The day in and day out work of educational leadership can take its toll on even the most commit-ted school principals. It’s no easy feat to remain fully engaged and effective from one academic year to the next, or to serve as a constant source of encouragement for students, teachers, and staff. Like professionals in every other field, principals need opportunities to recharge their batteries, learn new skills, and connect with others who are navigating similar challenges.
An increasingly popular new approach to professional learning for educators, known as Ed-camp, appears to be an effective means of giving principals this kind of much-needed support. Edcamps are free “unconference” events, typically held on a Saturday, that provide attendees with the opportunity to choose what, where, when, how, and with whom to learn. Any organization or interested group of individuals can organize and host an Edcamp, and unlike traditional conferences — with topics and presenters scheduled months in advance — the Edcamp structure allows attendees to determine session topics on the day of the event (Swanson, 2014). Instead of sit-and-get sessions, participants engage in discussion-based, collaborative learning in breakout sessions with other attendees who share similar interests and/or concerns. Since the first event in 2010, more than 1,100 Edcamps have been held around the world, most of them regional events that include educators from many different schools and districts.
The idea is to give participants a chance to connect with each other in an informal setting that’s deliberately unlike a typical district-mandated professional development program, which tends to feature external experts, required activities, and limited opportunities for participant choice (Sparks, 2004). When asked to provide PD to teachers — a notoriously tough audience — principals often find the experience stressful. And when they’re on the receiving end of PD, principals often end up feeling condescended to and demoralized, made to participate in a one-size-fits-all workshop that casts them in passive roles and ignores their experience (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009). By contrast, Edcamps are intentionally low-key affairs, where participation is entirely voluntary.
What follows are research- and experience-based insights into how Edcamps can contribute to principals’ professional learning and growth. As is the case in most professional learning events for K-12 educators, teachers make up the largest number of participants in most Edcamps. However, findings from research studies that two of us have conducted (Carpenter, 2015; Carpenter & Linton, 2016) — along with our own experiences as Edcamp participants and organizers — suggest that the Edcamp model can serve as an ef-fective structure for supporting and developing principals.
Nowhere else do teachers, teacher leaders, support personnel, and principals meet on such equal footing, with such chances to share their unvarnished opinions with each other.
Just like teachers, principals need professional learning opportunities — in fact, when principals make focused efforts to learn new skills, they become more likely to spur greater teacher and student learning as well (Evans & Mohr, 1999). However, it can be a challenge for leaders to leave behind their daily school responsibilities to participate in courses or workshops. Rarely can they find time during the regular school day and week. Further, when district leaders launch new programs or initiatives, they typically provide teachers with related professional development, but they rarely think to offer such support to principals.
For many principals, then, Edcamps are likely to be the most reliable source of professional learning available. Further, they certainly offer the most positive environment for learning — the voluntary nature of most Edcamps means they rarely include the sorts of naysayers and burned-out educators who tend to sap the life out of mandatory PD programs.
Participants in Carpenter and Linton’s (2016) research frequently describe Edcamp as a supportive setting — they tend to use words like “empowering,” “inspirational,” and “re-energizing” — where school leaders are surrounded by similarly motivated colleagues. Given the emotional toll that leadership can take on principals, such an encouraging and supportive atmosphere can be an important resource (Carpenter, 2015; Carpenter & Linton, 2016).
Further, because Edcamps have no fixed agenda and no convening authority, there is little pressure to steer the discussion toward a particular conclusion, or to compete for attention or resources. Nor do principals have to worry about saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong question, or speaking out of turn. Because no outside experts have been designated to speak, principals and teachers alike are free to take risks and draw upon their own practitioner-based expertise. Experienced leaders often share lessons from their work, but they are under no obligation to do so. And early-career principals — who would have to apply months in advance to present at a professional conference — can easily find an audience and test a new idea or theory.
The resulting discussions can be quite powerful, especially for educators who previously may not have considered leadership to be part of their professional identity. Given the choice to participate and given the chance to share their voices with interested and supportive colleagues, many principals seize the opportunity.
Because Edcamps provide powerful opportunities to network with other passionate educators, the benefits of participating tend to go well beyond the single day of the event (Carpenter, 2015; Carpenter & Lin-ton, 2016). For principals, this can be particularly important, given the isolation typically associated with their jobs. Often, Edcamp is the only chance they have to connect with peers who are leading innovative practices in their own schools and districts, to bounce ideas off other leaders, or to hear from teachers about new resources they’ve developed. In short, principals are ideally positioned to take advantage of the sort of cross-pollination of ideas that the Edcamp model encourages.
Edcamps also often enable principals to meet face-to-face people they’ve previously only known through online tools such as Twitter and Voxer. Many find that the combination of face-to-face Ed-camp events and online forums result in particularly strong professional learning networks (Trust, Krutka, & Carpenter, 2016), pulling together groups of leaders to collaborate on long-term projects or initiatives. As leaders experience the inevitable highs and lows of the school year, the online community of Edcamp colleagues is a ready audience for success stories, a good source of support, and a useful resource for problem solving.
Edcamps also tend to provide unique opportunities for principals to connect with teachers, who some-times complain that principals have forgotten what it is like to be in the classroom (or, at least, that their nonteaching duties have pulled their attention away from teaching and learning). Because Edcamps feature conversations that are less restricted by typical school, district, and hierarchical boundaries, administrators are more likely to have their opinions challenged by practicing teachers, or at least to hear their unfiltered perspectives. In fact, Edcamp is a uniquely democratic space in this regard — nowhere else do teachers, teacher leaders, support personnel, and principals meet on such equal footing, with such chances to share their unvarnished opinions with each other.
In short, because Edcamps bring together groups of educators from a variety of schools, districts, and roles, they offer principals a rare opportunity to hear from educators about their working conditions, their professional needs, and their ideas about school improvement. It’s the kind of “serendipitous learning” (Kop, 2012) that leaders rarely experience when they stay within the silos of their individual districts.
One sign that more principals are beginning to appreciate the value in Edcamps is the creation of Edcamps specifically targeted to school leaders. (While most Edcamps address any and all topics of interest to a range of educators, Edcamps are sometimes organized around specific themes or are tailored to specific groups.)
Over the past three summers, we’ve seen a number of Edcamp Leadership (EdcampLdr) events spring up around the country, usually organized by groups of educators who are connected geographically or associated with a specific organization, district, or university. EdcampLdr provides a space for school and district leaders to engage in conversation about topics that are specific to their work, such as challenges related to supporting beginning teachers, redesigning schedules to increase instructional time, and reimagining faculty meetings.
However, for many participants in the fast-growing EdcampLdr movement, the goal is to empower educational leaders to connect beyond their local schools, districts, and regions. In 2015, for example, 13 EdcampLdr events were held on the same day in cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia, giving principals the opportunity not just to interact with local peers but also to tap into professional networks across the country (e.g., through the use of a common Twitter hashtag, #edcampldr).
First person account
As a leader, I enjoy hearing multiple perspectives. Edcamps allow me to listen to the perspectives of a first-year teacher, a department chair, a superintendent, a second-year assistant principal, a state teacher of the year, a media specialist, a university professor, and a director of professional development. There are leaders at every level in a school district. Edcamps provide me with the opportunity to grow and learn from other leaders. When you enter an Edcamp, you leave your title at the door. It doesn’t matter if you are a superintendent, department chair, counselor, assistant principal, curriculum coordinator, or professional consultant. Once you enter an Edcamp, you are a connected educator, leader, learner, collaborator, and friend. — Steven Weber
Implications for principals, schools, and districts
Like professionals in every other field, school principals tend to be most effective and engaged when they stay connected to a network of passionate, innovative colleagues. We’ve found that Edcamp — even though, or perhaps because, it is such an informal and unstructured approach to PD — provides a particularly effective means of finding and maintaining such a professional community. Below are a few ways school leaders can take advantage of what Edcamps have to offer:
- Visit www.edcamp.org for a calendar of upcoming Edcamps. Principals can register for a local Edcamp and experience what the Edcamp model is all about.
- Encourage colleagues to attend an Edcamp. School administrators are free to invite peers or teachers from their schools to join them at Edcamp, or they can provide incentives for them to do so, such as by offering PD credits for Edcamp attendance, providing reimbursement for travel expenses, and/or providing time for Edcamp attendees to share their learning with their peers.
- Design an Edcamp-style professional learning experience. School leaders can use the basic principles of the Edcamp model to design a participant-driven professional learning experience in their own schools or districts.
The Edcamp approach can be used to transform staff meetings and district PD sessions, empowering educators to make choices and take ownership of their learning. This style of leading from the middle is important for principals to experience, and Edcamp-style activities can provide a reminder of the collective wisdom of educators at every level in a school district. Also, school- or district-led Edcamps can provide time and space for educators to support one another, specifically within the context of school or district initiatives.
As the title of Neila Connors’ (2000) book states, “If you don’t feed the teachers, they eat the students.” So, too, must we feed the principals — or at least support them in building engaged, supportive net-works of like-minded practitioners. Edcamps are a viable part of the solution to the pressing need for professional learning for those who are leading our classrooms, schools, and districts.
Carpenter, J.P. (2015). Unconference professional development: Edcamp participant perceptions and motivations for attendance. Professional Development in Education, 42 (1), 78-99.
Carpenter, J.P. & Linton, J. (2016). Edcamp unconferences: Educators’ perspectives on an untraditional professional learning experience. Teaching and Teacher Education, 57, 97-108.
Connors, N.A. (2000). If you don’t feed the teachers they eat the students: Guide to success for administrators and teachers. Nashville, TN: Incentive Publications.
Darling-Hammond, L., Meyerson, D., LaPointe, M., & Orr, M.T. (2009). Preparing principals for a changing world: Lessons from effective school leadership programs. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
Evans, P.M. & Mohr, N. (1999). Professional development for principals: Seven core beliefs. Phi Delta Kappan, 80 (7), 530-532.
Kop, R. (2012). The unexpected connection: Serendipity and human mediation in networked learning. Educational Technology & Society, 15 (2), 2-11.
Sparks, D. (2004). The looming danger of a two-tiered professional development system. Phi Delta Kappan, 86 (4), 304-306.
Swanson, K. (2014). Edcamp: Teachers take back professional development. Educational Leadership, 71 (8), 36-40.
Trust, T., Krutka, D.G., & Carpenter, J.P. (2016). “Together we are better”: Professional learning networks for teachers. Computers & Education, 102, 15-34.
Citation: Linton, J.N., Carpenter, J.P., & Weber, S. (2017). Edcamps are for principals, too. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (3), 42-45.