Story by Susan Welch, CCCC Correspondent
PITTSBORO - Ellen Bland, Communications instructor for Central Carolina Community College, served as director of North Carolina's 22nd annual N.C Great Teachers Seminar, an annual event that gives community college teachers from throughout the state and beyond the opportunity to enhance their teaching skills and enliven the learning experience for students. The seminar was held Feb.19-22 in Hendersonville.
A grassroots movement since 1969, the Great Teachers Seminar ascribes to the belief that the best teaching ideas and strategies don't come from the "experts" but from teachers themselves. The seminar allows teachers to brainstorm and share their experiences, successes, problems, helpful practices, and techniques in a relaxed environment that encourages spontaneous discussion and problem solving.
Bland, who has been a facilitator for the seminar since 1999, said the seminar doesn't rely on agendas, power point presentations, or other conference staples, but the feedback and ideas of the teachers who participate.
"There is no set agenda for the seminar," she said. "The focus evolves naturally from the needs of the participants. The first day is spent identifying these needs facilitated by dividing the participants into diversified groups -- not all English teachers, not all science teachers, but a mix of background, gender, and discipline. By the second day, we have an agenda and the participants attend sessions in which they teach each other."
By the end of the seminar, the teachers leave with a "gigantic bag of tricks of the trade and techniques" that they can use to be better teachers, Bland explained. They can then return to their respective colleges and share their experiences with other teachers. The seminar, which is an international event as well, is not governed by a board of directors or any other authoritative body -- it is just teachers teaching teachers about what they have learned from professional experience.
"The reason the seminar is so valuable," said Bland, "is that these teachers inspire other teachers about concepts such as how to get students more engaged in the classroom, to love learning instead of viewing it as something they are made to do, and to be more responsible for their own role in learning. Many teachers share an epiphany, 'Oh, I'm supposed to 'uncover' the material, not 'cover' the material,' they have said."
Janet Zurbach, who teaches college transfer Spanish classes and has also taught English as a Second Language at CCCC, has attended the seminar twice.
"I like the seminar because it is different," Zurbach said. "You don't go to listen to a bunch of experts who supposedly have all of the answers. There is an element of surprise in it. The focus is on the participants. It is not something you can attend and be passive. As you participate, you realize that you have strengths you didn't know you had. No one is trying to tell you anything, the seminar is more discovery."
Zurbach said the most important benefit she received was a feeling of revitalization. "I felt energized and believed I have accomplished something in my career, and that I could accomplish something in the future," she said. "It was exciting to get into the groups and hear people say, 'Hey, I really like that idea. I can use that in my classroom.'"
Bland emphasized that there is a great shift in all community colleges toward even greater focus on excellence in teaching. "There is a difference between community college teachers and public school teachers in that a lot of community college teachers have also pursued other careers," she said. "Their professional experience definitely enriches their teaching style, but they can also learn from the practical experience of others in areas like finding ways to approach different learning styles and how to better facilitate active learning."
"The seminar showed me that you really don't need all the technical gadgetry to create a meaningful lesson plan," said Zurbach. "In the end, students remember the teachers who cared the most."
For more information about Central Carolina Community College, visit the website at www.cccc.edu.
Photo by Hannah Hunsinger, The Sanford Herald. Ellen Bland, Communications instructor for Central Carolina Community College, served as director of North Carolina's 22nd annual N.C. Great Teachers Seminar.