formalized conversation about how to become a better teacher,” Hantman recalls.

That was 37 years ago. Hantman, who now teaches third grade at George C. McCall School, is still a member of PTLC—as well as six other teacher networks around town. It’s all part of what she considers a vital piece of educating children in the city: Educating herself. “They help me hone in and perfect my skills with students,” she says. “From hearing other teachers’ stories, whether new or experienced, I learn to be a better teacher, and a better person.”

What Hartman and her colleagues recognized decades ago is truer than ever in Philadelphia: Teachers in this town need each other. Budget cuts over the last few years have left teachers with less time for classroom prep, collaboration with colleagues and in-school professional development—while more is expected of them and their students than ever before. Yet, professional development is consistently at the top of the list when education experts talk about how to improve learning for students. One study, in 2007, found that with 49 hours of “substantial” professional development, teachers can raise their student’s achievement scores by 21 percent. In Singapore, one of the top-ranked education systems in the world, teachers are guaranteed 100 hours of consistent, well-planned teacher training outside of school. They also interact with students no more than 18 of their 42 hours at work, giving them 24 hours for grading, developing teaching plans and honing their own skills, either on their own or with colleagues.

More and more, teachers are forming—or joining—citywide networks, coming together regularly to trade ideas. Estimates are that several hundred teachers in Philadelphia belong to at least 25 different teacher networks.

“Common planning time and collaboration is really important,” says Ami Patel Hopkins, Vice President of Teaching, Learning and Innovation at the Philadelphia Education Fund. “Here, teachers can’t do that as much during the school day. Even if it’s scheduled into their day, they’re often pulled to cover other classes, or to serve as nurses. We don’t have that culture with many of the schools.”

So what’s a Philly teacher to do? More and more, they are forming—or joining—citywide networks of teachers, from different types of schools, who come together regularly to trade ideas about an academic subject (Philadelphia Area Math Teachers Circle); or a political objective (Caucus of Working Educators); or mentorship (Teachers Lead Philly); or networking (PhilaSoup). Hopkins estimates several hundred teachers in Philadelphia belong to at least 25 different teacher networks—more than in any other part of the region, for an obvious reason: “There are more here because of what’s going on in Philadelphia schools. Networks provide a way for teachers to come together around an issue they’re passionate about and to integrate teacher’s voices into what’s happening in Philly education.”

As Hantman knows, networks themselves are not a new idea. But the boom in the last couple years is starting to shift the way teachers interact with each other and with the District. The Ed Fund—which itself formed from two teacher networks in 1995—now holds quarterly meetings with teachers from all different networks, to share ideas, promote each others’ programs and advocate with the District. Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn attended one meeting this year, to see firsthand the sort of training and deep thinking that happens among teachers, outside of the classroom. And in his Action Plan 3.0, Superintendent William Hite officially acknowledged that teachers want more and better training, and vowed to support the expansion of networks, both within and across schools—something for which the Ed Fund lobbied to be included. Eventually, Hopkins says, she hopes the District will start to outsource professional development to teachers themselves—which teachers agree is a far better way to learn.

In the meantime, teachers are taking it upon themselves to support each other. On a Sunday afternoon in May, a group of 40 teachers shared soup and Girl Scout cookies in co-working space Pipeline Philly, almost eye to eye with Billy Penn, atop City Hall across the street. They were there for the quarterly PhilaSoup, a teacher network formed five years ago by by two sisters, Claire and Nikka Landau, one of whom was a teacher in Southwest Philadelphia, where she found it hard to make connections. So they came up with an idea that would be fun and fruitful: Invite a bunch of teachers over for soup, charge them $5 and give the proceeds to a teacher with the best idea for a classroom project. Since then—with the entrance fee raised to $10—PhilaSoup has given out more than $21,000, in quarterly soup nights and at satellite events in schools.

PhilaSoup, which now has a mailing list of 1,300 teachers from schools and nonprofits around Philly, is a reaction to two different phenomena: Teachers’ need to connect with each other; and teachers’ need for more funding. In May, three teachers competed for the (relatively small) $400 pot, standing before the crowd for a few minutes each to sell them on their disparate schools, students and ideas: Books for a 7th grade reading room at Alliance for Progress Charter School; math tutoring program, MathCorps; and “Teach, Maintain, Play,” for a maintenance program for instruments used by the Andrew Jackson School rock band. Other teachers in the group peppered them with questions. Then, each person voted by putting pebbles into one of three jars. The one with the most pebbles—books for Alliance for Progress—got 50 percent of the pot; Andrew Jackson took 30 percent or, $120; and MathCorps got $80.

One study found that with 49 hours of “substantial” professional development, teachers can raise their student’s achievement scores by 21 percent. In Singapore, one of the top-ranked education systems in the world, teachers are guaranteed 100 hours of consistent, well-planned teacher training outside of school.

PhilaSoup now raises money for its operations through an annual fundraiser, which has allowed it to broaden its reach. This year, it expanded to “ambassador” programs at schools around the city, helping teachers run fundraisers for a particular cause. At Independence Charter School, for example, PhilaSoup helped a teacher host a schoolwide dinner to send some students abroad for spring break. The network provided $500, and training in how to reach out to community organizations for support, how to market the event, how to organize the evening and how to run online sales. The hope is that the teacher at ICS will then pass on her knowledge to others at the school, and throughout the city.

“We want teachers to have a wider skill set,” says Meagan Ingerson, president of PhilaSoup’s board and an ICS teacher this year. “We encourage them to help build communities in schools, and to widen the ways they can raise money. Ultimately, we want to reach more children in Philadelphia.”

This hearkens back to Hantman, at McCall, whose passion for reaching children has fed her passion for teacher networks. She is a regular at the Ed Fund meetings, where she wryly observes the newfound appreciation for something she’s been doing for more than 30 years. Still, she acknowledges that there is a new energy around the idea of connecting with other teachers. And she is clear on the reason.

“It’s a backlash to the bounded, narrow way of looking at education that we are being asked to do these days,” says Hantman. “Everything’s about testing and scores, and not about creativity and children. Teachers are desperate for something else—and they’re seeking that out with their colleagues.”

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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