Sofia Laurel Pirri, Special to the Daily Press

With rising Covid cases breeding uncertainty about what school will look like in the fall, a group of teachers at Roosevelt and Will Rogers Elementary Schools are working on the one thing they can be certain of: how well they teach.

For the first time in 15 years, the Cotsen Foundation, a highly regarded professional growth program for teachers, is working with SMMUSD schools. Beginning the 2021-2022 school year, Cotsen will take up a two year residency at Roosevelt and Will Rogers Elementary schools, where six to seven teacher fellows will work with one mentor at each school.

The fellows and mentors are selected from among the schools’ faculty via a rigorous application process that involves writing several essays and interviewing in front of a panel. They begin training in early August.

The Cotsen Foundation’s Art of Teaching program is unlike most professional development programs in that it seeks to improve the skills of teachers who already excel rather than strengthen teachers in their areas of weakness.

“The model that our founder, Lloyd Cotsen, really believed in was that there should be passion tied to learning,” explained Jerry Harris, the Executive Director of the Foundation for the Art of Teaching and former principal of Roosevelt Elementary.

“He believed that when you select an area that you feel good about, you may want to learn more in that area, and you have a natural affinity to it. And then what happens is that as you build on teacher strengths, they will take the learnings in those areas and apply them to other areas in their curriculum.”

In addition to the “good to great” model, the fellowship is also unique in its emphasis on leadership qualities. Harris notes that many of Cotsen’s mentor teachers go on to become principals and then superintendents and directors. In one Southern California district, Harris claims, nearly 80% of the current elementary administrators have come through Cotsen.

The teachers who apply and are selected to be mentors take the entire two years off of teaching, with their salary and benefits covered by the Cotsen Foundation. Ann Carey, a kindergarten teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, will serve as the mentor for the six fellows at her school.

“Each of the fellows has an area that they focus on, whether that’s math or reading or writing,” explains Carey. “They pick an area of study that they’re passionate about and that they want to be better at and grow. My role is to support them in that focus area.”

That support can take a variety of forms. Carey says that her responsibilities as mentor include gathering ideas from conferences, watching the fellows teach lessons in their focus area, and conducting research to help the fellows come up with new lesson plans.

Gathering ideas from conferences and other teaching sites also constitutes a large portion of Carey’s role as mentor. Cotsen provides funding for mentors to attend conferences and trainings across the country, even as far as Columbia’s renowned Teachers College in New York.

“There’s lots of opportunities for both the mentor and the fellow to go out to other sites, and watch the teaching in action. That part I’m really excited about,” shares Carey. “I can go watch something and come back to the teacher and give them ideas.”

The access to conferences and professional development programs remains with teachers long after they’ve completed the two year fellowship.

Alumni of the program are offered alumni-specific training, grants to attend conferences across the country, and the opportunity to connect and exchange ideas with other stellar teachers.

“People who acted as fellows back in those days have continued to be under that Cotsen umbrella,” Carey said. “What’s so lovely about the organization is that once you have taken part in it for those two years, you kind of are always a part of it.”

Though Carey started the application process to be a Cotsen fellow when the foundation first came to SMMUSD, she went into labor early and was unable to complete the application. Since then, she has observed that the Roosevelt teachers who worked with Cotsen at the time have had continued access to training and resources.

“I wasn’t able to do it. And I was heartbroken. So I have just waited all of these years, kind of watching and paying attention to Cotsen.” said Carey. “When it came back around this time 15 years later, it was like, ‘oh my gosh!’”

The unique professional development opportunity comes at a pivotal moment for SMMUSD teachers, who are reeling from having to adapt to teaching during the pandemic. With varying levels of guidance from school districts and the government, educators had to translate lessons to an online format, experiment with new tools, and keep students engaged through a screen. The experience was both trying and revealing.

“I think, ultimately, a lot of good has come out of it,” reflected Carey. “It became really clear where there were inequities, where kids needed to be better served. It forced us to really hone in on exactly what needed to be taught and be efficient with our time. You know, as you’ve got zoom minutes ticking away, there’s no time for fluff.”

With the Cotsen teacher application due in March, teachers were not only applying during a time of immense upheaval–SMMUSD reopened elementary schools for in-person learning on April 26–but they were applying having gained new insight into what Cotsen calls “the art of teaching.”

Jerry Harris remarked that the transition to zoom learning increased teachers’ willingness to work with technology in the classroom and forced them to really focus on student engagement. The stay-at-home orders also made the importance of parent engagement increasingly apparent, as so many parents were stuck at home with their kids in school the next room over.

“We found that those teachers who have the best relationships with their parents also had the best success,” said Harris, “because you see there was a real connection between the home and the school.”

In line with this theory, Cotsen will be holding a meeting for principals in August focused on developing those teacher, parent, and student relationships.

With these monumental shifts occurring in education, Cotsen returns to SMMUSD at an auspicious moment. The creativity and openness to new ideas forced upon teachers in the last year will allow the already talented SMMUSD faculty to make the most of Cotsen’s opportunities and training.

“In the world of teaching, we are kind of entering into new territory,” said Ann Carey. “Teaching as we know it–the landscape is different now. And so to be in a role where I can support my colleagues in that is exciting.”