It’s budget season for school districts across the state, which are grappling with a funding proposal from Governor Paul LePage that would cut state funding by about $20 million compared to last year, and shift administrative costs back to the schools.
One of the ways that the school districts have handled those budget cuts in the past is by slashing professional development for teachers. Teachers are now creating a new kind of professional development that’s cheaper and possibly more effective.
About 100 educators from across Maine are packed into the auditorium of Portland’s Waynflete school on a chilly Saturday morning. They’re here for a different kind of professional development event.
Alice Barr, a school technology director from Yarmouth, explains to the group that there’s no actual set schedule today. Instead, the teachers will decide what they want to learn. Just shout out ideas, she tells them.
One educator wants a session on gender identity in the classroom. Another would like to learn about teacher leadership. Another: new technology. Their ideas are quickly compiled into a makeshift agenda that will be used to conduct sessions later in the day.
At first it seems a bit chaotic. Everything happens on the fly here. There are no experts in the room.
Page Lennig is the technology director at Waynflete and one of the founders of the event, called EdCamp Maine. She started this conference six years ago based on similar national models. She says most professional development consists of an expert talking about a certain topic – and then leaving. EdCamp Maine takes a different approach.
“It’s just real teachers talking about something they actually did in class,” Lennig says. “And it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that, too.”
But by talking with each other, Lennig says, teachers can focus on very specific components of education, whether it’s technology, curriculum or something else. They can listen to each other and figure out what’s working best.
“Flesh out what works, what doesn’t work, or a better alternative,” Lennig says. “So I think Ed Camp is about that. Bringing people who’ve done it to come forward with their ideas.”
Following the chaotic morning session, about a dozen teachers meet in a nearby classroom and huddle around a few desks. The group has decided to talk about “early childhood curriculum integration” – basically, how to connect science, math and other subjects together for young children.
It starts off a little awkwardly. No one is sure who should talk first. But soon the conversation takes off – and turns to what’s not working in the classrooms. Many are upset about the prescribed curriculum they’re mandated to teach.
“What I don’t want is to be on page 10 on Wednesday and page 75 next Thursday,” one teacher tells the group. “And if I’m not there, I get flack.”
From this exchange springs new ideas. A kindergarten teacher from Gorham explains how she and two other teachers have mixed and matched those prescribed lessons to create a brand new program that she says has seen success in certain math subjects. “And all three of us have kids soaring through the roof!” she tells the excited room. “So much that we might not need to do addition because they already get the concept.”
While teachers may be able to share lessons like this, the other advantage of Ed Camp is the price tag. It’s free. That’s important, says Lennig, as many districts have slashed professional development in the wake of budget cuts in past years. That trend could continue.
“So teachers don’t have to scramble for money,” Lennig says, “Or pay for it themselves to come.”
While the EdCamp Model has its supporters, some question whether it’s a true substitute for professional training.
Dan Allen, the training and professional development director with the Maine Education Association says he’s not happy that budget constraints are affecting professional development for teachers. But he does see the Ed Camp model as a way to provide educators with some help in adapting to changing requirements.
“I’m not sure that EdCamps can go into great depth on an issue,” says Allen, “It depends on who’s in the room for the session. We’re being asked to do these things by the state and federal governments. So how do we address that? Just throw our hands in the air and just say, ‘Well we’re not going to have any professional development’ and just hope the state comes up with some money? I think teachers who are thinking ahead are saying to themselves, ‘It’s my responsibility to get myself educated appropriately.’ These EdCamps are one way of doing that.”
In fact, Allen says his goal is to embed this kind of targeted, teacher-driven professional development into specific school districts, so teachers can share their own struggles and help each other out.