Teacher Directed In-Service: A Model That Works

by Judith Schwartz - 1984

The Scarsdale Teachers Institute is an inservice program for faculty run by teachers. This article describes the goverance, collaboration, content, and evaluation of a different type of school improvement. (Source: ERIC)

On most afternoons throughout the school year, teachers in Scarsdale gather in classrooms recently vacated by their students and become students themselves. In one classroom teachers are practicing programming with pocket computers. A physics teacher borrows a set of computers; this is the first time he is using computers in his classroom. In another building, elementary teachers are preparing for a field walk with a naturalist, using their schoolyard as a laboratory for their elementary children. Teachers from many disciplines are at work on a year-long program on writing across the curriculum. Others are attending an interdisciplinary seminar; still others are looking at political films and analyzing the ways in which artists create visual political messages.

The Scarsdale Teachers Institute (STI) exists to provide professional growth opportunities for teachers. The continued success of the institute results from teacher direction, community involvement, and financial support from the board of education. In 1982/1983, 55 percent of the staff, from novice to retiring teachers, participated in institute programs on their own time, with their own money, and usually not for salary credit.1 What accounts for this consistently high rate of participation on the part of a highly skilled, well-educated staff, most of whom are already at the top of the salary scale? What accounts for the continuing involvement of teachers so that over a three-year period 80 percent participate in some institute activity?2 Why, when asked about the impact of staff-development activities on classroom practices, do participants continue to state that the institute has had a greater impact on their professional lives than most university courses and most other staff-development activities? The institute exists because its philosophy and structure encourage teacher support and result in teacher “ownership.”

The national attention focused on master teacher and merit pay plans as the answer to the loss of status and professionalism of teaching runs counter to existing research on effective staff development. Research indicates that teachers learn most from other teachers, and that practitioners working together effect change. The structure and organization of staff-development activities require teachers to be in charge.3 Teachers need recognition of their worth through the structure of their institutions on a day-to-day basis, not just an occasional staff day or an occasional stipend. The vitality, energy, and growth of an educational institution make teachers feel that what they are doing has meaning, not just for themselves and their students, but for the total school community. The encouragement of a viable professional environment can come from enlightened central and school administrators, but it cannot be left to chance or only to administrative initiative. Such growth and development must be institutionalized and secured through teacher organizations, such as an in-service institute. Only when teachers have the real power to shape their futures can the professionalism of teaching flourish. The teachers in Scarsdale have developed and supported a program that provides staff development, professional growth, and improved school climate.

Although Scarsdale is privileged, it certainly is not immune to the difficulties facing other school districts; to wit, declining enrollment, a slowly changing population, and fewer young teachers. The average age of the teaching staff is about forty-five, a mature and seasoned staff. Most teachers have been in the district over the fifteen years necessary to reach maximum on the salary scale. Keeping the staff vital and providing continuing opportunities for growth are major concerns of the district. Like most upper-middle-class, highly motivated communities, Scarsdale supports its school system and maintains a constant vigil over the schools. Pressure from parents on teachers is not uncommon, and the need to meet performance standards both internal and external remains constant. Burnout might be a real problem for teachers if it were not for the institutional safeguards that protect professional autonomy and encourage teacher cooperation. The key elements in the success of the institute and the key elements in the important role it plays in the lives of the teachers and of the district are the relationships the institute has with the Scarsdale Teachers Association, the administration, the board of education, and the community.

Because it is a branch of the union, and is included in the negotiated teachers’ contract, the institute has been able to weather community and school politics. The negotiating process has served as the keystone in its continued success. Questions of how to revitalize teaching and how to ensure teacher growth are answered in the structure of the institute. The remainder of this article will describe the history, structure, and workings of the ST1 in order to describe this model of in-service education.


The Scarsdale Teachers Institute began offering courses in 1969/1970, after almost a year of planning by a small group of teachers. In order to establish a program that would provide teachers with the means to control their own professional growth, the Scarsdale Teachers Association initiated the program with the support of a grant from the National Education Association, the New York State Teachers Association, and the local board of education. At a time when teacher autonomy was an important issue and the growth of the union of great significance, the institute provided a clear avenue of exhibiting teachers’ professional independence. According to the principles of the institute:

The Scarsdale Teachers Association has sponsored the Institute in accordance with the principle of the professional autonomy affirmed by the New York State United Teachers and other educational groups. Scarsdale teachers have undertaken the Institute’s organization, administration and course planning, thus assuming a large degree of responsibility for their professional growth.

Scarsdale teachers also endorse the principle that cooperation among autonomous groups is fundamental to human survival and is no less essential to progress in education. They view the Institute as a laboratory for this principle. Here various groups of teachers, administrators and community leaders may work together for a valued purpose.4

Thus, the institute was founded to provide quality professional education to the staff of Scarsdale and to provide an independent and clearly autonomous mechanism for reinforcing teachers’ professional status. Teachers in the school system endorsed the concept of the institute, and offered a wealth of suggestions for courses, speakers, and procedures. The executive board of the association then established a committee composed of teachers from the seven schools in the system to organize and operate the institute. Once the structure was in place, the leadership of the association negotiated the institute into the union contract.

Fifteen years later, STI still functions for teachers in the district. As a matter of fact, many of the same teachers are still taking courses there. With few modifications, the structure of the institute remains the same. A recent evaluation states:

The Scarsdale Teachers Institute (STI) is a unique organization. It performs a valuable educational function for the Scarsdale Public Schools. Large numbers of teachers participate in the program. There is evidence of dedication and professional excitement. The leadership is cognizant of current educational trends and philosophies. Every effort is made to bring current educational expertise to the faculty at large. Teachers play a major role in the selection and teaching of the courses. Teachers perceive the STI as belonging to them. The STI offers scope, purpose and direction to the energies of a staff who would otherwise be restricted to the classroom. The STI offers a positive, constructive leadership role. From all points of view, teachers, administrators, and the Board of Education, the STI is perceived as a valuable asset to the district.5

The vision of the founders of the institute remains clear; the structure has remained basically unchanged. The most dramatic change over the years has been in the collaboration that has developed between the institute and the administration, and in the place the institute enjoys in the district. Because it has been held in place by the strength of the teachers’ contract, STI has become institutionalized. It is a resource the district and the teachers can count on when doing their long- and short-range planning.


As evident from the organizational chart (see Figure l), the staff is the source of strength for the institute. Members of the policy board are teachers; the director is a teacher chosen by the Scarsdale Teachers Association. The contract stipulates half-time release from teaching assignments for the director to administer the program (see Figure 2). This teacher is responsible to the committee, the association, and ultimately the staff. Since the program runs throughout the year, the development and implementation of programs are continuous.

The policy board is composed of teachers from each of the seven schools in the district. Although the term of office is not formally structured, most people tend to serve for a number of ‘years. Serving on the Institute Committee is considered one of the more attractive voluntary assignments in the district. The organization of the committee tends to be governed by the informal power structure of the school, rather than the formal structure. Over the course of the fifteen years of the institute’s existence there have been four directors, each serving for four to five years. The change in leadership took place informally when personnel decided they had served an adequate period of time. Since the staff is small (approximately 300 professional personnel) and the atmosphere positive, these informal procedures continue to work.

The major responsibility of the Institute Committee is to plan, implement, and evaluate the in-service program. Each committee member also assumes responsibility for representing the institute to his or her particular school and in bringing the views of the school to the committee. On a school level each committee member publicizes courses, distributes flyers, arranges luncheon meetings to discuss courses, sounds out teachers on their interests for programs, finds course leaders, and serves as the spokesperson for his or her school.

On the district or committee level, each committee person assumes responsibility for helping to develop the program for the year. This task involves in-depth interviews with teachers and principals during times of needs assessment, and in gathering suggestions for speakers, programs, courses, and course leaders. In addition to collecting data, committee members often serve as course coordinators, helping to organize and run particular programs. These members set policy and procedures for the institute that are not covered by contracts, and meet with the board of education to discuss future directions and present problems.


Over the years, the committee has developed an elaborate planning process: the director and committee members meet with staff on building and department levels, with department chairpeople at the junior and senior high schools, with principals individually and in a group, and with members of the central administration. At the same time, the assistant superintendent for curriculum meets with the committee to set out the district’s curriculum goals for the following year. The committee also meets with the executive board of the association, and members of the Professional Development Committee (the district’s grant-awarding group).6 Once this elaborate needs assessment has taken place, the committee meets to develop the program for the following year (see Figure 3). The responsibility of implementing the program then rests with the director.


Once programs are developed, they are submitted to the Accreditation Committee, a group made up of three teachers appointed by the association and three administrators appointed by the superintendent (see Figure 2). The responsibility of the Accreditation Committee is to assess each course for salary credit. Usually the committee meets with the course planner or leader to discuss the need that led to the development of the course, the quality of each of the sessions, and the impact the course might have upon teachers’ work with children. The institute has tried, over the years, to keep the notions of immediate applicability to classroom experience broad, since assessing what will have impact on the classroom is difficult. All experiences teachers have broaden and enrich their interaction with young people; for that reason, most courses are open to the entire school community. Often the Accreditation Committee requests changes in programs, asks that course descriptions be rewritten, and suggests alternatives to teachers. After the revisions process, the Accreditation Committee votes on a recommendation for credit for each course. Those courses recommended for salary credit are then submitted to the superintendent, who makes the final recommendation for credit approval to the board.



The board of education takes seriously its role in approving credit for institute courses. Often, the board will send back a course for revision or reevaluation. Usually, upon revision, the course will be approved. The Institute Committee meets with board members periodically to keep them informed and to enrich their understanding of adult education. If the board does not approve a course for salary credit, that is, for funding out of negotiated allocations (Figure 2), the institute retains the option of offering the course without salary credit and assuming the cost of the course itself.

The institute assumes that the salary credit for in-service credit requires some academic product; therefore, most courses require a paper or project. The time requirements for salary credit are linked to the New York State Department of Education regulations for graduate course credits, in particular twelve hours for one in-service credit. Thus, the model for inservice remains primarily an academic model. Since funding is tied to approval for credit by the board, this requirement has an important impact on the planning of the program.

The only additional source of funding for the institute comes from the teachers themselves, who pay approximately $30 for one credit. This money is used to maintain the institute, and to pay for printing costs, secretarial help, telephones, and refreshments.

STI draws on the community for support through two community groups, the Friends of the Institute and the Educational Advisory Committee. The Friends of the Institute is a large group of residents in Scarsdale and neighboring communities who have expressed interest in the institute. They have taken courses, made inquiries, recommended speakers, or in some way made themselves known to it. These people receive all mailings and are invited to attend a lecture at one course free of charge each semester.

The second group plays an even more important role. The Educational Advisory Committee is a small group of community members who meet with the Institute Committee two or three times a year to provide support for program development. It is a rich resource of names, contacts, leads, and information. With its support, the institute develops programs that reflect the interests of the community as well as of the school. These members also serve as a public voice for the institute within the community, particularly important as new people move into the community and need to become acquainted with the schools.

Thus, the institute is structured, through the negotiations process, to provide maximum autonomy for teachers. With the exception of board approval of salary credit for courses, the administration, program selection, instruction, needs assessment, evaluation of programs, hiring and firing of consultants, committee selection, publicity, and public relations are all in the hands of the teachers—an admirable and often enviable position for the teachers of the district.

Yet, this responsibility can also have its limitations. The major difficulty facing the institute—and the major stumbling block in this model of inservice education—is that it requires a mature, interdependent relationship between the teachers and the administration. Inherent in this structure is the danger of developing a mentality that sets teachers and administrators apart. When teachers and administrators view each other as equals, partners in the same enterprise, albeit doing different jobs, this model of staff development enhances all aspects of a district. Administrators need to trust teachers’ skills and be willing to share some power and teachers need to accept this responsibility and take charge of their own growth. Over the years, the institute has sought to develop avenues for cooperation with the administration and to integrate more activities with the planning of the district. This has required an effort on the part of the administration and the institute to work together in as cooperative a mode as possible. Teachers are better served through a cooperative mode; the effectiveness of in-service training is enhanced when it is reinforced through the resources of the entire district. Therefore, over the past few years the institute has developed closer ties to the administration through the continuous needs-assessment process, meetings with the board of education, revisions of the contract, district acknowledgement of the institute, and involvement of the Accreditation Committee at early stages of program planning (see Figure 3).

The two major problems inherent in effecting change—breaking down the isolation of the classroom and reinforcing new skills within the classroom by practice and coaching—cannot be done by the institute in isolation from the district. The district provides some workshops during the school day to meet specific curriculum goals, while the institute operates primarily after school. Also, teachers will not change their practices or the structure of their classrooms without the cooperation and support of the principals. Therefore, the goal of STI over the past few years has been to develop cooperative relationships with the administration based on mutual need and common purpose.

The institute offers a complete range of courses from noncredit programs serving the personal needs of teachers, such as exercise and gourmet cooking, to courses that meet needs of a particular department or group in the school. The programming usually covers the curriculum areas, methodology, and innovations in education. This past year, for example, courses included Film and Ideology, Environmental Studies, Sharing Literature with Children, Stress among Adolescents, Where Will the Workplace Be?, Strategies for Teaching Presidential Elections, and Effective Communication Skills. While these courses developed from teacher suggestions, board goals, and administrative concerns, each course primarily reflected teacher interest. Teachers who manage the courses hire outside consultants and members of the staff to teach. The results of these courses find their ways into the classroom in a variety of methods—some direct, some indirect—but in each case teachers have had the opportunity to work together and to share experiences that enrich them as people and as professionals. For most of these courses, it is entirely appropriate that the institute act independently and individually. Participants in the courses usually seek support from other staff members for recognition of their projects or their work in the classroom. Oftentimes courses at the institute will anticipate district curriculum work or introduce an idea that will need further exploration in other staff-development activities at the building level or in curriculum committees. Where Will the Workplace Be? touched on issues of career education, which the district is just beginning to examine, and Sharing Literature with Children is the second in a series of programs on literature in anticipation of the district’s organization of a curriculum committee to examine the scope and sequence of literature in the elementary school.

These programs enhance the self-esteem of the teachers, increase their sense of themselves as professionals managing their own growth, and open new avenues for curriculum development, classroom practices, and interpersonal relations. The personal-needs courses provide teachers with an opportunity to relax together and enjoy one another’s company, another important plus of the institute.

In areas where the board has a clearly articulated goal and a strong need for implementation, collaboration between the institute and the district becomes more useful and worthwhile. Writing provided one form of collaboration, and the need for computer literacy among the staff provided another, although with totally different models of interaction.


Four years ago, as part of the ongoing curriculum review process, the district writing committee began looking at approaches to teaching writing in the elementary schools. As the same time, through the needs-assessment process, teachers asked the institute to offer a course in writing, emphasizing a closer look at the new work being done on the writing process. The coordinating teacher hired an outside consultant. That first course led to a collaboration between the curriculum office and the institute. The institute invited the consultant back to do a second course in writing, and the assistant superintendent for instruction hired her to work with the teachers taking the course during the day. The teacher who coordinated the course soon became the helping teacher in writing, a position created by the district to augment the writing program. That teacher is released from the classroom for the mornings to help teachers implement the writing program.

Once teachers had mastered the basics of the writing-process approach, they wanted continued work to refine their practices. The following year the institute offered A Writing Seminar for Scarsdale Teachers. The consultant returned on occasion, but the group functioned with a support system from within the staff. The course description states: “The group will meet in the evening, twice a month. Each meeting will involve clusters of teachers sharing drafts of current projects and discussing writing techniques.“7

A group of teachers in one elementary school came to the institute to ask if they could work with the helping teacher in a course in which they would share what they were doing in their individual classes. The helping teacher was able to arrange time to meet with teachers in their classrooms during the day and then continue the work, bringing all the teachers in the project together after school. The credit course was so successful that the teachers became committed to understanding writing through more complex research. The helping teacher had been involved in an Interactive Research and Development on Schooling (IR&DS) research grant and was able to work with the course participants. They formed a research group, and again the institute was able to formulate a course, Writing Research or Classroom Research: The Place to Begin. The coordinator of the project writes:

I had learned something about research from the IR&DS project; so I agreed to become a tentative guide, taking teachers through the research process. We were now teachers leading teachers, and had to develop our own support system. We did this through an in-service course sponsored by the Scarsdale Teachers Institute. We met for six two-hour sessions to study the nature of descriptive research.8

The teachers read research, investigated other teacher-researcher models, and began to collect data. They recorded much of what went on in their classrooms, and searched for a problem or question on which they could focus a study. The result of the course was to be a proposal to the Professional Development Grant Committee for a summer grant to write up the results of the findings. The teachers received their grant, wrote and published their research, and presented their findings at a national conference. The teachers now consider their school “the writing school.” This change in practices took four to five years to accomplish with the continuing support from the institute, the curriculum office, the principal, and, of course, the teachers themselves.

As the interest in writing grew, the institute began receiving requests from the junior and senior high to provide some program for them in writing. At a National Council of Teachers of English convention, a group of teachers attended a workshop on writing across the curriculum. Impressed by the project, the teachers asked the district to invite the coordinator of the project to Scarsdale to talk further about what he and his colleagues had been learning. The group met with teachers from all departments in the junior and senior high schools. The meetings were sponsored by the district and teachers were released from classes to attend. After the visit, teachers were interested enough in the idea of writing across the curriculum to ask the institute to develop a program for the next year. Coordinated by the helping teacher, this course, Writing across the Curriculum 7-12, was designed to meet monthly throughout the year so that teachers could work on writing projects in their classrooms, then bring them back to the class for discussion and analysis. The consultant made regular visits; he worked with teachers in their classrooms, or in free periods during the day, and then with the institute class in the afternoon. The cost of these visits was shared by the institute and the curriculum office. So, again, the collaboration between the district and the institute furthered the goals of the district and met the needs of the teachers.


Other collaborations have been initiated by teachers in a variety of ways. The junior high social studies department was awarded a professional development grant to bring in a consultant to work with them on using social history in the curriculum. The institute asked the consultant to prepare .a three-day workshop for all teachers on integrating social history into the curriculum; the chairperson of the department coordinated the program.


When it became clear that the district would have to become more involved in computer education, the administration and the institute co-sponsored an introductory course on computer programming. The course was offered to the staff free of charge, after school and for credit. One hundred and twenty-five people registered for the course. This course, taught by an outside instructor, initiated formal computer education in the district. At this point, the board had limited and specific curriculum goals at the elementary schools, but teachers’ interest in learning about computers was high. The district could not provide enough workshops during the school day to meet the demand, so the institute offered these programs. Institute programs were designed to meet the needs and interests of teachers, not to meet the specific curriculum goals of the district. For example, LOGO was offered to all teachers, not just the third- and fourth-grade teachers who were responsible for teaching LOGO in the classroom and were being serviced to some extent by the curriculum office. To maintain and increase the interest of the staff in computer programming, the institute offered courses in BASIC taught by members of the staff.

Over the past four years, STI has offered eleven courses in computers, including BASIC, LOGO, PASCAL, Computer Uses, Microcomputer Uses in the Library, and Programming with Pocket Computers, thereby augmenting work that is done within the district and providing opportunities for teachers to expand their understanding of computers in ways the curriculum office could not afford and did not wish to sponsor. Although a formal, financial collaboration does not exist, there is a mutual educational interest. As one teacher remarked, “As far as I am concerned, if it had not been for the institute’s foresight and professional approaches to learning computers, I really do not think I could have gotten started. The quality of the courses and the positive support have enabled me to be where I am today.“9


Another form of collaboration developed the Interdisciplinary Studies Seminar, a semester program for high school teachers. One of the changes recommended for graduation requirements included a half credit in interdisciplinary studies for second semester seniors. Unlike most of the other changes in graduation requirements, this was recommended rather than mandated. The board of education thought that it would be best to first have a pilot project. High school teachers were enthusiastic about working together to develop curriculum. In this case, the collaboration took place on a building level. The institute approached the high school principal to ask for joint sponsorship and cooperation in developing the program. The principal and the coordinators of the course, two teachers with experience in interdisciplinary work, met with staff during the day, at the joint invitation of the principal and the institute, to explore the interest in the program. The principal sat in on some of the initial planning meetings for the design of the course and helped encourage registration. Faculty entered the program with assurance that their work in the seminar would be given careful attention and consideration. The central administration and the board of education were invited to attend the final session of the course so that they, too, could be informed of the curriculum development.

The benefits that accrue to the district from the institute are manifold, but most important is the role the institute plays in maintaining the vitality and independence of the staff. The administration and the institute must maintain a delicate balance to preserve their individual interests and still find methods of working together to serve the general needs. Through careful management and a desire for collaboration, this model of staff development offers small districts the opportunity to build staff morale, implement new curriculum, and improve teaching skills. The district further benefits by encouraging teacher growth through risk taking and experimentation in a protected and supportive environment. Teachers can test new waters free from the fears of failure or evaluation; they can form networks to support their efforts at change, and they can find colleagues to guide them through new teaching strategies. Teachers use the institute to meet their particular needs—for new technology, personal interest, reflection on their own teaching, new ideas, or areas of concern that are not addressed in any other place in the district. The staff regards the institute as the place where new ideas are generated, where they have a chance to work with their colleagues and practice what they learn.

The varied roles teachers assume at STI encourage their interest and support in the work of the district. The autonomy teachers feel through the institute structure and their freedom to create professional programs provide the impetus for their support. Teachers manage their own growth. They run the courses, hire the consultants, manage the budgets. They often teach the courses they have designed, while at another session, or course, the same teachers become students. Teachers create programs in which they are the experts helping their colleagues. Part of the satisfaction that teachers derive from their jobs comes from being able to mentor-to share and pass on the skills they have acquired over years. Some of the lack of opportunity for altered roles or mobility in teaching is offset in this way. The institute provides the place for master teachers to share their skills and help their colleagues. The place that breaks down the barriers of the classroom walls continues to be the institute. Over and over teachers remark that the opportunity to talk with colleagues from other buildings and work together to solve common problems remains the best parts of the institute experience.

The original plan of STI was to develop an autonomous organization that would promote the growth of teachers and the growth of the educational program of the district. The major impetus in promoting growth was to provide continuing opportunities for teachers to work in many roles, to extend the breadth and depth of their experience. For the most part, this model has held true to its original purpose. The fiscal constraints and changing educational climate have made cooperation and collaboration between the institute and the administration necessary and desirable. Through careful planning, desire for the endeavor to succeed, and a recognition that teacher independence can benefit the district, the institute has succeeded. This cooperation and collaboration has been possible because the negotiated contract mandates the institute as a reality for the administration and the teachers, and therefore allows the flexibility necessary for collaboration. When teachers have real, not putative, strength, staff development works. STI continues to serve as a model of in-service education that enriches education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 86 Number 1, 1984, p. 223-237
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 937, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 1:34:06 PM

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