At this point in my career, I've led over 100 different professional development experiences, ranging from keynotes to conference sessions to whole-day breakouts. The work has been with a broad spectrum of audiences: whole district staffs ranging from 6 people (total staff, whole district) to 1,500; elementary teachers exclusively; secondary teachers exclusively; ELA-only groups; only non-ELA-teacher groups; parochial, public, urban, rural, etc. The events have been held in 27 different states, all in the USA. (So far…)
Along the way, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I've learned a few things, as one is bound to do when seeking to master a complex thing — guiding teachers in their professional development — by both studying it (e.g., watching the masters in action, reading about how to effectively guide and teach adult audiences) and practicing it. So, it would be foolish and selfish of me to leave what I've learned in my head; I may as well place it on the Internet so that perhaps a person or two can get a speed boost on their own path to mastering this challenging art and science.
Before I start, please keep in mind that each one of these has been learned through imperfect practice (e.g., more failure than was required), and so if you messed up on any of these the last time you led PD, good news: you've got company. 🙂 Also, just like with teaching, there are many ways to lead PD well. These are just the things I've learned.
In no particular order:
- Rehearsal is critical. I don't think I've ever given a talk or workshop or session where I didn't rehearse (i.e., talk to myself, loudly and as if I'm actually giving the talk to an audience) through one or more parts. Early on, I was rehearsing through entire, 6-hour workshops. I do this in the car (without slides) and I do this in my hotel room before an event (with slides) — at minimum. This shows me where my thinking is unclear and lets my brain play around with how to organize ideas and lines and so on.
- Especially rehearse your introduction, because these have unique importance. (Keep in mind that when I give PD I am almost always meeting folks for the first time. In the few cases where I know the folks [e.g., in my district], the “me” part of the introduction can be shorter.) Early on, I thought, “Well, what matters is the body of the presentation, not the beginning.” And the substance of the PD is critical, but without a good introduction, people will be well into their paper-grading by the time you get to the body. You need a clear and easy-to-follow introduction because these help the learners preview what they're going to learn (schema activation, expectations-setting) and then review it.
- In the introduction, think not just about the material of the PD that you are previewing, but also the five key beliefs. If the teachers in the room are going to learn as best as possible during my session, I need them to believe the same things I need my students to believe.
- That I'm CREDIBLE: I care about them as colleagues. I know what I'm talking about. I'm passionate. Credibility is one of those high-leverage, 80/20 things. I've written a lot on teacher credibility, and it transfers nicely to leading PD. Here's an overview, and here and here are supporting articles. Also, Chapter 2 of These 6 Things has the best treatment of teacher credibility that I've yet written.
- That this PD has VALUE: It matters. This is why the Everest activity is important as well as the concept of long-term flourishing. These help root the work into ideas and purposes we can all agree with. Very important — especially when you've got a group of math colleagues sitting in on an all-day literacy workshop. (Not ideal, but I'm amazed at what my math colleagues can bring to situations like this once I've established credibility and value.)
- That they BELONG in this PD: People like them do work like this. It lines up with who they are. In situations where I've got predominantly one kind of group in there (e.g., ELA teachers) but then also some other folks (e.g., science teachers), it's very critical to watch how I speak so as not to communicate that what I'm saying doesn't apply to them. If I was giving a PD on technology (I never have and I never plan to, but just as a what if), I would want to make comments that help the most resistant people in the room feel like they, too, are welcome.
- That they can improve through their EFFORT and that they can SUCCEED. So much of my work is layered (e.g., the pyramid of writing priorities) because PD groups always have people at all kinds of levels. So one person needs to just get a pop-up debate going and that would be a huge win, and another person is ready to talk about argument-tracking or Les Lynn's refutation two-chance. Also, when giving my talk on student motivation, I make sure to include both super-efficient, low-investment interventions (e.g., moments of genuine connection), middle-level difficulty ones (e.g., build connections), and high-difficulty options (e.g., developing a class culture around “do hard things”).
- And hit those five key beliefs throughout. The beliefs are best supported with a strong beginning, middle, and end. There's no “hack” or “trick” for that. You've just got to… well, do the other things on this list, repeatedly, as you develop mastery.
- Don't make your intro too long. I've been in PDs before where the instructor is constantly saying, “once we get into it, we'll learn this.” Again and again. And, oh yeah — I was the instructor in those PDs. One way to speed up the intro is to remember…
- It's not about you. It's about them. I know that your second child is really interesting, and that your dog is super cool. But, she's less interesting and he's less cool to us. So, do give autobiography at the start — and throughout — but short is good. In that first autobiographical bit, I like to say, “Here's my thirty second autobiography in case you're interested,” and I say that I'm a husband/dad, I'm a teacher, and I'm a writer/blogger guy. And then I move back into content, often transitioning by saying that these non-teaching areas of my life are why in today's PD I will be in no way advocating for unsustainable teaching practices. (That helps my credibility. And it also helps that it's true.)
- Humor is good. A few weeks ago when a now-friend of mine introduced me at her staff PD, she said, “Oh yeah, and he's really funny.” And I thought, “Nooo! Don't say that!” Because then people expect me to be funny, and I try too hard to be funny, and it gets awkward. But as I've written before, humor helps with a lot of things. So, work on it. It's a skill. In general, I make my best jokes in the moment. My prepared ones tend to be less good.
- A good, high-level heuristic for developing a session is: Here's what I'm going to say, here's what I'm saying, here's what I said. I'm going to credit Erik Palmer for this, as his books (like Well-Spoken, a book I obsessively cite, and Own Any Occasion) have taught me a lot. Now you might be thinking, “Well, Dave, that's just good, clear teaching: here's what we're going to learn, here's us learning it, here's what we learned.” To which I would say, “Exactly.” Your audience doesn't know the material like you do. So, tell them where you're going and then tell them where you've gone when you're through.
- 6-hours for a workshop tends to be too long. Shorten to 4-5 hours if you can. If you can't, structure the day so that most/all of the new learning is in the morning, and then after lunch is a focused, targeted work session with a clearly articulated work product due at the end. Because…
- After lunch is the worst, but sometimes it's unavoidable because for some reason people like to eat. If you have to present anything after lunch, especially something that requires cognitive heavy-lifting, be sure to include larger-than-usual quantities of talk and movement.
- Length of PD is not equal to impact of PD. I always try to let people out early because if I've done my job, their brains are tired, and at the end of the day we've reached the point of diminishing cognitive returns. Humans can only sustain deep cognitive work for so long — just look at how 90% or so of professional authors write only 3-5 hours per day. Plus, the impact of a PD is not tied to how many minutes people sit in the room. The impact depends on reflective application throughout and (especially) at the end of the PD, and then follow-up from admin or coaching staff afterwards.
- Memorable, comprehensible frameworks help, in terms of enhancing the lasting impact of the PD. For example, Jim Burke's six kinds of academic writing assignments or Mike Schmoker's three areas of focus or that Dave Stuart Jr. guy's six things. Frameworks allow the learner to hold the scope of the PD work easily in their heads, and then to situate a particular point in the PD to its broader message. Of course, you only arrive at these frameworks through taking in tons of data (e.g., Jim Burke collected thousands of writing assignment samples from around the country) and synthesizing it. But then again, the reason people like Jim and Mike write books is to help schools and teams do better work, so take those frameworks and organize your PD around them.
- The follow-up is where the real staying power is. As I've written before, one-and-done PD should not be categorically dismissed, as every great teacher I know has a story of the one PD event or speaker that made a difference. However, at the whole school level there is nothing like developing a system for simple follow-ups on the work, again and again and again, deepening teacher understanding each time. The only way to do this, of course, is to adopt a “less but better” approach to PD. You have to pick fewer things to do PD on if you're going to make room to follow-up with those things. But of course, you wouldn't be reading this blog if you didn't already sense the commonsensical nature of such an idea.
- I think the ideal PD would be about 15 minutes per day, all on the same topic, for about a month and half. That's why I designed the Student Motivation Course like that. It's just difficult to take a day packed with learning and then process and apply it effectively. If there's a way you can do “dripped” PD, that's the best.
- Even though we often can't lead 4-6 hours of PD in 15-minute chunks over the course of a month and a half, it's useful to think of the session or workshop you're preparing in 15 minute chunks. This makes prep less overwhelming, and it helps you work in enough think-pair-share or group processing work.
- Call your audience to higher ground — call them to action — but not too frequently. When I give my best PD, I typically say some things that are very direct: “This is something we need to do.” “There's not a way around this.” “Here's an excuse I hear a lot, and here's why it can't hold us up.” But I've found that I need to earn these calls to action. And I earn them by being vulnerable, by being empathetic, by constantly kneading into my heart the truth that I'm here to serve them. Yet even when the calls to action are earned, that doesn't mean it's smart to overdo them. People can only hold so many action steps in their minds. Don't overdo it.
- Remember: “More Learning, Less Stress.” This is more than a tagline to me. It's a reminder that virtually every professional development is about achieving more learning in our schools, but such a precious few of them take seriously that teachers are stressed and that every new thing added to a teacher's list ought to be accompanied by three things the teacher no longer needs to do. This mantra — and the way it shapes all the PD I do — is a reason that I think teachers don't bristle too badly when I call them to action.
- Never say, “The research says ________________” or “We know from the research that ___________.” Instead, do your homework and rehearse to the point where you can say where the research comes from. You don't need to have a bibliography on every screen, but I like to visualize each study that I reference as a story, and sometimes I will tell the actual study design to my audience as if it's a story. “Okay, so they took three groups of 600 freshmen total from three different high schools, and half the kids were given X control treatment and half were given Y experimental treatment. Here's what happened…”
- Focus your offerings. I used to offer PD on about any topic that a district or organization would possibly pay me for. After about the 50th event I led, I learned that this is foolish because so much of a good PD flows from the level of expertise I've gained on the topic. That topical expertise allows me to think more deeply and carefully about how I structure that particular learning experience, and it's at that layer of preparation that you start to almost unconsciously create top 10% learning experiences. Some readers may be in charge of PD at their schools full-time, and so you may be required to lead work on a variety of topics. But wherever and however it is in your control, always push the needle toward focus. Your career and your participants will thank you.
- Your slides aren't the top difference-maker. That's your expertise and your preparation and your clarity. That's your thoughtfulness about what is happening in the room right now and how might I need to adjust?
- But, slides do matter, so don't read off the slides. I know each one of my slides, but I don't always remember the order. This is partly because I'm not done fiddling with the slides until about one hour before it's go time. The trouble is, when I'm looking at my slides I'm not looking at the audience. That's a PVLEGS no-no (another Palmer-ism). Rehearsal is the only surefire fix for this — meaning that during rehearsal you stare at your slides so that when you're on stage you don't need to. Also, a confidence monitor (a little screen in front of you that shows you what's on the screen behind you) is insanely helpful, but 98% of all of my engagements have not made this possible (which makes sense because I mostly speak in schools, not TED stages).
- And make slides as visual as possible. Huge, text-filled slides are a no-no in about every single spot you look. (E.g., Nancy Duarte's Slide:ology; Garr Reynolds' Pesentation Zen). But they're the norm in teacher PD. I put the text-filled stuff in a handout (or now, those things are in my book), and my slides are designed to represent ideas. I'm going to credit Seth Godin for this one (“Words belong in memos. Powerpoints are for ideas.” <–this whole blog article), but I've seen many great PD facilitators use this approach with their slides.
- Conclusions are important, too. You want to end on the so what. If there are particular images you've conjured throughout the session — e.g., student photos, college career readiness as a mountain, our families — then the conclusion (5 minutes or less) is a nice place to come back around to those.
- Your goal is good, not perfect. There's a reason I didn't title this article something superlative, like “How to Lead the Best PD” or something. First of all, professional development in the United States is bad enough that we don't need to be magnificent or perfect — we just need to be good. Competent. Attentive. Not reading off slides.
So, there you have it. What's your top takeaway? What would you add to the list? A lot of these have links to our work in classrooms. I'd be curious to hear about those, too. Share in the comments.
P.S. I'm not the PD expert, but 100 repetitions has been a useful quantity of experiences. If you'd like to see the kind of PD I'm making these days, consider enrolling in my next online course for educators. I'm currently wrestling with the content to make it an exceptional learning experience. It's about becoming the kinds of educators who manage our time well, who are good at deciding what on the to-do list is important and what's not, and who slowly but surely build flourishing careers, despite the odds. The waitlist is here.