The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Teaching Our Teachers: The Justice Teaching Institute

Featured Article

Chief Justice Labarga and teacher Wendie McFarley of Miami Killian Senior High School demonstrate the “gator chomp” during a break at the Florida Supreme Court’s Teaching Institute. All justices serve as faculty for the teacher training program. Photo by Annette Boyd Pitts.

Teaching about the courts, and particularly the appellate process, can be a challenging task for many teachers. Hundreds of thousands of Florida students are immersed in the study of civics, government, and law throughout the state, creating a need for quality professional development. Training is needed to equip teachers with the knowledge and strategies to teach effectively about the judicial branch, the role of the courts in our constitutional structure, and the judicial decision-making process.

The Florida Supreme Court has played a major role in preparing teachers for this important instructional area. Since 1996-97, the Supreme Court has hosted a statewide institute for middle and high-school teachers to experience the state courts. Housed annually at the Florida Supreme Court and taught by all seven justices, the Justice Teaching Institute utilizes a case study approach to teach about the court system. The institute immerses teachers in a hands-on examination of the administration of justice while providing a human dimension to the process. “This is best professional learning experience I have participated in since I began teaching 20 years ago,” stated a high school teacher participant. “To be taught about the courts from all seven Supreme Court justices demonstrates the magnitude of their commitment to civic education.”

Teachers begin the institute with an opening mock oral argument addressing search and seizure. Through this 60-minute exercise, teachers learn how to teach about the appellate process, the role of precedent in judicial decision-making, and the structure and function of the courts through an engaging simulation. FLREA assisted the Florida Supreme Court in designing and implementing the first institute in 1997 and continues to administer the program today. Serving as justices and attorneys in the introductory mock oral argument activity, teachers learn both process and content. They learn how appellate courts differ from trial courts. They explore constitutional applications to real-life scenarios and practice interactive teaching strategies that are easily transferable from the courtroom to the classroom.

Throughout the week, teachers receive substantive training in constitutional law, practice law-focused strategies to utilize in the classroom, observe motion to suppress hearings, interact with trial and appellate judges, explore judicial selection processes in Florida, and examine the structure and function of the state and federal courts. The culminating activity for the teachers is to examine a real case and prepare to present oral arguments. The concluding component is to observe the real oral arguments at the Supreme Court.

Teachers participating in the Supreme Court Justice Teaching Institute experience judicial decisionmaking through an appellate case study and oral argument simulation. The model program has existed for more than 20 years. Photo by Erin Watson.

In a blind survey and follow-up evaluation, 100 percent of teacher participants stated:

• The institute substantially increased their knowledge of the state courts;

• They strongly agreed they are better equipped to teach their students about the courts and the judicial branch as a result of participating in this institute;

• Their trust and confidence in the courts and the judicial branch has increased as a result of participating in the Supreme Court institute; and

• The professional development model helped them understand the appellate process and judicial decisionmaking.

The combination of clinical and academic experiences, the direct interaction with all of the justices, the professional learning community that was created, the use of simulations to enhance instruction, and a wide variety of other program components were highlighted as best practices by the participating teachers. “This is not only about process, it is about a human connection with justice,” stated a teacher from the 2016 program. “After participating in this four-day, experiential training, I am so much better equipped to teach about the judicial branch; my students will be the ultimate beneficiaries,” stated a teacher from South Florida.

Twenty-five teachers from throughout Florida attend the institute annually, which is funded by The Florida Bar Foundation with assistance from The Florida Bar and other entities. For additional information or to nominate a teacher to attend the Supreme Court Institute in 2017, contact Annette Boyd Pitts, Executive Director, The Florida Law Related Education Association, Inc., at [email protected].

Annette Boyd Pitts is the founding executive director of the Florida Law Related Education Association, Inc. She has worked to advance education for democracy in 25 countries. She is the recipient of the National Improvements in Justice Award, the ABA Isidore Starr Award, and the Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Advancements in Civic Education presented by the National Center for State Courts.