Ann Marie Nee wrapped up her final Scarsdale Teachers Institute course of the 2019-20 school year — the milestone 50th year for the STI — on Saturday, March 7. Exhausted, she left everything at school, planning to clean up Monday morning, March 9. She and everyone else learned Sunday night that schools were being shut down temporarily — or so they thought — due to a Scarsdale Middle School teacher testing positive for COVID-19.
After four days of school that week, Edgemont joined the fray of schools shutting down and soon enough all of New York State was in the same boat, facing the challenge of switching to a fully remote education system.
Nee, the STI director, and her colleagues were eventually allowed back into the buildings to gather what they needed as they hunkered down to work from home for what ended up being the rest of the school year.
Beginning last March and continuing through the spring, summer and into this fall, the STI has been at the forefront of helping teachers with their latest challenge. With schools starting this school year in hybrid in-person/remote mode, the STI had to continue to pivot quickly.
Conceptually, this is nothing new for the STI, which has always been on the forefront of education. However, in terms of the necessity to quickly evolve an entire profession with little notice, the pandemic has been a unique challenge.
“What was offered over the summer was a full array of professional opportunities to help get teachers ready … ready to tackle whatever was thrown at us in September,” STI policy board chairperson and Edgemont English teacher Christine Cecere said. “We weren’t even sure what we were going back to. It was really up in the air, so we had to do things that gave us versatility and enabled us to switch gears quickly and readily.”
Nee remembers the first STI course she took in 2004. She was in her second year of teaching at SHS, her alma mater. It was an iMovie course with instructor Andy Verboys, her former track and field coach. Learning about the groundbreaking technology knocked Nee’s socks off.
“I didn’t know what iMovie was or that it was something you use on a Mac because we used PCs at the high school,” Nee said. “I took the class and I was mesmerized. I couldn’t believe what you could do with the program. Then I took many others, and I ran a lot of classes, too.”
Today, technology has never been more important in education and many teachers are still getting up to speed.
“We’ve had things like Edpuzzle, Padlet, Bitmoji, Pear Deck, Flipgrid — these are all terms that a year ago nobody had heard of,” Nee said. “Back in March and April [it was] ‘You want to run a class on what?’ And I’d have to go look it up.”
One of STI’s biggest innovations came a few years ago when it incorporated the Scarsdale Teachers Collaborative (ST@C) courses into its program as “mini-STI classes” that range from 30 minutes to three hours. The courses are “informal opportunities for teachers to share teaching practices and innovative ideas in education” and are helping teachers get started on topics often having to do with technology and various programs and apps.
There have been more than 300 ST@C courses offered since March 9, with 153 relating to technology and e-learning; 136 relating to curriculum, teaching strategies, assessment or special education; and 73 covering social/emotional learning, wellness or race/ethnicity/belonging in a time of COVID.
ST@C classes became a go-to for teachers in March who wanted to learn or reinforce skills for things like Zoom, Quicktime, Screen Recording, Google Classroom, Google Forms, iPad Apps, Schoology and tech “check-ins.” John Calvert and Jodi Girouz (technology assistants to the STI) created a platform for teachers to offer and sign up for sessions, while William Yang and Paul Tomizawa from Edgewood, Meredith Dutra from the high school and Michael Pincus and Doug Rose from the middle school worked together to make ST@C’s online platform a reality. Chris Casal of Heathcote, who leads many of the tech classes, had nearly 200 teachers in his first Intro to Zoom lesson via ST@C.
“Many of them were doing it because they were in survival mode,” Nee said. “This was just what they needed. The STI functioned as kind of a way for people to get connected. We have some of the best minds when it comes to technology education in our district and we were able to harness that.”
Nee said courses were “revamped” over the spring and summer to “focus on improving” e-learning technology and pedagogy; social and emotional learning/wellness; and understanding race and identity in the era of COVID.
Among the 42 classes offered this school year — pared down from an initial list of about 65 proposals —are four classes that the teachers created to better educate students based on needs determined by an annual teacher survey:
1) 21st Century Teaching and Learning: Data Science
2) Making the Online Classroom Work
3) Race, Equity, and Inclusion: Decolonizing Our Curriculum
4) Elementary Science in a Hybrid Learning Environment.
“These courses are all relevant to items we’ve discussed as a board and with the administration … I think they’re right on target with what we were hoping,” Scarsdale Board of Education member Carl Finger said at a board meeting in September. “I’m glad to see everybody’s interested.”
Nee replied, “They’re meant to complement a lot of the professional development that happens during the day, during faculty meetings [or] department meetings, and it really complements teachers’ other obligations for professional development as well, in addition to all the work the teachers do on their own that’s not really recorded anywhere … tremendous work was done this summer and continues to be done during the school year, too.”
Additionally, leadership at the middle school requested turning the Articulating Leadership Across Department course from one credit to three, increasing the number of hours from 12 to 36, so the course will meet weekly instead of monthly.
According to information provided by Nee, “STI classes offer an in-depth examination of a topic, and require 12 to 36 hours in addition to a project that reflects how each teacher plans to improve instruction due to the course. STI courses that were already in progress in March refocused on remote learning, and new classes were created to specifically address e-learning. Throughout the spring and summer, teachers also enhanced their content knowledge and teaching strategies by becoming students themselves and experiencing e-learning as students.”
Cecere remembers her first class in the late ’90s on personality types. “That was so helpful to me,” she said. “I remember walking back into the classroom and looking at the kids with a whole new set of eyes.”
The need to refocus and learn new skills since March has reminded Cecere of being a pre-tenure teacher “where you’re just fumbling around, trying to figure out what works, trying to keep your head above water, just kind of survive.” For veteran teachers it’s a big shift from everything that for years had been “intuitive.”
“The loss of the personal aspect has been really making my job more challenging,” she said. “I was in a better position than a lot of people because I wasn’t intimidated by the technology aspect of it.”
English teacher Kathleen McGreal joined the Scarsdale School District in 1997 after teaching for two years in a high school in the Bronx. She said she always knew ongoing education was important for educators.
“During my interview I asked a question about professional development and I remember everyone at the table kind of sitting up tall with incredible pride, saying, ‘Well…’” McGreal said. “These were senior teachers at the time talking with such pride about the Scarsdale Teachers Institute.”
In Scarsdale she saw just how impactful and meaningful it could be, and not just from an educational standpoint, but when it came to interacting with colleagues, too. That’s how the tradition of professionalism, commitment and culture are passed on.
“I like to say, ‘It’s by teachers, for teachers, about teachers and near teachers,’” McGreal said. The course offerings “stick to the themes people might be interested in or the trends that might be happening in education,” and themes the teachers are curious about.
It also keeps teachers in the shoes of their students. “I feel like the best teachers never forget what it’s like to be a student,” McGreal said. “The STI reminds you of that. You’re writing papers, you’re doing research. I feel like that commitment to continuing to grow is what keeps us vibrant.”
Edgemont Teachers Association president Kathleen Fox has been teaching at Edgemont for 22 years and has been involved in STI almost as long. She teaches academic support services in mathematics at both Seely Place and Greenville elementary schools after previously having worked in California and New York City.
“There’s always been professional development in all of the schools, but the STI in particular was really an incredible resource because it was local, affordable and the classes were relevant,” she said. “I had never lived or worked in Westchester, so I took classes constantly and I got to meet people … I had colleagues with me and we could go back to the building and work on things together. It has offered so many opportunities for expansion and growth of knowledge.”
Shifting to today’s tech-based topics can be overwhelming at times, but, “People are craving that type of learning,” Fox said. “It’s been a valuable resource for so many years, but right now I’m relying on it so heavily.”
Being able to adapt has been at the forefront for teachers in 2020.
“The work is really different right now,” Fox said. “In all professions that ask people to adapt to this new COVID environment, teaching is the one that really has to change everything. We can’t do it the same way … it’s been quite challenging to have students in person and then remote and then kids who are always remote. We want to make sure that we are serving all students no matter where they are. It’s really hard work. We plan in advance and then we plan day by day and then we replan.”
Fox remembers when PowerPoint was the hot topic of the day. For more than a decades, she’s been part of the Reggio Emilia Method study group and joined a trip to Italy to learn firsthand about the early childhood education method.
In addition to Italy, there have been discovery trips to China and India, and others planned for Scotland and Spain have been put on the backburner during the pandemic. All of the courses of study and trips were inspired by the teachers and their expertise and interests.
“That’s one of the big changes we’ve seen over the last six years — we’ve gone global,” Nee said.
The STI continues to grow
Nee is the sixth director of the STI, which was founded in 1969 by Doris Breslow. Nee took over in 2014 from Susan Taylor, who had directed the STI since 2002.
Taylor was Nee’s middle school history teacher, and when Nee came to work for the district, Taylor had already taken over the STI. Nee spent time in the STI office and was curious about what to her was a newly discovered gem.
“She was a role model to me as a teacher,” Nee said. “She was exceptional in the way she taught writing and [shared] the knowledge she had, and the way she brought back knowledge from her own travels. And it wasn’t until last year digging through all the archives that I realized she was very actively taking classes.”
As a student at SHS years before, Nee didn’t know about the STI or how much time her teachers spent on development after school, on weekends and during summers.
“I just knew my teachers were very, very smart and very, very well read,” she said. “Part of why I wanted to come back here and work as a teacher was [the way] I viewed my teachers. They were collaborative and seemed to enjoy what they were doing. They were scholars. My teachers here would rival some of the professors I had in college for sure. I wanted to be part of that community of lifelong learners — people who really took what they knew academically and applied it in the classroom.”
Leaving the classroom to be a teacher on special assignment leading the STI was a difficult decision for Nee.
“I really loved teaching,” Nee said. “Fortunately I was able to continue coaching [volleyball], which allowed me to be able to continue my connection with the students. It was hard for me to leave the classroom and to leave history as a discipline because I really think it incorporates everything, but I appreciated the broader view this would give me across the district.”
In Nee’s first year with the STI, a mandatory course for first-year teachers called Foundations of a Scarsdale Education Tomorrow was instituted, in addition to the mentor program run by McGreal, which was also under the STI umbrella.
Nee works closely with STI administrative assistant Fran Garafolo, assistant to the STI director Lisa Scavelli, who teaches at the high school, Cecere and McGreal. There is also a 42-member policy board that features teachers, administrators, board of education members and volunteers from both Scarsdale and Edgemont, a 10-member accreditation committee and a four-person mini-grant program committee, with some members overlapping and serving in multiple ways.
Nee said it’s an “arduous process” getting course approval.
The STI is funded by both the Scarsdale and Edgemont boards of education and a state grant, using a cost-sharing model. Each 12-hour credit costs teachers $75 for non-ST@C courses. “While we’d love to offer classes for free, it’s really a model where teachers are investing in their professional development alongside the districts,” Nee said. “That was how the STI was started 50 years ago.”
To receive credit after taking a class, teachers must complete a project that relates the subject matter to their own classroom.
“The projects I got back this summer are ones I never would have expected,” Nee said. “You have a class on why identity matters, or best practices for the online classroom, and there’s 30 people taking the class [so] you get 30 different interpretations. Everyone is sitting in the same class, but an English teacher sees it this way and a math teacher sees it [another] way … the teachers really show their knowledge about their own discipline and how they can apply these ideas.”
Teachers can receive salary advancement or stipends based on the number of credits they take each year.
The start dates for the main catalog of courses are staggered between September and February, running the gamut with some lasting Friday/Saturday, six weeks, monthly all school year, evenings, you name it. This year’s summer courses were altered because some are in-depth, all-day for a full week, so those were broken up to alleviate the stress of so much screen time. “The way teachers are learning almost parallels the way students are learning,” Nee said.
With so many unknowns coming into the school year, the STI process was slightly delayed and some courses, such as ropes courses or international dance, were canceled or postponed.
Just as they were in the spring and summer, the courses that began this month will be on Zoom or Google Meet to avoid mingling the cohorts that are in place at the schools.
“Our courses attract teachers from all seven schools in Scarsdale, from the three schools in Edgemont, plus individuals from other districts,” Nee said. “To bring that mixture together now wouldn’t be prudent, so we are online for now. If things change, maybe we’ll be able to do some in-person or find ways to do things socially distant.”
In addition to a treasure trove of instructors within the districts, STI also looks outside for many of its courses and collaborations, and a worldwide network has been created over the last five decades. This year there have been partnerships with BOCES, Research for Better Teaching, EarthWatch, Edible Schoolyard, National Council of Teaching Mathematics, ORIAS (Office of Resources for International and Area Studies at Berkeley), Facing History and Ourselves, and the New York Historical Society, in addition to educators at universities such as Yale, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Teachers College and CU Boulder.
“The history of STI really reflects the history of education and the history of society,” Nee said. “Here we are 50 years later and if you look at our course catalog it’s really reflecting what’s going on in society now with the coronavirus, online teachers, technological revolution, identity and Black lives matter — it’s all reflected in what we’re doing in the STI.”
Scarsdale Board of Education president Pam Fuehrer called the STI “the greatest component of the district” when it comes to professional development. “Every year when those courses are put forward you almost want to start drooling at the content and the opportunity that they’re provided,” she said.
Prior to Edgemont joining the STI in 1995, some state funding was cut, so then-Scarsdale superintendent Richard Hibschman asked the board of education to increase its commitment to the program. The inclusion of Edgemont also helped secure the future of the STI.
Last year in celebrating the Golden Jubilee of the STI, Nee spoke about how Scarsdale and Edgemont teachers have played a part in their districts’ successes. She came up with five fundamental characteristics:
1) They’re scholars
3) They value each other
4) Teachers never forget what it’s like to be a student
5) Carrying on the tradition.
As world-class districts, “the name of Scarsdale schools, the name of Edgemont schools are well known,” Nee said. “The teachers carry that tradition, but at the same time we modernize. We carry the tradition of what came before us — there are teachers [who have been] here [for] 20 or 30 years and we harness their knowledge and expertise and pass it on to the next generation, who then pass it on.”
2020 and beyond will continue to be a challenge with the uncertainty of the pandemic, but the STI will be there for the teachers of Scarsdale and Edgemont.
“Everyone here wants to be done with the coronavirus and be 100 percent in the classroom,” Nee said. “Safety is the reason we’re not here 100 percent, but the teachers are doing a tremendous amount of work to make this the best experience for the kids that they can, and it’s really hard. I’m hoping STI classes will help them keep their sanity and also help them with all the things they have to juggle.”
Nee is confident in the STI because of those around her.
“The STI is really about the teachers and their skills,” Nee said. “I’m just the go-between. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without all these people and the coordinators who run the classes and evaluate the teachers’ projects … You could take any of these classes and write a whole article about them, but at the end of the day it’s what gets to the students … That’s how we know an STI class was successful — it gets to the students.”