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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I frequently meet teacher leaders and coaches who ask for tips on giving professional development (PD). Their expansive job descriptions include delivering professional development, and yet they feel unsure of how to do this. I respond by validating these feelings: Facilitating adult learning is different than working with children and very few of us have ever had explicit training in this area.

While this subject is worthy of a book (and unfortunately there isn't one that I recommend), I'd like to offer some suggestions for delivering PD that I've refined over the last ten years. Here they are, offered in a slightly random order:

1. Facilitate Learning

Consider your role when delivering PD to be one of a facilitator of learning. Your role is to guide this learning -- even if it's about something you know a great deal about. As a facilitator, you don't need to know everything; you can be humble. I recognize that those asking you to do the PD might want you to show up as an expert on some content or curriculum, but your audience will respond better if you engage them as a facilitator.

2. Plan, Plan, Plan, and Prepare

Just as you plan for lessons that you hope will go really well, you must spend a good amount of time planning and preparing for the PD you deliver. I often use a 2:1 ratio when thinking about preparation -- it takes two hours of planning (at least!) for every 1 hour of delivery. Your facilitator's agenda should include extensive details for what you'll say, how you'll structure the learning, how you'll transition between sections and so on. The success of your PD lies heavily in your plans.

3. Allow for Choice

You'll want to offer lots of structure for your PD, but you must also allow for choice. Adults need to make choices about their learning -- it's just a fact. We disengage if we can't make some choices. A choice can sound like this: "I'm going to give you a few minutes to reflect on what we just talked about. If you want to write about it, that's fine. If you prefer to just think, that's fine. If you'd like to talk to a partner about your thoughts, that's fine, too." You can incorporate choices about who people partner with, what they chose to focus on or read about, how they decide to practice their new learning, and much more. As a facilitator, it's most helpful to just keep in mind that adults need to make choices -- and to think about how and when we can offer that.

4. Not Too Much

One of the keys to a great PD session lies in the objectives. People need to leave your PD having learned to do something new. That means they need a little input or learning and a whole lot of practice. A common flaw I see in many PDs is that there's just too much packed into the allocated time. This often means that the presenter talks a lot and the participants walk away feeling overwhelmed and a bit frustrated. When you're planning, think about what you want people to walk away being able to do and backwards plan from that outcome. If this is a new skill, they'll need a good amount of time to practice and get feedback from each other on their practice. Participants will be happiest if they walk away feeling that they learned something new and they can actually do something differently when they return to class tomorrow. When you're planning, prune, trim and cut and your PD will almost always be stronger.

5. Start and End on Time

A technical yet key move is to honor the times that everyone has agreed to engage in PD. We all know this, but I'm still surprised at how often facilitators don't honor this. If you're running out of time, you can't keep everyone; you'll need to work on refining your plans so that you can do what you want to do in the time you have allocated. Here's the thing about time: it's about trust. When you say you're going to start at 3:15 p.m., and you do, you immediately gain a little bit of trust. When you end at your stated time, again, you gain trust. And when you regularly start on time, you'll find that people will be more likely to show up on time.

6. Build on Existing Expertise

As a facilitator of learning, you don't know everything and you don't need to. When you're planning, consider how to surface the expertise in the room and build on it. All of your participants, even brand new teachers, know something. Your job when delivering PD is figuring out how to connect new learning and content with what already exists, how to build on what people are bringing with them and already doing. Isn't that a relief? You don't need to know everything!

7. Treat Your Adult Learners Like Adults

One of the most common complaints I hear about PD is that teachers feel they are treated like children. This is usually a response to feeling like they're being overly controlled, asked to do something that's not relevant, or subtly threatened with some kind of "accountability." Consider this: We can't hold anyone accountable to anything. Everyone makes their own choices about what they'll think and do. We can provide choices and options, but then we need to let go of control. Build the decision-making capacities of your adult learners and let go of control.

8. Attend to the Environment

You can really impact a learner's experience by thinking about the space they'll learn in. Play music while participants arrive, throw a colorful cloth over tables, provide supply bins with the basics-and some chocolate, mints, and nuts. A few plants or a bunch of dried flowers also brightens up a space. Moving tables into a circle or small groups invites people into a less hierarchical environment and encourages them to talk to each other.

9. Ask for Feedback

At the end of every PD you facilitate, ask for feedback. I ask five simple questions: What did you learn? What worked for you? What didn't work for you? What questions or concerns do you have? Is there anything else you want me to know about your experience today? In order to refine your PD delivery, you'll want to gather and reflect on this feedback every time. This is probably the number one way that I've improved my PD: I listen to and respond to feedback.

10. Celebrate

I always end PD sessions with appreciations. This can be time when individuals appreciate others in the room or elsewhere and it can be a time to appreciate ourselves and silently acknowledge our own contributions, growth, and effort. When we close by acknowledging something that's gone well or someone we value we strengthen the pathways in our brains that recognize the positive. Leaving your participants with this kind of an emotional experience will help when they return next time.

There's so much more to say about how to deliver effective, high-quality PD that people want to attend. But for now, I hope these tips give you at least one new thing to try this year.

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TODD SENTELL's picture
TODD SENTELL
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

I taught a workshop one time at a statewide conference of teachers on how to be a successful teacher your rookie year.

I told them that you don't really have to love kids to be a great teacher...you just have to understand them. All the teachers in the room agreed with me. That was a real nice moment. I couldn't believe I had actually hit on some remarkable, agreed-upon truth in a profession I was real green at. One woman was asleep, with her mouth hung open, so I'll never really know if she agreed or not.

A couple of years later I taught another workshop at the conference to a room of teachers about how I got a bunch of unmotivated and uninterested and nearly illiterate kids to write stories and essays. To write something every week by Friday. I told them I borrowed this one from the working world, especially the newspaper news room. Every Monday the kids got a fun subject to write about, a low word count, the opportunity to be edited by me, and then I would read their work, out loud, in my goofy announcer voices, to everybody else every Friday.

My God, did it work. The first couple of Fridays were horrifying to the students, but then they finally got whacked each week by a sense of pride and Fridays became the most looked-forward-to day of the week. Not because it was the last day of the week. It became the proudest day of the week because they learned that hard work and a dedicated routine always has a payoff.

When you see emotionally fragile kids pat each other on the back--literally pat each other on the back--because they loved each other's stories, it's hard not to get teary-eyed right in front of them. Every Friday.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Anne, I'm totally sharing this with my emerging school coaches. This is great! Thanks for sharing.

LindseyLipsky's picture
LindseyLipsky
Learning/Behavior Specialist, Special Educator

Elana, Thanks so much for writing this. I loved your tips so much, I shared with some colleagues. Especially loved your tip to "treat adults like adults"-- SO important!

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