Saugerties teachers hone their skills with professional study groups

It takes a considerable amount of education just to get into a classroom. But for the most dedicated of teachers, improving their skills is a lifelong process.

Each Monday, a group of teachers meets in Rebecca Mulford’s classroom at Grant D. Morse. The group, which draws on resources from the Mid-Hudson Teacher Center (MHTC), began meeting in January. It includes 13 teachers from Saugerties and another three from Red Hook. The meetings run about three hours. The current area of focus is teacher language: how can teachers speak more effectively?

“You don’t think too much about teacher language, but it really gets into open-ended questioning, reinforcing positive behavior and envisioning language,” said Mulford. “It’s about creating a really safe environment for students and trying to set things in a positive light. It makes a big difference.”

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Each meeting begins with a discussion. One recent meeting focused on the way phrasing a question to allow for more open-ended, thoughtful responses can make a difference.
“It’s very fast-paced,” Mulford said. “It is amazingly engaging to be with a group of colleagues who all have such passion about what they’re doing in the classroom.”

After the initial discussion, the teachers often break up into smaller grade level-based groups, view video clips from a kit provided by Responsive Classroom, the Massachusetts-based, teacher-directed resource center which works through the MHTC.

Mulford, a 16-year veteran of the district and member the MHTC policy board for the past six years, took her first Responsive Classroom course in 1996. The MHTC operates in part through state grants, purchasing materials like those being used in Mulford’s group for around 13,000 educators in Ulster, Dutchess and Orange counties.

The MHTC has been around for four decades, and when they took a budget hit 20 years ago decided to begin putting money away for a rainy day. That rainy day came last year, Mulford said, when then-Gov. David Paterson cut them out of the state budget entirely. So far, Gov. Cuomo looks likely to follow the same tack.

“As of June, funding for the local teacher center will be dried up,” Mulford said. “We will stay a teacher center on paper and will have meetings, but it’s kind of scary. They’re closing their doors.”

Teachers in the study group paid a $75 fee to the MHTC to participate, money they can actually recoup through a contractual allowance that increases their annual salary by $90 for 15 hours of in service professional development. Even so, Mulford said, the benefits to the district are considerable.

“Each of these teachers is going back and discussing this in their buildings,” she said. “It’s something that takes a little bit of the onus off the district, and it really gets teachers thinking about ways to change their practices. ”

The study group is using a book called “The Power of Our Words – Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn” by Paula Denton in its discussions.

Dana Murphy, a kindergarten teacher at Charles M. Riccardi Elementary, has also taken other Responsive Classroom courses, and she felt this was the next logical step.

“What I’ve noticed the most with the class, is it makes you when you say something think twice,” she said. “I think it’s made an impact.”

Patricia Luz, a kindergarten teacher at Morse, agreed.

“It’s so beneficial to get together with other teachers to discuss best practices and to share our thought processes,” she said.

Mulford said the study group is a perfect opportunity for engaged teachers to continue working toward becoming even better at what they do.

“You’ve been doing this for so long, it’s just very refreshing to have the conversations we’re having,” she said. “As teachers, we really should be lifelong learners, and for us to be able to have something that’s convenient for us is vital.”
Luz agreed.

“I am thrilled that this was being offered, as I love any opportunity to grow as a teacher,” she said. “The reason I became a teacher is because I have a love of learning and I hope to be able create that love in as many children as possible.”

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