Not long ago, I was standing in front of a group of principals trying to explain the term unconference to them and how this form of professional development inspires teachers to step out of their comfort zone and take on leadership roles. After I had experienced Edcamp Harrisburg, a type of unconference that focused on topics of education, technology, and 21st century learning, I was determined to spread the word about this new way of thinking about professional learning.
I stammered to explain that an unconference is highly participatory and encourages teacher presenters to share their passion about education and what works in their own classrooms. I saw several principal’s eyes glaze over and others had a disbelieving expression on their face. So I asked: “How many of you have teachers within your schools who are absolutely excellent? Are there teachers who are energetic, passion-driven, lifelong learners in your schools?” Every single one of the principals raised their hands. I continued, “How many of you make sure that expertise goes beyond the classroom and your school by encouraging your experts to participate as speakers in education conferences?” Only a few hands went up.
As I rallied them to see the benefit of this type of collegial sharing, I immediately recalled something I read in Leader Speak by Lucia Murphy, Ph.D. (Sosa-Fascha Press, 2007):
“Inviting others to their greatness is also analogous to identifying the landing spot on Mars, and having the faith to press the ‘launch’ button on the spaceship.”
It takes courage to try new things. Steps to change are often painful and filled with fear and uncertainty. On top of that, when “one is in charge,” it takes even more gumption to give others authority to get something accomplished – even though you are responsible for the outcome.
The fruits of failure
As a school or teacher leader, that leap of faith, no matter how small, can have amazing side affects personally and professionally. Self-assurance and personal self-worth can be deepened and broadened. This can be seen when a new principal “grows” into the position as leader of the school. It can be seen when a new teacher encourages the students in his/her classroom to strive for personal excellence because that teacher models it for the students. Successes and failures are all learning experiences and assists personal growth in so many ways. I have come to deeply appreciate failures because they are moments (to borrow something I came to understand in PLP- year 2) in which my first attempt in learning didn’t bear the fruit I intended – a lesson in being human and a chance to start the journey again and learn from my experience.
The end result of the journey is the trust of others. Dr. Murphy continues:
“… when you align yourself first to your values and beliefs, then think and act in ways that are consistent with that alignment, people begin to take notice. You become different. You become attractive. People will trust you because what you say and do resonate. People will trust in you because you bring the same out in them. It’s contagious.”
For me, contagious leadership strives for personal excellence and supports others as they grow towards that themselves. There is a communal aspect in this type of leadership. One does not lead alone, at the top, in complete control. Rather, others springboard off the leader’s direction and vision, and the leader is strengthened by their new energy. This reminds me of the way a musician tunes a bass violin. A string will only resonate with others when they match frequency. This relationship can be seen in any team that works well together.
But, in the real world, dissonance within a team can also produce positive results, when members of the team respect each other. Pushback and cordial disagreement — a conversation among critical friends — can broaden perspectives and grow the “collective intelligence,” making the team or any community of learners more effective.
At the best unconference experiences, contagious leadership abounds. And isn’t this the foundation of every social networking site, every blog, and every wiki, the reason Voices from the Learning Revolution exists? Isn’t this the true definition of collaboration? The sum of the parts is always greater than the individual. Together, we are stronger, smarter, and more creative. Leaders who get this are not only better for it, but can lead others to create communities of excellence. Lead on!
Image: Chris Champion, Creative Commons
Sr Geralyn Schmidt
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Hi Sister Geralyn,
I haven’t heard of the term “unconference” before… I think an unconference is the same thing as a meeting though, the difference is that in an unconference you just have a relatively large number of people…
Thanks for your comments!
A meeting is a bit difference. Usually in a meeting you come with an agenda in mind. There is no agenda until the participants come and make it. In a meeting, I think, there is only one topic. In an unconference, the participants make up the topics … especially those which surroungs personal passion about an educational topic.
Another Voices blogger wrote about unconferencing in this space, back in the spring of 2011. Read what M.E. Steele-Pierce learned about unconferences and edcamps here:
Here in the UK we would call an ‘unconference’ a teachmeet. Just as it says on the tin – teachers meeting together & presenting ideas that they have used in their classrooms. With the budget constraints it is likely to be THE professional development available to teachers.
Thanks for the new word: teachmeet! Don’t look at this type of professional development as “because we dont have any money .. we need to do this.” See it as an opportunity to learn from your colleagues. Remember we are better when we work together than when we work individually!
Hello there Sister Geralyn,
What a lovely description of both the “unconference” concept and Contagious Leadership. Both caught my attention for different reasons. In the professional speaking industry in the US, an “unconference” has been used to describe a virtual event in which there is an online gathering, virtual connection or collaboration of individuals geographically dispersed, but no physical meeting space, builidng, arrangments or facility. It’s still a meeting, but one of minds, versus bodies. 🙂
As the author of original book Contagious Leadership, the book, some years ago, I so very much enjoyed your inclusion of the communal aspect and note on the lack of control from the top down. Contagious Leadership also embraces the idea that everything we say, do, think, believe, and how we behave rubs off on those we lead – good and bad. Contagious Leaders are aware of their impact and seek to influence the growth and development of others. Happy to share more, but simply wanted to recognize your wise words enhancing the meaning of Contagious Leadership. We share this training with corporations worldwide and I think your added thoughts may well be something we share in our next class. Are you okay if we reference your blog and post? 🙂
Have a great Monday!
Monica Wofford, CSP
CEO, Contagious Companies
Thanks for your reply and your insight. I was unaware of another meaning of an unconference. Thanks for the insight. Here, locally, within the Diocese, were thinking about the type of professional development you describe but decided to try a face to face first.
As far as using this blog for your training. Sure! I am always eager to share my musings with others — especially those outside of the education world.
Contagious leadership certainly involves confidence, yet more so, trust. In order to get the bug you must be inspired to do so, and that means walking amongst those that are carriers in order to catch the contagion. When minds are allowed to speak segments of clarity can be strung together to form brilliant, expressive solutions. Conferences demand that we listen, Unconferences in contrast beg us to open up, to lend confidence to those who spoke before us and support or provoke those who will speak after. However we wish to tag them they have and are changing our blue sphere and our grey matter.
ken, I found myself nodding in agreement with your posting. This is indeed a shift in the way educators deal with each other! Often, it includes a leap of faith … a belief that when we work together we are better. Thanks for adding your reply!
Thank you Sister,
Would you be so good as to elaborate on population of the “unclassroom” for a successfull unconference to take place. Indications from the picture shown seem that it can be large . . . and still be successful?
Well the unconference I went to had about 200 folks. We (within the DIocese of Harrisburg) have several scheduled in August with a much smaller population. (25 – 50). The smaller population will result in a smaller number of sessions.
Dear Sister Geralyn,
My first experience of an unconference was at the end of our year two experience with PLP. This spring I am taking two colleagues to an Edcamp Social Studies unconference in Philadelphia. We have been experimenting with a bit of a similar model on a small scale for our own in-service days. I call it “Design Your Own Time”. The idea is to have colleagues suggest topics, people they would like to collaborate with, tools or practices they would like to explore.
I am looking for to my first Edcamp!
What a great slogan, “Design your own time!” There is such amazing energy shared when educators are empowered to share their personal expertise! I look forward to expereince another Edcamp! Thanks for commenting.