What Does Professional Development Mean?

I accidentally let a month go by without writing here.  I can’t say exactly what I’ve been up to over the last month.  Mostly it’s been lots of little things.  Just keeping things going day to day.  Actually, I’m behind.  Behind mostly on personal stuff.  And every time I look around my house, I think, “Man, I need like a week off just to catch up here.”  Since November (see foot injury posts), that’s been the story of my life, playing catch up.

foundation_icon_400x400This past weekend I attended the Edcamp Organizers Summit.  I’ve been attending Edcamp Philly since it started in 2010.  It was the first one, ever!  The Summit was a chance for all the organizers from the area to get together and talk about the Edcamp model of professional development for teachers.  If you don’t know what the model is, it’s an unconference.  People show up and decide that they want to lead a conversation and submit the topic for the conversation, usually on a post-it note and then the organizers build a schedule on the fly.  The topics are wide-ranging and the conversations are really supposed to be just that.  They’re supposed to be facilitated/moderated, not led by someone standing in front of a Power Point.

In many ways, the model isn’t entirely revolutionary.  I went to Northern Voice, which was half keynotes/planned presentations/half unconference.  And “camps” of various kinds exist–Barcamp comes most immediately to mind.  It’s sort of half unconference, half hackathon.  So the Edcamp model had predecessors, but Educational Professional Development, required by most school districts suffered from a one-size fits all and/or sage on the stage format, the very kind of formats educators are told not to use with their own students.  So Edcamp filled a big need for teacher-led, teacher-centered, and conversation-based professional development.

Besides appreciating the format, what I get out of Edcamp is what I think people should get out of every professional development and that is being pushed out of your comfort zone simultaneous with being in a safe place.  It’s a weird feeling where you’re thinking, “I’m with my peeps; they get me” at the same time that you’re thinking, “Man, I’m feeling a little uncomfortable with what these people are saying.”  I had a lot of those moments over the weekend–and some of those are a whole separate blog post I’ll get to later.

But I kept thinking about this question of what you’re supposed to get out of going to a conference or a class or something that’s supposed to develop you professionally, i.e. add to your knowledge base about how to teach or about your discipline.  Sure it’s cool if you learn about some new collaborative tech tool and maybe you’ll use that in some class.  But more than that, I think professional development should make you think and should move you toward changing something about how you approach your work.  It might take a while to implement that change, but you come away with the desire to change nonetheless.  If you don’t, if all you come away with is a list of resources you may or may not use or refer to, then either the conference did something wrong or you did.

Another thing that is important to get out of professional development is the reinvigoration that comes from spending time with your tribe.  I hesitate a little to say this because I know sometimes people go to conferences or events and feel left out for a variety of reasons.  They don’t see people that look like them.  They can’t seem to connect with anyone and find common interests.  Or the people at the conference seem clique-y.  I can tell you I’ve felt all those things at conferences.  And I’ve had all those feelings alleviated by a single person just walking up and introducing themselves and asking a few questions about who I am or inviting me to join them for lunch or dinner or to sit at the conference table with them.  And so I try to do the same, to pay it forward.  Because I belong to many tribes, and I like my tribes to be made up of lots of different kinds of people.  There’s no need to feel exclusive.  And then, everyone is really part of my tribe.

Interestingly, while this weekend was indeed a little bit of being with my tribe, I realized by the end that in most moments, I spent my time with lots of different people.  I met a lot of new people from whom I gained new perspectives and ideas.  I did a lot more listening than talking.  So, I end where I began. What makes professional development actual real development and also refreshing is that tension between the comfort of being with like-minded people and the discomfort of realizing that those people have different minds after all.  And then you take that tension home with you and do something productive with it.