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Alumni and Fellow Teachers Gather to Talk Education, Reform

Philadelphia public school teachers need to build support networks, but finding time to collaborate during the school year is nearly impossible. In July, they carved out the time—five alumni and 25 other educators gathered at the Teacher Leadership Summer Institute to share challenges and indulge their passion for finding solutions. 

Jennifer Lunstead ’03, Kathleen Melville ’04, Joe Alberti ’06, and Scott Storm ’08 returned to campus July 20–24 to attend the institute. A four-person planning committee included Melville and Professor of Educational Studies Lisa Smulyan ’76, who also led many of the conference’s activities and discussions. The institute, sponsored by Teachers Lead Philly, Teachers Write Now, and the Teacher Leader Study Group, was available to all Philadelphia teachers. About 200 applied, and 18 were selected to attend.

Conversations often centered on Philadelphia’s long-standing funding crisis. More than 20 schools closed in fall 2013, resulting in thousands of district layoffs. The institute offered teachers the opportunity to discuss how they can transform the city’s education system into “something the kids deserve,” says Melville, who teaches English and Spanish in the Philadelphia School District.

According to Smulyan, the institute was “meant to engage teachers in thinking about what they already do and might do going forward—as individuals and as a group—to challenge and contribute to an improved system of education for our children.” Sharing personal challenges was also helpful for attendees. “Teaching can be really, really isolating,” says Melville. “There’s some healing that happens when we come together that allows us to stay committed to the work.”

To create learning opportunities for seasoned and new teachers alike the institute was funded by Teachers Lead Philly, the Consortium for Excellence in Teacher Education, and a Maurice Eldridge Faculty Fellowship. A panel of veteran teacher-leaders outlined how young educators can sustain their passion for teaching, while workshops on mentoring, writing for publication, and developing curricula offered further opportunities for growth.

“[We are becoming mentors] to a group of people who were where we were three years ago, which is super exciting,” says Storm, who teaches English at Harvest Collegiate in New York, a public high school that he helped to found.

The five alumni who attended also had a chance to catch up with one another and Smulyan, who had taught most of them. Storm and Melville took separate paths to teaching post-Swarthmore, yet both still rely on Smulyan as a mentor and friend. For instance, she has helped Storm prepare papers for the Literacy Research Association’s annual conference and the American Educational Research Association’s yearly meeting.

Smulyan also helped Melville with some of her career choices—providing written recommendations and guidance for various teaching positions, including her first one in Guatemala City. They’ve helped each other on the home front, too. “I babysat her kids when I was here at Swarthmore, and now, she babysits my kid,” says Melville, whose 7-month-old daughter, Sonia, received care from the student babysitters Smulyan hired to work at the conference.

The new cohort of teacher leaders plan to partner with Teachers Lead Philly to carry out projects with the support of the local urban teacher network. They’ll have a year to grow as teacher-leaders before returning next summer as institute facilitators.

Collectively, participants of varying ages and experience left the institute feeling inspired. Smulyan believes it served its purpose—teachers came together as confidants, activists, and allies. “[We are enthusiastic] to keep broadening the movement and empowering teachers,” she says.