Introduction – Welcome to the PD Party!
Have you ever had a transformative learning experience? Take a moment to reflect and remember some of your best experiences of learning. They might have been in a classroom, or not. They could have been when you were an adult or a child. Who taught you? Who learned alongside you? What feelings do you recall? How did you apply your learning? What impact did it have on your life?
We’ve also all probably experienced some dismal transactional learning – classes or professional development (PD) sessions that were all “sit and get” info dumping. The good news is you can learn to facilitate memorable, transformative, and meaningful PD for others.
Before going into how to create transformative PD experiences, let’s all get on the same page about what PD is. PD is learning that is done in the context of a profession. PD is defined by its impact: Afterward, the learner should be able to do something new or do something differently. Aguilar and Cohen define it this way:
“Professional Development is a transformative process in which learners are actively engaged and for which the aim is to explore and expand behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being; a learning process that results in a change of practice.”
Professional Development Is…
Professional Development Isn’t…
A structure for learning that helps people change practices explore beliefs
A dynamic, holistic experience
A process to cultivate self- and social-awareness
A vehicle for social transformation and empowerment
A transactional process in which learners are passive recipients of information
A compliance tool to change behavior
A punishment for poor performance
A means to maintain the status quo
Now that we’re clear on what PD is, let’s imagine…what if PD could be more like a party? Maybe this question seems silly. Like a party, what if PD was somewhere you wanted to be? What if PD involved warmth, connection, appreciation, great conversation, and even fun? Maybe it’s not exactly a party, but PD can be way better than a boring, irrelevant info-dump if we as facilitators can remember to plan the P.A.R.T.Y. – an acronym the authors use to outline the habits of transformational PD:
Purpose – determine and share the purpose in order to build buy-in
Audience – attend to your audience, engage their emotions, provide safety, navigate power, and act on principles of adult learning
Routines – attend to the details and plan with intention
Technique – execute the plan, and facilitate adaptively
You – know yourself, and bring your best self
Habit I – Determine Purpose
Like the kid at the back of the class raising a hand to ask, “What’s the point of learning this? When are we gonna use this in real life?” teachers sometimes wonder the same thing in PD sessions. Transformative professional development must begin with a clear purpose and intended outcome in the facilitator’s mind, and the purpose must be communicated clearly and repeatedly to the learners.
Find the purpose first.
Rather than starting with the trendy new idea or even the topic that most sparks your interest, teachers will be best served if you begin by determining what is needed. Look at your school’s data on student outcomes or teacher performance. What gaps or needs could be addressed with PD? Talk with teachers or other stakeholders. What kind of PD do they feel they need? Consider student surveys to help discover potential topics for PD. Select the most relevant and impactful topic you can.
Clarify the purpose.
Whether you selected a purpose yourself or had it selected for you, you still have the opportunity to improve it through clarity and specificity. You can use a “Five Whys” exercise to make your session’s purpose the very best version of itself.
Five Whys to Purpose
- Write down your purpose statement. For a PD session on Socratic Seminars, you might say, “To provide students with a strong tool for student-centered discussion.” Then answer the question “why?” underneath your purpose statement. For example,
“Because class discussions tend to be teacher-directed and students rely on the teacher’s wisdom rather than their own or their peers’. Also, Socratic Seminars invite dialogue over debate so students can consider ideas and find their voices. They build courage to speak, listen to one another carefully, and select evidence that supports their assertions as they build shared meaning.”
- Complete this process four more times. Let the ideas flow freely to dig deeper and discover more layers of purpose. For example,
- Why? “Because right now in our classrooms some students’ voices are privileged over others.”
- Why? “Because our learning structures have been set up to support a narrow subset of students to succeed.”
And so on. With additional repetitions, you may arrive at new information about potential purpose for your PD.
- Finally, review your responses and write your final purpose statement. You may find that a seemingly simple purpose connects to something larger. Embrace that! A PD on Socratic Seminars may turn out to be about student empowerment. For example,
“To reimagine classroom discussion as an opportunity for shared meaning-making and student empowerment.”
Plan around the purpose: A Four-Step Process to Build a Purpose-Centered Agenda
Step 1 – Generate a list of ideal outcomes. Remember that the goal of PD is ultimately to change practice. Ask:
- What do you want PD recipients to know and do?
- What do you want PD recipients to say and feel?
- What outcomes do you hope to see for students?
Step 2 – Identify gaps. Refer to data or survey responses to see where your PD participants are now. What is needed to get them from their current practice or skill set to the ideal outcomes you identified in step one? If you don’t have the information you need, consider surveys or focus groups to discover what the recipients already know and can do, and where they have questions or room for growth.
Step 3 – Brainstorm possible activities. What activities could possibly help close the gap between recipients’ current practices and your ideal outcomes? For a session on improving constructive feedback, you might brainstorm:
- Reflect on hopes and fears related to giving feedback
- Roleplay a feedback conversation
- Lead a guided process to shift beliefs about giving feedback
- Create a feedback action plan
Step 4 – Select activities, using purpose as your guide. Review the list of possible activities, and look for ones that feel the most important, relevant, or purposeful for the participants. Choose activities that will best serve to move participants from where they are now toward your ideal outcomes. Next to each activity you choose, write yourself a note about its mini-purpose such as:
“To activate prior knowledge and honor teacher experience,” or “To model a student-centered discussion strategy,” or “To build accountability.”
Communicate the purpose.
Once you’ve determined the session’s purpose, start spreading the word. Consider which leaders or teachers would be best to get the word out. Whose voices will be trusted when they announce the upcoming PD and briefly explain its purpose? Getting “the memo” from a trusted colleague will be most effective. Everyone spreading the word should communicate the PD’s purpose, not just its topic.
To communicate purpose well during the PD, you’ll need to plan ahead. Script a few sentences to frame the PD and its purpose at the very beginning of the session. Print the purpose on the agenda. Anticipate that someone might ask, “Why are we doing this?” and plan how you’ll respond. And, critically, plan an agenda which centers purpose every step of the way.
Solicit feedback at the end of the session. Build time in at the end of your agenda for participants to complete a short survey to rate how well the session served its stated purpose. Alternately, you might ask them to put the session’s purpose in their own words so you can see how it matches up with your intentions.
Many facilitators of PD look to participants’ immediate survey responses to determine “how well” PD went. A low rating or negative comment from just a few people might give you the feeling that you failed. You might also feel you failed if you messed up by stumbling over your words or rushing at the end due to time constraints.
Remember, though, that PD success is best measured by how it impacts teacher practice and student learning. A session in which you “messed up” or got a bad review from a grumpy participant, may in fact have been highly impactful. Think beyond immediate reactions and assess real impact in the short and long term.
Measure the Impact of PD by examining…
- Participants’ Reactions: Use an end-of-session survey asking participants to rate the quality of the session, the facilitator, etc.
- Participants’ Learning: In the end-of-session survey ask what participants learned and which activities were most useful.
- Organizational Change: Check back a month, six months, or even a year later. What kinds of cultural shifts or policy changes have taken place in response to the PD session?
- Participants’ Use of New Knowledge or Skill: Internal providers of PD can assess this via walk-throughs or other observations. Participants might also bring “artifacts of practice” to a PLC or other meeting, or simply self-report on what they have tried. External providers may need to request this kind of follow-up from school leaders.
- Student Learning Outcomes: Include, but also look beyond, standard data collection methods. Student test scores might be considered, but you also might survey students about how they feel or observe what new skills they are demonstrating.
Habit 2 – Engage Emotions
Now that you’ve clarified your PD’s purpose (that was the “P” in PARTY), it’s time to move to the “A” – audience. Remember your audience is made up of humans. You’ll need to engage your audience by recognizing them as human beings with human emotions. You will also need to bring forward our own emotions—to deliver transformative PD, you’ve got to expect and embrace emotions.
Author Elena Aguilar relates her experience as a facilitator of a PD session for under-performing teachers. The exhaustion and feeling of defeat in the room was palpable even before the session began. Participants were worn down, and some were ashamed or resentful that they had to be there. Deviating from her planned opening, Elena decided to address the emotions in the room head-on.
“I see the fatigue on your faces. I hear it in your voices. I recognize it, and I know it. I’ve been there. I hear your fear and self-doubt. I hear the sarcasm you’re protecting yourselves with. I know that, too. And I also hear the hope below that turmoil. I know you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have hope. I’m really glad you’re here.”
Elena’s open approach to discussing emotion changed the room’s energy immediately. She then invited the participants to imagine that it was the end of their three-day session. How did they want to feel then? As the participants named emotions and described experiences they hadn’t yet had, they increased their hope, and prepared to begin the work of PD with their mindsets refreshed.
An effective facilitator understands that emotions can improve the PD experience. Emotions are the way our body sends signals about what we need. We feel pleasant emotions when our needs are met. We feel unpleasant ones when our needs our not met. By asking, “What need is not being met?” with care and curiosity, you can free yourself from some of its burden. Welcome unpleasant emotions (your own and others’), identify them, learn from them, and express them without shame or judgement. Invite others to do the same.
Listen to Fear
Fear, in particular, is a common emotion during professional development. A participant’s fear might look like: not sharing an opinion, not participating, or disengaging. Instead of trying to stamp out these behaviors, treat them as messengers that can tell you about the participant’s emotions. Welcome fear and listen to it. The participant may fear looking foolish or fear being forced out of comfortable practices that give them confidence in their profession. With care and curiosity, you may be able to allay their fears.
Like everyone else, educators have emotions. They are human after all. If you hope to lead transformative professional development, you need to expect that human emotions will show up. True learning requires some risk and risk usually feels uncomfortable. Accept and embrace emotions, so participants can bring enough of their true selves for growth to take place.
What It Sounds Like for a Facilitator to Embrace Emotions
- “It’s likely that the data I’m going to show you will elicit some strong feelings. That’s normal.”
- “I’m sensing some discomfort in the room right now. Would anyone like the share your feelings?”
- “I appreciate your honesty. Thank you for sharing your feelings.”
- “Can you give me a moment before I respond? Some feelings are coming up for me and I want to understand them before responding.”
Check for Bias
Racism and misogyny have shaped how we interpret emotions. Do you respond differently to anger expressed by a person of one race or gender than another? What about tears or nervousness? Do you give the benefit of the doubt only to some? Examine your own responses and consciously work against any bias you discover. Recognize, too, that common patterns in how emotions are interpreted by others will impact participants’ expression. A black woman may have learned that speaking assertively won’t be well-received. A man may not give himself permission to express vulnerability. While you as a facilitator cannot overturn centuries of history or socialization, you can take some concrete action to address inequality in the context of your PD session.
- Pay attention to patterns of participation, such as who speaks first and who refrains from speaking. Disrupt unequal patterns by specifically inviting opinions and comments from those who’ve spoken less.
- Observe dynamics of power among participants. Ensure that the experiences of all are valued.
- Ask in advance of the session whether BIPOC staff would like to be grouped with other BIPOC participants for break-out groups. This may allow them the additional comfort to express themselves freely that they need for transformative growth.
Providing psychological safety for participants of all races and genders is an essential part of your job as facilitator. Adults need psychological safety for transformative learning to occur. Consider that people of color, or people for whom English is not their first language might not come to PD with the same presumed sense of safety that others do. But all participants need to be able to take risks, try new things, and be honest about their fears and weaknesses in order to grow. While you cannot guarantee complete psychological safety for everyone, here are four things you can do to provide psychological safety so learners can take risks:
- Create and follow norms to guide conversations though the session. For example, “Take care of yourself, be fully present, take risks, and be mindful of other learners.”
- Address all instances in which norms are broken. Call for a break or reset if needed.
- Do not allow participants to interrupt each other or give unsolicited advice (these seriously undermine psychological safety!)
Bring Your Best Self to the Party
When you facilitate PD, everything starts and ends with you. You are the “Y” in P.A.R.T.Y. and you’ve got emotions, too. Just as teachers may need to remain calm in order to best serve their students at times, you, the facilitator, will benefit from developing some skill at engaging with your own emotions. When you facilitate, you want to be your best self and set a positive tone for the session, but of course you will have tough days, grumpy times, and you may sometimes get triggered by the comments or behavior of participants. So, what can you do? Instead of trying to hide your emotions, try these self-talk questions to help you shift your mood:
- What is most important right now?
- What do I need right now?
- What is within my influence or control?
- Have I ever acted this way?
- Is there another way I can interpret what’s going on?
Getting the Good Vibes Going
Now that you’ve got some tools for facing and embracing unpleasant emotions, what about pleasant emotions? Is there anything you can do as a facilitator to orchestrate those good feelings you and everyone else would like to enjoy? Yes!
- Play upbeat music at a moderate volume as participants arrive
- Use a relevant but humorous or heart-warming short video to kick off the session
- Use mood-lifting colors or images that evoke joy (nature or baby animals) in slides or other materials
- Get people up and moving at least once per hour
- Use humor and give participants an opportunity to be humorous and playful too
- Include storytelling and opportunities for participants to learn about and bond with one another
Habit 3 – Navigate Power
As we explore Habit 3 (Navigating Power) we are still focused on the audience and also you, the facilitator, (the A and the Y in P.A.R.T.Y.). Together, the facilitator and the audience are the humans involved in transformative professional development, and humans are complicated. We’re all bubbling over with emotions, as we learned in Habit 2, and when any group of us are gathered, power dynamics are bound to exist.
Habit 3 is all about understanding and successfully navigating power dynamics and handling the resistance that so commonly arises when adults are asked to take risks, change their practices, or do something new.
Power is present in any group or organization. As a facilitator, it will serve you well to understand the various types of power that exist, as well how to choose what type of power to work from, and how to use your power.
Positional Power comes from a person’s title, role, or official status in an organization.
Coercive Power comes from the ability to impose a negative consequence for non-compliance.
Reward-based Power comes from the ability to issue rewards. It can be similar to coercive power.
Expertise-based Power comes from someone’s expertise or others’ perception of their expertise.
Relational Power comes from being trusted or respected, regardless of title or position.
Informational Power comes from access to knowledge others find valuable.
As a facilitator, from which of these do you draw your power? It is common to draw power from a mix of sources, but have a default power source that we draw from most often. Coercive power is a frequent go-to for authority figures of all kinds, but it also tends to lead to power struggles and resistance. For transformational adult learning experiences, the facilitator should draw mostly from relational power. This means you need to establish credibility and mutual respect and demonstrate that you are trustworthy.
If you are concerned that others may question your credibility, plan in advance how you will demonstrate both your credibility as well as your humanity. Script how you will introduce yourself with a balance of confidence and humility. Show up as a learner—eager to share what you know and learn from the participants as well. Be honest about what you do and don’t know. Offer to look up information that you’re unsure about. Emphasize your commonalities with participants. For example, “Although I’ve never been a site administrator like you all, I know what it’s like to have tremendous responsibility and feel alone in a leadership role.”
You might also find you suffer from “imposter syndrome.” In other words, you doubt your own worthiness to be in your role. This is particularly the case for people of color and those from marginalized backgrounds. Here is a strategy to address imposter syndrome:
- Name and explore the emotions that come up when you feel a sense on inadequacy.
- Identify which thoughts are connected to those emotions. For example, “I don’t have a PhD.”
- Find evidence to counter your thoughts. For example, “Professor Smith didn’t have a PhD, but I learned a lot from her.”
- Decide whether you want to believe your thoughts. Do you want to be someone who believes that only those with high level degrees are able to teach adults? Or are there other important criteria?
- Intentionally create new thoughts and beliefs and practice thinking and believing them. For example, “I have a lot of experience and know a ton about teaching. I have so much to offer.”
Navigating power requires both awareness of potential power sources, and careful choices about how you use the power you have.
Power-over relies on coercion or threats. It leads to resistance. Used by a PD facilitator, power-over sounds like:
“I know we’re over time, but we’ve got to get through this agenda today. If you stay on task, we should finish soon.”
“We’ll start at 2:00 on the dot. There will be a sign-in sheet at the door. Please note the time that you arrive.”
Power-with relies on mutual respect and collaborative decision-making. It leads to collective action. Used by a PD facilitator, power-with sounds like:
“Based on the feedback I got from the last session, this time we’re going to....”
“This activity will help us collect the knowledge that already exists in the room.”
“Last time, many of you weren’t able to make it right at 2:00. I’ll send out a survey so we can decide together what time we should start and end given the PD is 75 minutes.”
Power-to relies on agency, which is the ability to make choices and act on your will. Used by a PD facilitator, power-over sounds like:
“Take a few minutes to set an intention for today.”
“Today, you’ll organize yourselves into groups for this learning activity. I trust that you will figure out what makes the most sense.”
As a facilitator of transformative PD, be intentional about how you use power. Aim to draw primarily from relational power, and leverage mostly power-to and power-with. Here are five ways you can skillfully navigate power to create transformative PD.
Name the goal and clarify the reason you are asking participants to do something in a particular way.
“This activity will allow us to unpack our beliefs about neurodiversity.”
“We’re going to hear from students now in order to get multiple perspectives.”
“Your small groups have two hours to do these three things. The order is up to you, and you can decide when to take a break.”
“We’ve got five groups that will focus on different kinds of student needs. You get to pick which group you’ll be in.”
“Our goal was to vertically align our core standards by March but we haven’t finished that. What suggestions do you have?”
“We only have 15 minutes left. Let’s make a decision together about what to address.”
“I’m hearing that some of you don’t find this activity relevant to your content. Can you make an alternate suggestion?”
Build collective understanding of your decisions.
“I really debated whether we should continue with roleplaying. Some of you love it and others hate it. So today you’ll have two options when it comes to our practice time.”
“In your feedback from last session several of you mentioned that side conversations are distracting you, and you asked me to address it. Although this may feel awkward, it’s my responsibility to ensure that this is a focused learning space, so I will try to subtly remind you of our community agreement.”
Authentically appreciate and acknowledge individual and collective efforts
“I know this school year has been incredibly hard. And I’m moved by the way we’re caring for each other and our students.”
“I know y’all are tired. It’s been a long week. I’m amazed how focused you’ve been.”
No matter how skillfully you navigate power, you are likely to encounter resistance, at least occasionally. Participants think the PD should be about something else, or they don’t like their assigned task or assigned group. When this occurs, carefully consider how you might use the tools from your emotional toolbox (is there an unmet need here?) or your power-navigating toolbox (are you exercising too much coercive power?) to address it.
On the other hand, it is possible that you don’t need to do anything differently. Someone is bound to disagree with any new policy or change in practice. You probably won’t be able to change their opinion on the spot, but you won’t necessarily need to change yours either. Treat resistors with understanding and respect. Self-check to see if you need to course-correct, and then proceed to draw on relational power and leverage power-to and power-with.
Habit 4 – Anchor in Adult Learning Best Practices
Habits 1, 2, and 3 have addressed purpose, audience, and a little about you, the facilitator (more on you later). Habits 4 and 5 will both address routines (the “R” in P.A.R.T.Y.). In other words, how to teach and what to do in a PD session.
The majority of PD facilitators have plenty of experience teaching children or teens, but there are researched-backed principles that apply especially to adults as learners. To create transformative PD for adults we use research about what adults need in order to learn.
Set the Conditions…
…in your organization
Your organization should communicate how much learning is valued and expect that everyone in the organization will be an active learner. Mandating learning kicks off a power struggle (it’s coercive power at work), but if people join an organization where learning is highly valued and learning opportunities are talked about as chances to increase our strengths (rather than fill our deficits), people are more likely to have a positive attitude toward PD. In these organizations leaders are learners, too, and talk openly about their learning experiences, mistakes are treated as learning opportunities, and learning for all is part of the stated organizational mission.
…in the room
When participants walk into the room where the PD is taking place, what conditions should they find there? Ideal conditions for learning include: a sense of purpose already known from previous communications, a feeling of comfort with other participants (introductions and nametags if necessary), a thoughtful host welcoming each participant as they arrive, a comfortable physical setting (think about room temperature, seating, etc.) and agency (they should be able to make some choices such as whom to mingle with, what to eat, etc.). A little like a p-a-r-t-y, if you think about it.
Principles of Adult Learning
Once you’ve set the right conditions, here’s what research tells us are the best practices for adult learning.
Adults must feel safe to learn.
Provide time for learners to introduce themselves and connect
Establish community agreements (and uphold them)
Clearly communicate expectations
Use open body language and a welcoming tone of voice
Quickly and explicitly address threats to safety
Make veiled threats about what will happen if people leave early
Use approaches for teaching young children like “eyes on me”
Adults come to learning experiences with histories.
Conduct a survey to see what they already know about the topic
Give them an opportunity to share their background knowledge
Validate and ask about past experiences. “What have you done in similar situations?”
Presume you are the only one with knowledge and expertise
Teach content without knowing if the learners have experience with it
Adults need to know why we have to learn something.
Clearly state objectives and learning targets for a session
Include a “why” column on the agenda
Introduce activities with their why
Ask learners to engage in activities that seem random
Fail to explain the purpose
Adults want agency in our learning.
Offer choices about who to work with, what to read, how to share, etc.
Allow participants to reorganize their groups or alter a task if it better suits the session’s purpose
Have jam-packed, rigid agendas
Fail to offer time for thinking
Violate agreements like start and end times
Direct and control every moment
Adults want agency in our learning.
Adults need practice to internalize learning.
Include writing, pair-sharing, and small group discussions
Have participants create lessons and assessments and then receive feedback from peers
Have lengthy whole-group discussions
Ask participants to read long texts without opportunity to discuss
Adults have a problem-centered approach to learning.
Identify content that is relevant to learners’ current needs
Make connections between PD and real school challenges
Give learners an opportunity to identify a problem they face to which they might apply the PD content
Provide purpose statements that are vague, rooted in theory only, or not connected to a relevant, real-life challenge
Assume everyone wants to learn
Know that people express enthusiasm for learning differently
Remember that just because you can’t see immediate evidence of change doesn’t mean that learning hasn’t happened
Express excitement authentically
Assume a learner isn’t willing if they pushback or disagree with you
Take it personally if a learner seems disengaged
Habit 5 – Design Intentionally
Habit 5 continues to address routines (the R in P.A.R.T.Y.) that make PD effective. Knowing that the principles of adult learning will inform how you teach, now you use intentional design to figure out what to do in the session. In other words, it is finally time to build the agenda for transformative professional development so think of a PD session you’d like to design and use the 3 tools below.
Tool #1: Participants’ Voices
When you plan your agenda, bring in participants’ voices via their feedback from previous sessions and/or a survey (distribute this early in your planning process). Mine these documents for information such as: What do participants already know? What do they still need to learn? What are their hopes and goals for the topic? What learning activities have worked well for them (or not) in the past?
Tool #2: Planning Questions
Think through the following questions (in the bullets below) and write your answers to some of them. See p.150 in the book for the full set of questions. The questions are from the habits introduced so far and are grouped by topic but can be addressed in any order.
Questions to Help You Plan Your PD Agenda
What is the compelling purpose of the session?
What are the intended outcomes?
What do you know about participants’ attitudes, beliefs, and current skill level on the topic?
How will you create an environment where adults feel psychologically safe and challenged to grow?
How will you establish authority and credibility, and how will you source and leverage power as facilitator?
How will you ensure historically marginalized groups, people with neurological differences or disabilities, etc., are included in your design?
Which areas of knowledge and skill development will be addressed in the session, and why are these priorities?
How are you offering opportunities for choice and differentiation in the activities?
How will participants learn this content?
How will learning be sequenced?
What is the suggested length of each activity, and how will the timing allow for both learning and processing?
How will adult learning principles be reflected in your session?
Where might there be opportunities for risk-taking, cognitive dissonance, play, and joy?
Which measurement tool or rubric will be used to evaluate learning and growth?
What kind of growth and development is expected, and how will participants demonstrate their learning?
Tool #3: The What-Why-How Agenda – The final tool is a comprehensive agenda template that aims for transparency—revealing everything to participants including each item’s how and why. The agenda starts with the title, facilitator, intended outcomes, and norms. Next is each activity with the time, the what, the why, the how, and the materials needed. See the sample agenda item below:
To center ourselves, our needs, an dour dispositions as we transition into the learning space
Group introductions in breakouts
Use the planning questions plus the participants’ voices on feedback forms or surveys to start creating a what-why-how agenda for your PD session. This will become easier and more intuitive with time, but for now, here are some common pitfalls to avoid:
Don’t Plan Too Much
Do not over-fill your agenda with more than can be done in the time that you have.
Don’t Teach Too Much New Content
Aguilar and Cohen recommend following the 20/80 rule. 20 percent of the time should be for new content (usually presented in the form of readings or videos) and the other 80 percent should be processing (discussing, practicing, reflecting, applying, creating, etc.).
Don’t Make it All Work and No Play
Adults need play to recharge and will be more productive and learn more if you account for this in the agenda. When coming back from a break or after doing something difficult are good times to include playful activities to help shift the energy in the room. Explicitly state the purpose of the activity so that more play-averse people feel comfortable joining in.
Don’t Have Long Whole-Group Discussions
These tend to over-involve the same few extroverts and leave many others out. Participants will learn more during small-group conversations, so spend your time there. Keep large-group discussions to 5 to 7 minutes at most.
So, what should go on the bulk of your agenda? There are many activities to choose from. Here are just some you might consider, arranged by group size. As you plan, be sure to vary activity types and group sizes throughout the session.
Sample Whole-Group, Small-Group, and Individual PD Activities
Movement activities so people mingle
Poster sessions that showcase participant learning
Polls and surveys to check for understanding
Small-group and pair-share chats
Walk and talks
Case study or scenario analysis
Short reflection questions
Polls and surveys
While there are many possibilities for an opening, Aguilar and Cohen say the most critical ones are a preview of the agenda (participants scan the agenda and spot something they’re looking forward to) and intention setting (participants privately set an intention for the day, like I want to be fully present or I want to take risks, and then share it with a partner or small group.
Plan your time carefully so you don’t have to rush or skip your closing. A short time spent on closing can help learning stick and help participants transition out of the learning space. Identifying big take-aways, revisiting intentions, sharing appreciations, and giving written or survey-style feedback on the session can all be useful parts of a closing routine.
Notes to Self
Be sure to include notes to yourself in the agenda as well. Write key points you want to make for each activity, or if you tend to ramble, you might want to script out what to say in certain sections. Choose words for transition points and link one topic to the next. Also note places you need to be especially sensitive in how you phrase something, or activities you can cut if you are running late.
Habit 6 – Attend to Details
The purpose is clear. You’ve considered the audience. You have your routines ready. You’re bringing your best self. One letter remains: T for technique. The final two habits address the presenter’s technique. Habit 6 is “attend to details.”
The authors open this section with an anecdote about a new teacher attending a PD session where the details were NOT attended to. The location is changed at the last minute. The building’s main doors are locked. The presenter is too stressed for pleasant greetings as she deals with a technical problem. The teacher’s name is misspelled on his badge. We’ve all encountered problems like these at some point. The result of all these small problems is an increase in stress for everyone involved and a decreased sense of welcome.
To create transformational PD, you’ll need to attend to the details so the entire process feels smooth, and participants feel welcome and truly cared for. If a participant is feeling stressed, then their brain is simply not as available for learning as it would be in a calm state. Here are some general categories to consider (and their details to attend to) as you prepare for and present transformational PD.
Know your audience and their context as best you can. If you don’t already know them, use a pre-session-survey to fill in the gaps. If you’re not sure what to ask, refer to the Planning Questions in the previous section. Consider local and world context as well. Might you need to acknowledge or address current events or something that’s recently happened in the community?
Who will you lean on for support before, during, and after the PD session? A security guard to unlock the doors? A tech person to set up the projector? A caterer to deliver lunch? Get in touch early to talk through the arrangements. If you have a co-facilitator, you will need an even closer level of coordination. This may require agreed-upon norms for communication and joint rehearsals.
Consider details such as parking, and nearness to bathrooms, water fountains, and vending machines. Consider comfortable seating and seating arrangements for group work. How will you use the space? Where will you put signs to help people find their way? Where will the check-in desk be? Where will you set up materials? Will you need a microphone? Yes, if you have more than 25 participants.
Will you ask participants to do any pre-work like readings or reflections? If so, be realistic about the amount you assign and have a plan for those who do not complete it. Consider how you will compile and share resources, readings, and handouts with the participants. A shared online folder or special website can save paper, but this can also create access problems if there are tech issues. If you plan to use printed materials, numbered pages and a table of contents will make them much easier to use. Create accessible slides by keeping text short and simple. Make sure photos and graphics are high quality. Be sure to proofread everything carefully.
Think, also, about what materials you might put on each table to make participants’ time easier or more enjoyable: pens, sticky notes, fidgets, markers, notecards, highlighters, snacks, decorative plants, etc.
You might have a huge amount of information to communicate about an upcoming session, necessitating a very long email. Include all the info but try to keep the voice friendly and personal. Convey excitement and warmth in the message’s opening. Possible sections for this informative email include: overview, time and location, attire, meals, what to bring, and pre-work. Close, again, with excitement and warmth. If the initial message is sent long in advance, you should also send a reminder email a week before the event.
With all of these categories in mind, one final recommendation is to spend some time thoughtfully preparing yourself for the day of the event. Your stress will inevitably transfer to the participants, so what can you do to reduce your stress? Make detailed lists of what to bring with you, set-up tasks to complete on the day of, and write out a timeline if needed. Consider how you will care for yourself. Do you need to make time for mediation or another calming ritual? What breakfast will be the best fuel for you before presenting?
Ultimately, PD is not about having the best sandwiches or comfortable chairs or even a working slide clicker remote; it is about human relationships among learners and between the learners and the facilitator. Your job is to create the conditions in which everyone will learn best. When the chairs, sandwiches, and slide clicker are attended to and the facilitator is prepared and calm, everyone’s stress will be lower, and everyone will be better able to open their minds to learning and their hearts to one another.
Habit 7 – Facilitate Adaptively
No matter how excellent your preparation and how well you attended to all the details in advance, there will be things that don’t go as expected. A participant is upset. An activity takes longer than planned. A fire drill interrupts the session. There’s no way to prepare for absolutely everything, so the other technique needed by facilitators of transformational PD is the ability to facilitate adaptively. Below are things you can do to build your skill at adaptive facilitation.
Learn How to Apologize Well
Some problems, like a tech glitch or late lunch, can be brushed off with a quick apology: “Sorry, the caterer got stuck in traffic. Lunch should be here soon.” It’s no one’s fault and everyone understands these things happen. Some problems, on the other hand, involve personal harm, and you need to take them much more seriously. If you as the facilitator accidentally cause harm with a uniformed assumption or microaggression, for example, you need to address it. Apologize as close to the moment of harm as you can. Be sincere, “I’m sorry I caused harm, I take responsibility for my words,” not, “I’m sorry you feel that way – I didn’t mean to upset you.” Own your part. Don’t expect the harm to be immediately healed but know that apologizing well is a step in the right direction.
Plan for Common Detours
You can pretty much assume that something will not go as planned. Think through some of the common issues that might throw you off course and make a plan for how you could deal with them. For example, “If people have problems accessing the online quiz, I will give everyone a five-minute break while I write the questions on the board.” Here are a few more common scenarios to plan for:
- I run out of time
- The link doesn’t work or a video won’t play
- The energy in the room is low
- A fire drill or something similar disrupts the session
- Participants are confused by an activity
- I feel triggered by something a participant says
- There is an argument between participants
- A participant is disruptive or tries to derail the agenda
Use a Step-By-Step Strategy to Address the Unexpected
You can’t plan for every possible derailment, but here’s a step-by-step strategy for dealing with issues in the moment.
- Slow Down – Take a deep breath. Acknowledge your own emotions so you can address the situation with a clear head.
- Consider the Context – Has anyone experienced harm? If so, consider what is within your sphere of control or influence.
- Assess the Stakes – From 1-10, how serious is this issue? Technology or scheduling glitches may be upsetting, but they are often not that serious. Identity-related harm or group power dynamics are likely more serious and may cause long-term damage.
- Determine How to Proceed – Make a short-term action plan. Then decide if a longer-term plan if needed.
- Follow Through – Implement your plan (while letting go of the outcome). Be sure to complete any longer-term steps, such as following up with participants, after the session is over.
The skills you need to facilitate adaptively will develop with time and practice. Root yourself in your strengths: your humor, your patience, your ability to read a room, and use these strengths in challenging moments. You can also root yourself in your core values like equity, honesty, or perseverance to provide you with a deep well of energy and guide you in moments of decision-making.
A Send-Off from the Authors
As you return to your own learning spaces with new knowledge and new habits, Aguilar and Cohen send you these final words:
May the PD you lead be purposeful, joyful, and transformative. May the PD you facilitate contribute to creating the conditions in which adults can learn and every student gets what they need and deserve every day. May your PD heal and transform the world.