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A New Breed of Teachers: SWEDU as Professional Development

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By Christine Ortiz.

Professional Development for teachers sucks. Well, it does if you're participating. If you get to watch from the outside, it's actually a brilliantly scripted comedy, ripe with irony, coincidence, and a deadpan delivery so on-point it's truly believable. A two-hour lecture on the power of project-based learning. A conversation on what to do about the number of cell phones confiscated during the day followed by a presentation on integrating technology into the classroom (it started half an hour late because the wifi signal was down, but no one minded, they were all on their phones). The last session, delivered to all the faculty - new teachers, veteran teachers, and everything in between - in the auditorium, an overview of strategies for differentiation.

At every single Startup Weekend EDU (SWEDU) event I've been to there have been a handful of Friday night pitches attempting to solve this problem. At every event, at least one of those ideas is worked on. In incubators and accelerators, the professional development alternatives abound - typically some combination of curated and customizable playlist technology.

Since I opened my first school, we generally haven't done professional development. I mean, my faculty is constantly learning something new, improving their craft, working together - but we don't do it by sitting in a lecture hall and listening to a guest speaker. We learn it by, well, doing it. Authentic, experiential education.

This year, we will have "mandatory professional development." We're all going to Startup Weekend, and you should too.

Even though we do teach entrepreneurship school-wide, and it's important that all my faculty knows how to use a lean canvas, how to do customer validation and the definition of MVP - it's not the main reason we're all going. The real reason is much more powerful.

The teaching profession has been incredibly de-professionalized, mired with bureaucracy and red tape that leaves committed, passionate, brilliant people wondering what they've got themselves into (and close to half get out of within the first 5 years.) Those teachers come to a SWEDU battered, bruised and bloodied, and all of a sudden things change. Everyone is vying to have a teacher on their team - they are a hot commodity, experts, the missing key amongst the designers, developers and MBA's roaming the venue - folks with a unique and valuable perspective that makes the difference between success and failure. They understand the problems and can conceptualize solutions. At SWEDU, they can design things their way, the best way for their students, the best way for real learning.

They may or may not walk away from the weekend intent on co-founding a new startup, but they walk away a little taller, feeling like they were able to make a difference in education and look at their lives with a renewed sense of purpose and agency. They can change things. They can solve problems. They are still teachers when they leave, but not the same kind of teachers they were when they first walked in.

For real education reform to take place in our schools, we need a new breed of teachers. Teachers who approach their lives and careers with an entrepreneurial mindset - constantly identifying and validating problems and then designing, implementing, and testing solutions - utilizing processes we know work for innovation - design thinking and lean startup principles - empathy, customer validation, iteration, prototyping, MVP's.

Each and every day, the bell rings and the doors close. Teachers have full reign of their classroom kingdoms. Each and every minute they have their students in their classrooms is a minute they can be prototyping new ways to improve the learning experience. But those classrooms are also lonely, isolated places. Things like SWEDU provide the catalyst, the confidence, the community, the successful experience they need to walk into their schools and take them back.

Christine Ortiz is a serial social entrepreneur, fixing education by bringing people together to try new stuff, organizing SWEDU, EdCamp, GiveCamp and other cool events, and developing a radically different approach to school model development at [ ]schools.