Teaching Teachers: 2019 Court Teacher Institute
The Florida Supreme Court Teacher Institute is an annual education program that invites approximately 25 middle and high school teachers from across the state to learn about the supreme court and our judicial system. The Court Teacher Institute is highly selective in choosing from among its applicants, and those invited to participate in the program are exposed to the teachings of all seven justices of the supreme court, as well as other legal professionals, who prepare them to educate their students about justice and the rule of law when they return home. Although the rigorous educational program of the Court Teacher Institute lasted for only five days, from Sunday, February 17, to Thursday, February 21, 2019, it has sparked a lasting desire in its participants to inform and educate others, especially students, about the operations and importance of the court system and the constitutional rights we are fortunate to have.
Teachers met the seven justices during their study of case law and discussions about the Florida Constitution, journeyed to Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit and First District Court of Appeal to learn about the “trail of justice,” and weighed in on a legal case, handpicked by Justice Alan Lawson, that is currently before the supreme court. Through their study of this case, teachers garnered first-hand experience of the justice system and became fully enveloped in their roles as lawyers and justices for a mock oral argument on this case.
After speaking with the teachers, we could see how much the Court Teacher Institute meant to them. Dr. Marjorie Chiarolanzio, a social science instructor at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, supervises the Model United Nations team at her school and enjoys participating in continuing education opportunities. She praised the diversity and camaraderie of the institute: “In this experience, I was among a group of my peers! Geographically diverse, but also philosophically diverse. We teach different types of students and come from different backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions.” Yet everyone worked together so well, she said. She also appreciated the interactions with the justices: “The accolades we received from the justices—we never get that kind of feedback, ever! The gratification we usually get is from students, rarely from colleagues and [our] superiors.”
The behind-the-scenes experience was the most appealing part of the program to attorney-turned-teacher Jeffrey Van Treese, II, an instructor for the Law Academy at Palm Beach Lakes Community High School. He said the institute provided him with a “more intimate understanding of the supreme court and how justices hear and decide cases,” knowledge that the justices hope will be passed on to students in lesson plans and engaging learning activities in schools.
And Mr. Michael Rogers, an instructor from Lake Asbury Junior High School in Green Cove Springs, voiced that “It was really liberating to witness the checks and balances that are built into each layer of our judicial process.” In experiencing a case from start to finish, he said he gained a unique perspective on how the judicial branch operates. He found Justice Ricky Polston’s talk especially resonant: “You’re going to be very glad you watched and saw how our judicial system works,” explained Justice Polston on the second day of the institute, reminding the teachers of “how important it is for everyone to get a fair shot with a jury.” Mr. Rogers teaches at a school where the majority of students are the first in their families to go to college—and some have an incarcerated family member; he emphasizes the importance of becoming educated to his classes and considers the civics program fundamental to their education. He said he wants his students to do the right thing and to learn from the mistakes of others so that they can become better, more civic-minded individuals. He knows the institute will help him help his students. Education, particularly knowledge pertaining to the law, will help them stay out of trouble, he said, adding, “I feel guilty leaving them [his students] for a week, but knowing what I will bring back to them [from the institute] makes it all worthwhile.”
The Court Teacher Institute was created over two decades ago with the mission to demystify the judicial system for teachers from a diversity of Florida’s schools. Ms. Annette Boyd Pitts, executive director of Civic MindEd, Inc./Center for Law Education (formerly the Florida Law Related Education Association), helps to coordinate the institute and strongly believes in the program’s purpose and the value it gives our state’s educators and, in turn, their students. In Ms. Pitts’ experience, “When public knowledge about the courts increases, so too does trust and confidence in the judicial branch,” which explains why she is so passionate about the institute. Designed to help teachers create replicable lesson plans about the roles and functions of the judicial branch, the institute is purposeful every day of the program. The quality of the instruction and of the lessons shared at the institute will support the teachers’ efforts to better educate their students about courts in the state of Florida. Thanks to the contributions of the justices and many local judges and program volunteers, the Court Teacher Institute has had a significant impact on Florida’s teachers that is sure to travel beyond the marble interior of the supreme court.
Read more about the Florida Supreme Court Teacher Institute program.