N.C. Center Offers ‘Experiential’ Rewards for Talented Teachers

By Karen Diegmueller — June 19, 1991 12 min read

Cullowhee, N.C.--Deep inside a dark, dank cavern the size of a football field, a guide illumines a few discreet lamps to accentuate dazzling rock formations. At just the right moment, when a group of two dozen explorers has grown still, the leader of the group presses a button on a tape player and the strains of the chorale from Bach’s Cantata No. 78 pierce the air.

Suddenly, the pitch-black home of bats, lizards, and 40-foot dropoffs is transformed into a majestic cathedral.

This singular moment, occurring during a trip to nearby Tuckaleechee Caverns in Tennessee, is one of many a group of North Carolina teachers will experience during a recent week’s stay here at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

The only center of its kind in the nation, nccat is winding up its first academic year in its new $7-million retreat in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina. Unlike other teacher programs undertaken by states and organizations, which have focused on remedial efforts to improve the nation’s teaching corps, nccat seeks to provide an experiential reward for excellence.

It is also about as different as can be imagined from the normal round of in-service training, which, quips the center’s director, often occurs “in hot cafeterias with some oaf from the central office.”

As Neill Clark, an nccat fellow, puts it: “I look at it like ‘Fantasy Island’ except you don’t have [Tatoo, the diminutive factotum] to help you out.”

Indeed, the center can be almost anything teachers want to make of it. They can participate in intellectual discussions, fish in mountain streams, enjoy the camaraderie of fellow teachers from across the state, conduct scientific experiments, work on their novels, or be transported back to the Victorian era.

And at the end of their week, if the teachers return to their classrooms eager to try out what they have experienced, so much the better, say the center’s staff members. But that, they emphasize, is not their mission.

“You are here because you know how to teach,” the director, R. Bruce McPherson, tells the teachers during their orientation. “We are more interested in your mind and your heart. We believe if we want to help students, we must help you.”

The teachers seem wary at first, but within a few days their reserve will have disappeared and they will be almost giddy with a new esprit de corps.

“This is a fun group, and we want to come back--together,” says an elementary teacher, Patricia Clark.

Gary A. Griffin, a professor of education at the University of Arizona, has studied the center. In A Place for Teacher Renewal, which is due out next year, he writes: “Rather than concentrate efforts on remedying perceived deficiencies ... it set out to reward teachers for their excellence in teaching and to [revamp] some of the longstanding and negative conditions that teachers and others had come to expect as usual.”

The center’s goal, according to Mr. McPherson, is to reignite the spark that led participants into teaching in the first place.

“We do not seek to change people or their work environments, but rather to encourage them to rediscover and nourish their personal and professional strengths--the passion and the intellect that are their strongest allies in the daily business of teaching,” he explained in a speech to the Minnesota Humanities Commission last fall.

The first step in the creation of the center came in November 1983, when Jean Powell, a high-school English teacher, testified before the Governor’s Commission on Education for Economic Growth about the need to instill pride, self-worth, and enthusiasm in teachers.

“We have a governor’s school for gifted students. Why not something similar for teachers?” she asked. “We don’t need any more educational methodology or the latest curriculum fads. We’d like to study the ‘real stuff.”’

To Ms. Powell, that meant contemplating great books, visiting art galleries, viewing plays, or writing critical commentaries.

“If that kind of learning experience doesn’t turn on teachers, I don’t know what will. That excitement will be communicated to students,” she said. “Furthermore, being a student will give a teacher a renewed perspective of the student’s role.”

Inspired by that idea, three of the state’s most powerful leaders--Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., the Speaker of the House, and the president of the University of North Carolina--successfully worked the legislature to authorize a center.

Not all parties were supportive, however. The state’s National Education Association affiliate, the North Carolina Association of Educators, opposed the concept at first on the grounds that the money would be better spent on teachers’ salaries.

Others criticized the decision to put the center in a remote area far from the state’s main population centers.

But while selling the idea to the legislature was not easy, Mr. Hunt recalled last week, legislative pride in having a center of excellence ultimately won over lawmakers. “The primary thing I’m so pleased with is [that teachers] come out with a new vision, with a new energy, with a new excitement to teach,” he said.

The center opened here in the fall of 1986 in a former football dormitory on the campus of Western Carolina University. Last fall, it moved into its new quarters on 36 acres across the highway from the university.

The center consists of two residence halls and the main activities building, each of which has a Cherokee name--Katusi, Atanto, or Ahysti--that together loosely translates to “a place in the mountains for the exploration of the human spirit.”

From the nameplates on the doors of their single rooms to the fully8stocked kitchen in each residence hall, teachers are made to feel welcome. Well-appointed common rooms with large stone fireplaces and rocking chairs create a relaxed setting for either formal or informal gatherings.

The main building houses seminar rooms, an amphitheater, a computer lab, a two-tiered dining room, an exercise studio, staff offices, and a combination lounge/library with a cathedral ceiling, skylights, a baby-grand piano, and a spiral staircase. Artwork by students from around the state is displayed.

Teachers also can use the university’s library, swimming pool, tennis courts, and other amenities.

Teachers’ visits are built around what the center calls seminars, although the term is somewhat misleading in that it implies too narrow a focus. Typically, the seminars include several sessions with a presenter, who offers information to provide a basis for discussion.

The center also recognizes that learning is enhanced when creative and participatory elements are incorporated into the routine. And time is set aside for teachers to relax, reflect, and recreate.

Nccat now offers about 55 seminars over 10 months, usually two at a time. Seminars are rarely repeated, and when they are the content frequently is modified.

Between 20 and 25 teachers attend each weeklong seminar, which is directed by a center fellow or center associate and supported by a program associate.

Fellows are generally academics who have signed on for a three-year stint at the center, while center associates live elsewhere and lead a seminar or two annually. They design the seminars and decide what experts to bring in as presenters.

Program associates handle logistics, from lining up presenters to arranging for bus trips. They are backed by graduate students from Western Carolina University, who bring the staff total to about 50.

A sampling of titles from the winter-spring catalogue includes “The Culture of Ancient Greece,” “Personal Investing,” “At the Movies,’' “Appalachian Spring: Wildflowers in the Big Spectrum,” “Cowboy Culture and the American Psyche,” and “Americans in Paris.”

The latter, coming this month, will figuratively transport teachers to the Paris of the 1920’s. They will read Hemingway--and fish for trout--and become actors in a re-created bistro set up in the dining room.

“Caves: The Inward Journey,” offered recently by nccat fellow Dan Fredricks, involved considerably more than the tour of the Tuckaleechee Caverns. During their weeklong journey, the teachers also were asked to explore the metaphorical and philosophical aspects of caves, with the help of a geologist, an art historian, a literature professor, and a neuropsychiatrist as presenters.

In addition to the trip to the cave and an overnight stay at a lodge in Tennessee, the week’s activities included discussions of Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, in which an incident in a cave plays a central role. The teachers also viewed slides of art adorning the walls of Neolithic caves and create their own artworks inside a simulated cave.

A simultaneous seminar, “The Trusting Heart,” had participants examining the impact of attitudes and beliefs on relationships and physical well-being with a physician, a biofeedback therapist, a magician, and an Appalachian musician.

“In most cases, staff development takes place in hot cafeterias with some oaf from the central office standing there reading state directives,” says Mr. McPherson. “We are production-oriented. Monday the curtain goes up. We stage things. Friday the curtain goes down.”

Since nccat began operating, some 3,000 teachers have gone through, and it now accommodates up to 1,200 a year.

The state-funded center pays for both the teachers’ traveling expenses and a classroom substitute.

Some teachers return to the center as scholars-in-residence, which gives them a chance to concentrate on independent projects.

“We tend to steer teachers away from things like writing lesson plans,” says Judith Clauss, a fellow. She tells participants, “We want you to think of something that expands you as well.”

Once they leave nccat, teachers do not leave their experiences or relationships behind. A study by University of Pittsburgh researchers found that more than 80 percent of the participants stayed in contact with their colleagues through reunions, newsletters, and other means.

Although North Carolina currently faces serious budget problems, the center expects to continue operating its regular seminar schedule. (See Education Week, May 29, 1991.)

“We will not compromise quality,” says a senior fellow, A.G. Rud. Anticipating a cut of about 10 percent from its $3.4-million operating budget, nccat is likely to pare some of its ancillary programs.

Nccat is intended primarily as a reward for exemplary service to those who have taught in the public schools for at least three years.

To apply, teachers must submit a rigorous, comprehensive application that includes essay questions and references from their supervisor and a professional colleague.

Because of the program’s popularity in many school districts, it takes about a year between the time when a teacher is selected and he or she actually arrives at the center. The competition has also meant that teachers often attend their second or third choice of seminars. The wait also results from nccat’s attempts to pull together teachers from different regions of the state, grade levels, and areas of teaching expertise.

Whether teachers get their first or third choice does not seem to matter much, though. What is important are the opportunities provided and the treatment they receive.

One afternoon during the cave seminar, for example, teachers take a break at the edge of a bubbling stream in the Smokies.

After finishing tasty brown-bag lunches prepared for them by the center, Lanie Nagle, Pam Smith, and Peggie Murray relax and talk about how best to prepare elementary students for middle school, and middle-school students for high school.

When, they are asked, have the teachers of middle-school science, 3rd grade, and high-school Latin had the opportunity to sit down and talk with peers across the K-12 spectrum?

“Never,” says Ms. Murray. “This is almost too much for me to take in, all these people saying good things about teachers.”

“It’s hard for me to imagine they spend this money on us,” adds Ms. Smith. “I can see them paying this to build an elementary school.”

Equally important, say those involved, is that the center makes clear to the teachers that they are indeed special people worthy of first-class treatment.

A few years back, for instance, one teacher jokingly complained there was no ice cream. Today, the freezers in the residence halls are fully stocked.

“What we’re about is teachers, and that comes first,” says Carrie Moses, a program associate.

To that end, there is no evident hierarchy here. Everyone is on a first-name basis, regardless of credentials, and Mr. McPherson is as likely as a graduate student to carry a teacher’s luggage.

The same spirit is asked of presenters, who are expected to rub elbows with teachers. Mr. Rud recalls the time when former Secretary of State Dean Rusk sat in a common area of a residence hall chatting informally with teachers.

If presenters remain aloof, in fact, they are not invited to return. They are also asked to leave their canned slide shows and lectures at home in favor of informal talks.

Despite the center’s attractions, many North Carolina teachers are apprehensive about coming.

One reason for that reluctance is illustrated on the first day of “The Trusting Heart” seminar, when the center associate, Carolyn Toben, asks teachers to talk about the one person in their lives who has trusted them completely.

Johnny Avery, a high-school algebra teacher, responds: “My wife. She let me come up here with 24 women.”

While Mr. Avery’s answer evokes laughter, it also touches on what is arguably the center’s major flaw--a pronounced shortage of male and minority participants.

Approximately 80 percent of the state’s public-school teachers are female, and 84 percent are white. But even in comparison with those high figures, white women are disproportionately represented at the center.

Many male teachers, Mr. McPherson has learned, double as athletic coaches. While principals may be willing to release teachers from their classrooms, substitute coaches are not easy to find.

Attracting black teachers outside of the large metropolitan areas also poses a challenge. Many live on the state’s coastal plain, a 10-hour drive from the mountains, where few blacks live.

Other factors also discourage teachers, particularly those from rural areas. Mr. McPherson recalls asking a retiring superintendent why teachers had not sought to come to the center. The superintendent ticked off three reasons: fear of flying, jealous husbands, and intransigent principals who did not want teachers getting new ideas.

But Lettie Polite, a middle-school mathematics and science teacher, says she was glad she did not let anything get in her way. Shortly before her scheduled week at nccat, she considered canceling because there was just too much to do before the year ended. Her principal would not hear of it, though, and so she came.

“It has given me so much insight,” she says. “I just feel like getting back in there.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1991 edition of Education Week as N.C. Center Offers ‘Experiential’ Rewards for Talented Teachers