School Climate & Safety Opinion

Engaging Professional Development: One District’s Success With EdCamps

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 12, 2016 8 min read
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We welcome Mark Secaur, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction at the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Schools in New York as our guest blogger.

In my role as a district leader, much of my work is devoted to supporting the teachers of our students. As a supposed “teacher of teachers”, I know all too well my limitations in experience, knowledge, and formal training in many areas (i.e. World Languages, Elementary education, etc.). As such, I have purposely chosen to rely on the professionalism and sincerity of our teachers in much of my decision making. This has manifested itself in my allowing them a greater level of autonomy in their professional learning. Striking the right balance between teacher and administrator directed professional development is a difficult, but important task.

The End of One-Shot Workshops
Many teachers have a healthy disdain for professional development. To illustrate the point, In Michael Fullan’s The NEW Meaning of Educational Change, (2007), he quotes a teacher who states, “When I die I hope it is during a professional development session because the transition from life to death will be so seamless” (p. 283). All too often, presenters and topics are foisted upon the attendees regardless of the applicability of the material. With the nature of teaching and learning being so complicated, it is near to impossible to orchestrate a system of workshops and courses that will be deemed valid and necessary by a large percentage of the consumers. The desire to accomplish externally developed goals, regardless of demonstrated improvement in teaching and learning, is often the motivating factor in providing these “learning” opportunities. In a finding that was made nearly 40 years ago, and regrettably all too often still the case, Fullan (1979) noted, "...one -shot workshops were ineffective, their topics were selected by people other than those receiving the in-service, and follow up support for implementation was rare”. Teachers, like students, can readily detect sincerity and mutual respect. As a result, they often resent professional development that is thought of as contrived and/or mandated.

Trusting Relationships Shifts the Culture
Mindful of these factors, coupled with my belief that the vast majority of teachers walk into school every day to work in the best interest of their students, I have sought to align my approach accordingly. My trust in teachers has impacted my practice greatly as an administrator at the building and district level. In my current role, I chair the district’s professional development committee. My work in this regard has centered on forging trusting relationships with our teachers while trying to develop a sustainable culture of learning. Central to these efforts is increasing the effective utilization of emerging technologies that are deemed useful and practical to our staff. With the generous cooperation of the members, we have moved towards a teacher-directed professional development model that has technology embedded within the workshops. It is my hope that these methods will assist us as we seek to develop a culture of teacher led and initiated professional learning.

Historically, the model for many Superintendent’s Conference Days has included a well-paid speaker of note who imparts his/her wisdom upon the collective faculty of a building or district. While occasionally inspiring and/or prestigious, the sessions were often poorly received as there was little relevance for many teachers. In my role, I have sought to balance mandated workshops with opportunities for teachers to choose the sessions they would like to attend. Our approach has been to gradually allow for greater autonomy in this area and any of the sessions were led by teachers who were able to share practical strategies and tools they have become proficient with. On March 4th, a day set as a Superintendent’s Conference Day, we created an EdCamp where the participants selected the topic for every session the day of the event.

EdCamps Balance Bottom-Up and Top Down PD Decisions
The EdCamp method of professional development delivery nimbly allowed us to achieve our goals related to teacher autonomy, delivery of embedded professional development, and creating a culture of teacher led innovation. That said, it was a leap of faith and a labor intensive endeavor. Typically, Superintendent’s Conference Days are tightly choreographed and focused on district and building goals. All of the stakeholders involved from teacher to the Board of Education were generous with their trust in allowing a model that isn’t typically done on such a scale with attendees whose attendance is mandatory. The typical EdCamp takes place on a Saturday with participants who are volunteers.

EdCamps are based upon the desire for participant led professional development. The session topics are determined on the day of the event. This is intentional, ensuring that every topic responds to the needs of the people participating. Outside of the format and some general conversations, it is an unplanned opportunity for professionals to share and learn with one another. On the day of the event, all of the district’s teachers arrived at the high school, registered, were given a chrome book, and then took a seat in the auditorium. Once assembled, I welcomed them and spoke of our rationale for this method of professional development. The reasons included the reality that, in today’s fast-paced, digital world we have to learn from each other; our understanding of and respect for the level of wisdom they have to share; and the goal to have organic conversations that can continue long after the event and drive future PD decisions. The format of the day included the first two sessions taking place in the high school, and after lunch, the teachers would return to their home school for another planning meeting and two more sessions.

Once the premise was established, I introduced the teachers to a blank session board illuminated on a large screen. I underscored that it was blank because they were the ones who would establish and facilitate the sessions for the day. I also informed them that each session, once typed into the box, would be a hyperlink to a google doc. At this point, the reason for the chrome books became clearer. They were also reminded that, as we continue to purchase these devices for student use, the more familiar we are going to need to become with them and their capabilities. The google doc would be the means with which the participants could take notes collaboratively during the session and add links to useful resources. These notes would serve several important purposes besides adding structure to the discussions. The google doc could also be shared with a larger audience, allowing us to scale up the learning. They could also serve as the impetus for future professional development, curriculum writing, and resource allocation. The google platform of apps has been a point of emphasis for us and many teachers have embraced this work enthusiastically. The opportunity to expose all of our teachers to these tools in a practical manner was very exciting.

In the days and weeks leading up to the event, we asked teachers to begin thinking of what they may be willing to share or topics they wanted to learn more about. In order to encourage people to volunteer as facilitators, I underscored that there were no single experts in any of the sessions. The educators as a group, collaborating and sharing together, are the experts. They were also introduced to the “Rule of Two Feet”, where participants are told that if they are in a session that is not interesting, they should leave and find another session. They are informed that EdCamp is about your learning, not someone’s ego. At that time, the teachers were asked to write down topics and their name on a large post-it if they were willing to facilitate a session. Teacher members of our district-wide professional development committee collected over 100 ideas and sifted through them to identify themes and topics with a great deal of interest. They then relayed the chosen topics to staff who entered the session titles onto the session board. The session board was a google doc and now accessible to everyone with a chrome book. Once the session board was fully assembled, the teachers were instructed to walk to the rooms and their first session.

The session topics were varied in subject and scope. Many were devoted to the application of instructional technology within existing curricula. There were also several devoted to the social and emotional learning of our students. Of particular note were several sessions devoted to topics as narrowly focused as special education data collection and assessment in physical education. While the work product created with google docs was lacking in a few sessions, many were substantive and well done. In order to leverage the learning, we converted the google docs to Microsoft word documents and shared them with the entire faculty via email. The feedback for the day has been very positive, with many stating it was the best experience they have had with professional development. Within a week of the event, I was informed that one session devoted to “Reaching Difficult Middle School Students” resulted in a newly scheduled push-in program where the social worker will be actively teaching pro-social skills to all of our sixth graders. Without the involvement of a single building or district administrator, a new program to benefit teaching and learning was initiated. In my opinion, it was a clear realization of the goals we had for the EdCamp concept.

Going forward, I will endeavor to strike the right balance between the top-down and bottom-up approach to professional development. That said, the intentional push for teacher autonomy will continue to be central to my decision making. True leadership is predicated on the need for someone to actually follow after you decide upon a path. The path will be better worn if it is collaboratively decided upon.

Fullan, M. (1979). School-focused In-service Education in Canada. Report prepared for the

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (OECD), Paris.

Fullan, M. (2007). The NEW Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College Press.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.