The smell of fall is in the air and with that come the back-to-school traditions: shopping for clothes, shopping for supplies and educators sitting at endless hours of professional staff development.

Traditional PD model: Leave it

In a typical school experience, educators can be certain that as they begin to arrive at their sites, after summer vacation, they will be inundated with hours of presentations on their district’s next new wave of adoptions. While these efforts may be well meaning, it’s the how and what that’s shared that oftentimes bring educators to their knees, begging for these instructional workshops to be over. I can attest to this as after having been a school administrator for 14 years, I too sat through far too many ill-conceived professional development sessions that were clearly irrelevant. Not only that, sadly, I was also an administrator who was obligated to subject my teachers to a series of ineffective professional development trainings.

That said, I’m a firm believer in the power of professional development and its ability, when well crafted, to be a game changer in the growth of a teacher’s practice. The problem is that more often than not, educators are not allowed to take charge of their own learning evolution. Rather they are coerced into instructional training models, that ultimately will prove to be a waste of their precious time.

The edcamp PD model: Love it!

A few weeks ago, I took a drive up the California coast to connect with other educators, for a truly valuable back-to-school professional development opportunity, one that not only is field tested worldwide, but whose time has come. It’s a professional development model based on the belief that if you gather educators together around topics of importance to them and their work, they will eagerly come. It’s a model worth researching and replicating, and it’s called an edcamp.

Edcamps may be new to some readers, so I’ll share some background. Edcamp is a free unconference for educators at all levels. Unlike the trainings that often prove to be of no use to enthusiastic teachers, in edcamp, you the educator are responsible for driving your learning. You can lead a session if motivated to do so, or come to the camp to listen and share! The edcamp model is based on the international unconference model, barcamp, which seeks to provide an “ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment.” It’s an event with discussions, often times including technology demos and interaction from participants; in essence, it’s PD from your peers.

In this model of professional development, unlike the aforementioned “traditional” approach, the unconference runs on the sheer energy and enthusiasm of its organizers and participants. It’s fueled by educators taking charge by developing engaging conversations around topics that resonate with them, and ultimately using those to support their work in the classrooms and schools where they live. They are also urged to use the rule of edcamp which is “vote with your feet,” meaning that if you find yourself in a session that isn’t meeting your needs, you are free to get up and leave that session! Unlike a typical traditional school training, the edcamp unconference provides a vehicle for the teacher to have a voice and a decision about how they learn and what they learn. Taking the time to attend or lead a session at edcamp is truly a work of the heart and collaborative spirit.

Those who attend an edcamp are not only motivated to participate but are driven by their own innate desire to grow professionally with their colleagues. I believe that if we are to move forward with supporting the growth of our profession and embrace the call to be 21st-century educators, we must urge school leadership to provide this unconference model of professional development not only during those important back-to-school days, but as a regular part of the professional learning practice.

Lisa Michelle Dabbs (@teachingwthsoul) is an educational consultant in Los Angeles. She has a master’s degree in educational management from the University of La Verne and is a speaker, a presenter and an active social media participant. She maintains a blog, is a core blogger for Edutopia.org and is the founder for the weekly New Teacher Chat #ntchat discussion on Twitter. She is also an organizer for edcamp OCLA and is a former elementary-school principal.

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