Relax, Reflect, And Renew
And, at the end of their week, if the teachers return to their classrooms eager to try out what they've experienced, so much the better, says the center's staff. But that is not NCCAT's mission.
"At NCCAT, we turn our attention to the renewal of teachers rather than to their reform,'' R. Bruce McPherson, the former director of the center, explained in a speech he delivered to the Minnesota Humanities Commission last year. "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.''
NCCAT was the brainchild of Jean Powell, a North Carolina high school English teacher, who in November 1983 testified before the Governor's Commission on Education for Economic Growth about the need to instill pride, selfworth, and enthusiasm in teachers if the state wanted to retain and attract the best. "We have a governor's school for gifted students. Why not something similar for teachers?'' she suggested. "We don't need any more educational methodology or the latest curriculum fads. We'd like to study the 'real stuff.'''
To Powell, that meant contemplating the Great Books, visiting art gal- leries, viewing plays, writing critical commentaries. "If that kind of learning experience doesn't turn on teachers, I don't know what will,'' she said. "That excitement will be communicated to students. Furthermore, being a student will give a teacher a renewed perspective of the student's role.''
Her suggestion won the support of three of the state's most powerful forces: then Gov. James Hunt, the speaker of the House, and the president of the University of North Carolina. The trio shepherded NCCAT through the state legislature, overcoming the opposition of the state National Education Association affiliate, which wanted the money to be used to increase teachers' salaries.
The center opened in the fall of 1986, and last year moved into its new quarters on 36 acres near the campus of Western Carolina University. The facility consists of three structures-- two well-appointed residence halls, complete with fireplaces and full kitchens, and the main activities building. The latter houses seminar rooms, an amphitheater, a computer lab, a dining room, an exercise room, staff offices, and a combination lounge and library with a cathedral ceiling, skylights, a baby grand piano, and a spiral staircase. Teachers are also encouraged to use the university's library, swimming pool, tennis courts, and other amenities.
Teachers' stays at NCCAT are built around seminars led by academicians or other experts hired by the center. A typical seminar involves between 20 and 25 teachers who meet for discussions and various other activities throughout the week. But not every second of every day at the center is scheduled. Time is set aside for teachers to relax, reflect, and recreate.
NCCAT now orchestrates about 55 seminars during the 10-month school year, generally offering two simultaneously. A sampling of titles from last school year's winter-spring catalog 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.'' This last seminar transported teachers to the Paris of the 1920s; they read Hemingway, fished for trout, and became actors in a bistro--the dining room redecorated for a day.
Since NCCAT began operating, some 3,000 teachers have gone through the center; it now accommodates about 1,200 a year. The statefunded center pays for both the teachers' travel expenses and a classroom substitute back home. Although North Carolina faces staggering budget problems, the center plans to continue operating its regular seminar schedule. Anticipating a cut of about 10 percent from their $3.4 million operating budget, NCCAT officials say they will probably pare some of the center's ancillary programs.
A week at NCCAT is meant as a reward for exemplary service to those who have taught in the state's public schools for at least three years. Teachers must submit a fairly rigorous and comprehensive application that includes essay questions and references from their supervisor and a professional colleague. The program is popular; once a teacher is selected, it takes about a year before he or she actually arrives at the center. The wait is also a result of NCCAT's attempts to pull together teachers from different regions of the state, grade levels, and areas of teaching expertise.
Despite NCCAT's many attractions, it has had difficulty drawing men and minorities. Many male teachers in the state, McPherson says, double as athletic coaches, and while principals may be willing to release teachers from their classrooms, getting them to replace coaches with substitutes isn't easy in a state that takes its sports more seriously than most.
Attracting black teachers outside of the large metropolitan areas also poses a challenge. Many blacks in North Carolina live on the state's coastal plain, a good 10-hour drive from the mountain hideaway. Some, McPherson says, are wary of traveling to an area where few blacks live.
But most of the participants share the feelings of Lettie Polite, a
middle school math and science teacher. Shortly before Polite's
scheduled week at NCCAT, she thought of canceling because she had so
much to do. But her principal wouldn't hear of it, and Polite is glad
she didn't let anything get in her way. "It has given me so much
insight,'' Polite says of her time at NCCAT. "It just makes me feel
like getting back in [the classroom].''