Today, a guest sits quietly in the back of the brightly colored classroom. As the teacher leads her students through their lessons, asking and answering questions, bringing their attention back to the task at hand when they want to wander, the guest takes notes. She nods and smiles at some of the activities. The students are used to guests in their classroom, and they’re proud of their teacher. Hers is one of several model classrooms in the district, where other teachers can visit and learn from watching her, a fellow teacher, in action.

Some of the visiting teachers have struggled with specific things in their own classrooms and want to see how other teachers handle them in theirs. Others are looking for inspiration to enhance their own students’ learning journeys.

This is one of three pathways in the Teacher Academy for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WS/FCS), part of the Peer Project initiative of The Winston-Salem Foundation. The Peer Project launched in 2016 as a way to provide professional development opportunities for all employees to enrich the classroom experience and boost student achievement. The Teacher Academy celebrates and shares the rich resources of the talented teachers who are already working for the system. The teachers who share their classrooms and their time gain as much as those who come to learn, developing leadership skills and growing as they share their passion for reaching young minds.

Supporting education from the inside out

The Peer Project is just one example of the ways The Winston-Salem Foundation works to enhance education in the community. It’s one of the Foundation’s oldest commitments, beginning in the 1920s, with funding for students seeking post-secondary education. But their educational support efforts also seek to nurture the roots in order to nourish the leaves on the educational tree.

“There are teachers in the classroom who have a desire to be leaders, but they don’t want to leave their classrooms,” says Donna Cannon, instructional superintendent, WS/FCS. “They don’t necessarily want to be administrators. They want to be in their classroom, but they need that spark.”

The Peer Project provides that spark through the Model Classroom Pathway, as well as the Quality Colleague Pathway, in which teacher-leaders work with no more than two mentees in a yearlong relationship of support. This support includes face-to-face meetings with the mentees, observation of the mentees’ classrooms, and observation by the mentees in teacher-leaders’ classrooms. The final pathway is the Professional Development Pathway, where specific, custom-designed development opportunities are created to help meet the needs of classrooms.

It’s a solution that does more than just provide resources; it boosts confidence and pride, as well.

“When teachers are empowered in their classrooms, they are going to be leaders in the school. And when you have that distributive leadership, it only serves to make the school better and stronger,” Cannon says. “For the teachers, it builds morale and gives them a sense of ownership over what’s happening in the school.”

The world as a classroom

Another way the Foundation supports the county’s educators is through its annual Forsyth County Teacher Grants. These grants — up to $2,500 — allow teachers, guidance counselors, curriculum coordinators, media coordinators, and other educators in the system to pursue professional growth and enrichment opportunities.

In 2019 alone, more than $55,000 was granted to 34 educators for a wide spectrum of activities. While these opportunities mostly involve educators using resources outside the district, the activities funded reflect a wide range of topics that eventually make their way back into Winston-Salem classrooms.

“We had a pair of teachers a couple of years ago who went to Israel and Palestine and learned about the conflict, studying the psychology and history, and they brought both perspectives back and taught that to their students,” says Brittney Gaspari, vice president of community investments for The Winston-Salem Foundation.

Another team of teachers drove part of the Trail of Tears, stopping at various places along the route to take pictures and reflect on what the experience might have been like for those who originally walked it. They created an interactive Google map to give their students insights into this event that might otherwise be overlooked.

“The teachers have dreams for what they want to bring to their students, and they want to be able to fulfill those dreams through content,” Gaspari says. “They can do that through teacher grants.”

The teacher grants are supported by a number of component funds that educational advocates established over the years to provide support for learning in the county.

“The one that kicked it all off was the Sam and Anne Booke Family Trust in 1989,” Gaspari says. “These donors were really committed to public education, and it was really new to the Foundation when they approached us to support professional development for teachers. That wasn’t something we were doing, so the teacher grants really started that relationship for us, working directly with educators on what they wanted to accomplish.”

There are now five component funds that support teacher grants, but in 2006, the Foundation consolidated them all into a single application process.

Strengthening our schools, strengthening our community

Community members who want to support education by supporting teachers have many ways to be part of these programs.

“We have a large group of volunteers who read teacher grant applications and score them based on a variety of things to help us choose our recipients each year,” Gaspari says.

Cannon likes to remind community members that they can always give time volunteering in the schools. That support means a great deal to the students, but it’s also a powerful way to support the teachers.

And both programs are worthy of support for a variety of reasons.

The Teacher Academy and Forsyth County Teacher Grants enable WS/FCS to attract and retain the best and brightest educators.

“I think it helps a lot with recruiting, but even more than that, it’s keeping our really good teachers in the classroom,” Cannon says. “Opportunities like this can change a teacher’s whole life. It’s going to keep them excited, and boost outcomes for the students.”

Gaspari sees supporting these educational professionals as a vital piece of maintaining the strong community we all live in.

“The teachers we’re working with now, they’re amazing,” she says. “They are leaders not only in their schools and in our district, but in the community as well. They’re just incredible, dedicated, passionate professionals, and that’s a great thing.”

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