What #edcamp has to teach us about PD: A letter to administrators

Blogging for Real ReformToday is a very special day. Two months ago, Ira Socol called for a day for bloggers to talk about real education reform. From the posts that I have seen, people are addressing a wide range of topics, and you should check out this Wallwisher or this post to connect with a ton of great writing today.

By fortunate coincidence, today is also six months to the day since we gave birth to the Edcamp movement in Philadelphia. It’s been a great six months. So far there have six events, stretching as far west as Kansas City and as far north as New Hampshire. In the next six months, there are ten planned events, stretching all across the country, from Florida to California to Detroit.

It’s a very exciting time.

With that in mind, this one is written for the districts and administrators out there, the ones who can choose to reform the mostly dreadful professional development that teachers receive each year.


Dearest administrators,

It didn’t have to be this way.

Edcamp only exists because we as teachers were compelled to take our professional development into our own hands. You see, we have a problem: most professional development stinks. It’s one of the many running jokes of being a teacher. As teachers, we’re told to differentiate our lessons by you, but our professional development is rarely differentiated for our needs, interests, and ability levels.I’ve been the victim more than once of being told to report for  a professional development session that had nothing at all to do with my class or curriculum. I’ve sat in professional development periods that are just announcements that could have been e-mailed to me. I’ve had more powerpoint slides read to me than I can count…when they already gave me the powerpoint slides.

I’ve heard an administrator tell me that the lessons they’re showing us will lead to “authentic test prep,” as if one could ever prepare authentically for such an inauthentic task as a state-wide standardized test.

Have you ever run a day of professional development where every single person you talk to is excited about the day of learning they had, because they’ve got  a zillion ideas they’re ready to bring back to their classroom? I have!

Now, certain consultants would charge you thousands of dollars for building a day like that, but I’ll give you the secrets for free.

Here’s what Edcamp does right, in convenient bullet-point format. Don’t worry, I won’t read it to you, although you are free to use some nice TTS software if you so choose:

  • We treat all voices equally. Anybody with an interest in education is welcome to come to an edcamp. They are free or very cheap, and we believe that teacher voices are just as valuable as administrator voices are just as valuable as parent voices. Are you checking with all of your teachers about what kinds of professional development you’re offering? It doesn’t count if you check with the same few teachers every time.
  • Choice is sacrosanct. People choose the sessions that are of interest to them. If they realize a session isn’t working for them, we encourage them to leave and find something else interesting. That something else might not be another session, but a conversation in the hallway with a colleague. Are you giving your teachers a choice in what they learn about and how they learn it?
  • We encourage expertise. We want everybody to participate in some fashion, but if people have something they’re particularly knowledgeable and interested in, we encourage them to run sessions. Because the event is free, we don’t pay anybody to come to the event and speak to us. Free sharing is encouraged, and we discuss, expand upon, and debate the merits of everything that’s discussed. When was the last time you paid to bring in an expert from far away when you probably had somebody in-house who is just as capable? Did you even check?

That being said, there are a few things that your district can bring to the table that Edcamp can’t match:

  • Unity of purpose. Edcamps bring in educators from all different school types. We get educators from urban, suburban, and rural schools. We get educators from typical public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, independent schools, and homeschools. Everybody is there looking for something different. In your shool or district, you would, I hope have common goals and purposes. Here’s a hint: if the common goal or purpose is just “I went to a conference and saw this really great speaker that I now want to pay to come to my school,” that’s probably not good enough. Administrators should guide the discussion, not control it with absolute authority.
  • Resources. You have money, and we don’t. You can pay experts to come in to your school, or you can develop your own experts in house. It will probably cost you less money and it will be a lot more useful to have your expert on hand. Make sure you have a healthy budget for professional development opportunities for your staff. Ask educators to go to conferences and sessions that you know would be a good fit for them. Be prepared to fund that teacher who has a great idea and wants to go learn more about how to implement it.

One of my favorite things about my school district is that they offer all new teachers $500 in professional development money. I’m using some of that money to go to a session on using SMART Notebook software. I’m not going because I’m particularly fired up about Interactive Whiteboards, but my district is purchasing many of these for the classrooms in my school, and I know that going to this class will help me to better support the teachers I work with. Without the district money, I wouldn’t be going, but I also wouldn’t be going if the district weren’t providing that unity of purpose. I can also guarantee you that it will make a big difference in that I’m approaching this day from the perspective of “I want to be there so I can do my job better” instead of “I don’t want to be there, but they’re forcing me to go.”

The key to reforming PD isn’t to just have every PD day be an Edcamp-style unconference. What will make a real difference is taking the best aspects of Edcamp, valuing every person in your school or district as important, knowledgeable professionals, and giving them the resources to unlock their potential. treat them not as employees, but partners. They want to do an awesome job, and sometimes you’re just getting in the way.

Yours truly,

Dan Callahan

Edcamp Co-Founder

3 thoughts on “What #edcamp has to teach us about PD: A letter to administrators

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