Making Professional Learning "Worth the Stand"
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege to facilitate professional learning sessions at ASCD's Conference on Teaching Excellence in Orlando, Florida. Over 400 educators joined me to explore "Mirrors and Windows: Personalized Professional Learning that Encourages Self-Reflection and Connection." A few hours after the first session, a participant came up to me and said simply,
"I just wanted to let you know it was worth the stand."
It took me a moment to process what she meant. In our first session, we had filled all 200 chairs and a number of individuals had made a home on the floor or standing around the perimeter of the room. She continued, "I walk out of a lot of sessions if/when they don't resonate with me, but I think it's important you know that - an hour later - it was worth the stand." I thanked her for joining and collaborating with us and walked into my next session inspired to (hopefully) make a similar impact.
Two weeks later this exchange has stuck with me. Since the publication of Personalized Professional Learning: A Job-Embedded Pathway for Elevating Teacher Voice (ASCD, 2019), a number of district and school leaders have reached out to me for additional support with professional learning design and facilitation. We explore a variety of strategies and approaches together that fit their context, teacher needs, and facilitator strengths. But ultimately, the goal of this work is to make professional learning "worth the stand." I spend time discussing with leaders the term "valuation," and that we should not be evaluating professional learning, but instead, asking participants to assign a value to it. Sixty minutes later, will participants feel the learning experience was worth it (i.e., time, resources, and talent)? Some of the characteristics I have found to increase the value of professional learning time value include establishing a clear purpose, building anticipation, and hosting well.
Establishing a Clear Purpose
We set learning objectives for student learning, but goal-setting is often overlooked in professional learning spaces. When I ask leaders what the purpose of a series of sessions is, they may respond that it is for "new teacher induction" or "early release time." These are categories, not purposes.
Professional learning should have a clear and measurable purpose, and participants should be a part of establishing what the metrics or success criteria look like and sound like. For example, if all new teachers successfully apply the strategies from a new teacher induction session on the use of proximity to redirect student misbehavior, what will success look like? How will we know the learning had an impact? Why does it matter?
We need to plan professional learning in much the same way we prepare for a party. Craft an intentional guest list, send invitations, build anticipation, and invite guests to contribute a "dish" so they they are not coming empty-handed. Investment (and even collaboration) begin long before participants step foot through the workshop door. How are we building anticipation to make guests excited about the learning experiences we're co-designing with them? Hint: It's not by sending a generic announcement in a weekly staff email.
As a learning leader, it is not only our responsibility to bring guests to the table but also to tend to the interactions among them once they arrive. Too often teams sabotage their work before it even begins. For some ideas on "hosting well," see the Educational Leadership article I co-authored with Jill Thompson on "Eight Things Teams Do to Sabotage Their Work" (ASCD, Summer 2019). We need to banish the silence, squirrels, and silos to harness our true collaborative power.
As professional learning designers and facilitators, we need to consistently ask ourselves, "Is this experience worth the stand? Does it leave participants more inspired, energized, and equipped for the work ahead? Have we hosted well... and will our guests return to learn more?"