Let's Talk About It, Urban Education

How to Facilitate Award Winning Professional Development

Imagine that a teacher comes to a workshop and says he is struggling to get his students to learn calculus. He describes them as resistant, unmotivated, and chatty. But wait a minute. An hour later, he tells the room that his students should be grateful to have him, that he drives 45 minutes each way, and that he is highly qualified, unlike some of their other teachers.


Consider a principal who says that teacher attendance is low. She has done raffles and prizes and lots of other incentives. But still, attendance remains the same. Over lunch, she can be heard describing teachers as entitled, saying that they get paid to be there. She is using the words “fire” and “termination” often in her conversation.


How would you describe what is happening here, and in what ways can a workshop help the teacher and/or school leader experience greater success, even if that means helping them to see that they might be their most significant obstacle? Successful workshops offer a way to develop skill, will and mindset and can be very much like a classroom lesson. Like a strong lesson, there are a number of elements (e.g., objective and aligned assessments, physical moment, rigor, norms, participant feedback, follow-up) that help participants to deeply engage with the learning material. But what makes a strong workshop extraordinary? What transforms good professional development into one that is award winning?


Know Your Material: This may go without saying, but it is essential that the facilitator know the material so that she can deliver and adjust when needed. Ideally, a facilitator does not need a script or handout to support delivery. Knowing material does not just mean knowing the content and the agenda, though that is certainly part of it. Knowing material entails familiarity with parts of the session that may be particularly challenging for the participants and identifying ways to modify the pace and difficulty level in real time.

Know Your Audience: Have you ever designed and delivered professional development only to find out that the participants were seeking something entirely different? Have you delivered a session and then learned that the participants had already “mastered” the skill you were sharing? Booo! (I am saying this to myself, as I am guilty of doing this.) The real goal of professional development is not simply to have a stage to share our reflections on education or to deliver specific content. Just as a lesson is measured by student outcomes, professional development is measured by staff outcomes. If the participants have not left better, more inspired, more aware, and able to DEMONSTRATE their learning, we have to ask ourselves if the session was the best use of time. Assessing participants’ prior knowledge helps us to align our workshop with the needs of those in attendance. Some ways to do this assessment include:

  • Hold a conference call with participants prior to the workshop.
  • Ask participants to complete a brief questionnaire.
  • Talk to participants immediately before the workshop.

Ask questions like, What do you hope to learn from the workshop? What is your role? What is your experience with this topic? What are you most excited about as it pertains to the workshop? Least excited?


I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized. – Dr. Haim Ginott

Self Examination: Ginott speaks of teachers. This quote is also applicable to adult facilitation. As facilitators, we have the responsibility to walk the balance of informing and inspiring while also having hope and facing reality. Hard stuff.  We are professionals.  We are also human. Certain voices, perspectives, accents, languages, religions, genders, races, and ways of being may be more palatable to us than others. That is the human experience.  It is essential that we are aware of how we may be inadvertently (or purposely) silencing a perspective or embracing a prototype. Not only are we facilitating the session, we are also models of what we believe is acceptable in classrooms and schools. If you find yourself resisting a person or an idea, ask yourself how to best meet the intended outcomes of the workshop, what the root cause of your resistance might be, and consider one of these alternatives:

  • On break, spend time getting to know the person. Perhaps ask them to have lunch with you at your table. It is possible that by getting to know the person better, you are more likely to connect with the individual once facilitation resumes.
  • Write down the concept or statement you struggle with and, if it serves the group well, raise it to the group. You could say something like, “Everyone, I hear a theme in the conversation that really has me thinking. Let’s take a moment and consider the following…” It may be helpful to allow folks to process in pairs or to write about it for 2-3 minutes.
  • Get over it. I know. Easier said than done. Sometimes we simply need to unearth an extra bit of professionalism and grace and move our own thoughts out of the way. How do we do this? Maybe simply writing whatever it is in a notebook or on a notecard allows us to release it. But sometimes it’s a bit harder.
  • Note how you will support and hold yourself accountable to do the self work necessary so that the next time you facilitate, you have grown in this particular area.

Spotlight “Experts”: As a principal, I experienced a snafu with professional development. There were several weeks when we received quite mediocre feedback from staff, and we weren’t seeing teachers implement in the classroom. At my wits end, I went to teachers and asked them how to make PD better. (Why did I wait until I got to my wits end to go to teachers? Btw, what is a wit?)

The teachers’ response: they wanted to hear from teachers who were working with the same students with whom they struggled. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat? FANTASTIC IDEA!! Often there are individuals in every session that know the material; they might even be as advanced or more advanced than the presenter on the given topic. Because this is the case, the facilitator can identify models (through self-assessment, word of mouth, observation) who can demonstrate the workshop’s objective during the workshop. The key here is to prepare Experts to experience success. You want them to share information that will help the participants while also feeling supported. Steps to Spotlighting:

  1. Have clear expectations for the Expert such as:
    • What is the time limit allowed for the presenter?
    • How will the presenter share their experience visually?
    • Are there specific tenets from the larger session that you want the presenter to highlight well?
    • Does the presenter want feedback from the larger group? How will that feedback be collected and shared?
  2. Coach the presenter beforehand. Review handouts and PPTs and ask the teacher/leader to practice what she will share. Then, give her feedback.
  3. Share workshop feedback with the presenter. Often, colleagues will Big Up (Should I be using caps here?) each other. Ensure that the Expert receives their feedback and then process the feedback with them.
  4. Ask the Expert for feedback. What was the process like for them? How could it have been better? Do they have recommendations of other folks to spotlight?

I was the principal of a school that had the highest percentage of students identified as emotionally disturbed in the state. Teachers often felt like the strategies we used weren’t applicable with some of our students. Spotlights helped us to work through some of that. When the speaker was a colleague, teachers were more receptive to implementing the strategy. They were also able to ask questions such as, “How did you get him to sit down?  But I’ve tried that; how can I do it differently?  Would you mind if I came in and observed you 2nd period?”  The Spotlight could also share areas of struggle as well as success, and the experience felt more like a showcase of ongoing learning. Something interesting also happened; we saw an increase in teachers connecting with each other outside of professional development. Feedback on professional development went from an average of 3 points to 4.5 on a 5-point scale, and we saw much higher implementation in the classroom. (Note: This strategy is not just meant to showcase “stars;” this can also be used for those who are growing in their craft. Also note that it can be humbling to Spotlight someone who can demonstrate a skill that his or her manager cannot. Be prepared to put ego aside if find yourself in this situation.)

Practice: Imagine that your favorite football team is preparing for the super bowl. The coach says to them, “It’s time to prepare.”   (Do coaches say that?) All 100 of the players sit in chairs, recline back and imagine how they will play. Then, to ramp up the preparation, the 100 players break into 50 pairs and talk about how they will play. And for the finale, all 100 players watch videos of themselves playing. All these tactics are honorable, in the right context. But the real way to practice is to practice. Why do we struggle so much with practice in the world of education? I know, I know. It can be awkward. We have too many things to do. It’s embarrassing. We already know this stuff. We’re adults for crying out loud.  But then, we look at our outcomes in our schools, districts, and classrooms and realize that all of these excuses may be getting in the way of progress with children.   And if our excuses are getting in the way, we are getting in the way.  So, let’s move.  Whatever the objective for the workshop, include opportunities to practice and receive feedback. If folks need to know how to have an evaluative conversation, give them time to write their script and practice the conversation. If they are designing assessments, have them create an assessment. If they are expected to create measurable objectives, create a space for them to practice.

Give Feedback: After each practice, give feedback. The key is to have clear criteria for what is expected of practice and to model the process for the group before breaking up into small group practice. For example, if leaders are practicing the evaluation conversation, and the criteria is to 1) be succinct, 2) to connect, and 3) to note areas of strength and growth, model this process and give feedback aligned to those three areas.

Give Feedback on the Feedback: After modeling the first round of feedback, ask a participant to give you (the facilitator) feedback on your feedback. It could look something like this. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how actionable and aligned (to the criteria) was my feedback?” Whatever the rating, ask the participant how you could have achieved an even higher rating. This cycle of feedback helps you to model vulnerability and demonstrate that you have room to learn and grow as well.


  • Aim for the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s ok to jump right to evaluation. For example, having a group of educators review a definition of engagement and then watch a video of engagement to evaluate the degree of engagement is one way to move from introduction to evaluation rather quickly.
  • Engage in Level 3 Listening .  Level 1: The listener is distracted by his own thoughts.  Level 2: The listener is aware of body language and tone.  Level 3: The listener is one with the speaker(s) and is aware of what is being said as well as what is left unsaid.  At times, facilitators can be so focused on the session material that we don’t really hear participants’ responses to the material and to each other. As you circulate during pair and small group discussions, note what folks are saying and not saying. Sometimes it helps to write your observations and share trends with the group.

Differentiate: If you find that participants are working on similar skills, consider reorganizing the room to accommodate this learning.  Another strategy could be to partner participants who have different strengths.  Imagine that one member of the leadership team is direct but struggles to build relationships.  The other builds relationships well but struggles to be direct.  During practice, say to the participants, “I am noticing that about half of us want to build the skill of being direct and the other half want to learn how to connect better.  Raise your hand if your area of strength is being direct.  Now raise your hand if your area of strength is relationship building.  Your job is to practice with the person whose area of strength is your area of growth.  You will be working on different skills, but the goal here is to learn best practices from someone who already has success in this area.”

Action Plan: Ensure that each participant has an action plan. The column headings could be action, by when, support needed, and purpose. You may be asking, “What action could they take from this workshop?” That’s a great question. If you are thinking, “They don’t need to take any action from this workshop,” then is the workshop necessary? Maybe. But probably not. Consider this—if someone does a training on how to work with a particular student who has an IEP, you might be thinking, “Great I have the information.” But an action item could be how to apply this learning with another student who demonstrates similar challenges. The point of the action plan is to help build leadership, accountability, and support. When participants create their own action plans, the more likely they are to follow them.

Rank the Action Plans: Once action plans are created, have participants rank each item on a scale of 1 to 10. “This action is important” (10 = very important). “I am committed to following through on this action item” (10=very committed). Imagine that a participant notes an action as very important but low commitment. What is your response as a facilitator? One-way to engage here is to ask participants to share their commitments: one that is high commitment but low importance and one that is high importance but low commitment. Your role as a workshop facilitator is to then help participants to process their responses. Why commit to something that isn’t important? Why be resistant to something that is important? As a group, explore the cost to benefit and the root cause of their commitments. From here it is likely that participants will develop new commitments or revise their current ones. The goal is to support folks to commit to the thing that is important. For example, a school leader might be extremely committed to meeting with the 10th grade team, the team with whom she has the strongest relationships. But the 7th grade team is the one who is struggling and in need of the greatest assistance, but the school leader feels intimidated by 2 staff members on the 7th grade team. Help the school leader to first see what she is learning about her own leadership and what shifts she needs to make so that she commits to what is important. (Note: Your follow-up as a facilitator may be derived directly from participants’ action plans. So, listen closely, and be prepared to share your action plan as well.)

Share Yourself. Do you find yourself laughing or tearing up (sincerely) during a workshop? If you laugh, maybe laugh a little more deeply. If you get teary, maybe let a tear fall. We are human beings first, and the workshop is really very much like a conversation. There is back and forth and silence and talking over one another and exchange. Be real.  Be open. Be human.  Not long ago, I was leading a training at a high school in an urban area. A participant noted the impossibility of being successful with students who were labeled as emotionally disturbed. Suddenly, I remembered having a Black male student, while I was a principal, with whom I struggled to build a relationship. Years later, after graduation, I saw him in our neighborhood, and he admitted that he had been using drugs. And quite frankly, he didn’t look well. I was heartbroken. I shared the story with the room because I remembered thinking What if I had been closer to him? What if I had done a better job connecting with him? Could it have made a difference? In me? In him? When I recanted this story, I got emotional because I did not honor my commitment to that child. And I wanted the participants to avoid making the same mistake. In this instance, a number of participants connected more deeply with me, and some shared that they too had resistance with a number of their students/staff. The beauty here is that this dialogue created an opportunity for participants to examine their own rationale for their resistance and then do something about it. Several participants not only noted specific students/staff they needed to connect with, they articulated how and when they would do it and the support they needed from someone else.  We were able to role play and help participants to notice when their tone and body language was undermining their goal of building better relationships.

Gratitude and Performance: Performing sounds a little wack. Perform? Me? I’m a trainer.   Wellllll, I think the best teachers do it all the time. Imagine this: Karen teaches 30 minutes from her home. Right before she leaves the house, she spills coffee down the front of her crisp, white blouse. Frantically, she changes but is now running 7 minutes late. She gets to the car and sees that her back tire is flat; so, she carefully drives to the gas station only to find that the air machine isn’t working. Plus it’s Monday morning. How might Karen be feeling? Frustrated? Tired? Overwhelmed? Looking for her flask? Given all of this, Karen still has to teach. And whatever she brings into the room to greet her students, she will likely get back from them. Such is the same with adult learning. Lots of things happen that can turn you upside down in the wink of your right eye. But we can choose to act our way out of it. How? Look for the bright spots. Try to find every tiny thing to be thankful for or to smile at BEFORE it’s show time. You see a flower? Slow down long enough to notice the gradients of color on the petals. Listen for a child’s laugh. Look for your favorite colors as your drive. Find the student or staff member you are more inspired by and chat with her. Watch a funny YouTube video.  The funny thing is, when we do the mental work to lift ourselves out of a funk, the gift we receive is a lightness that helps us to connect to participants in a workshop. We can then truly engage with them, offer our best selves, and support them to develop further for the sake of students and families.

Facilitating successful, engaging, and inspiring workshops is hard work. But the rewards are immense. If you are not already doing the strategies above, consider 1-2 new strategies to adopt and collect data (qualitative and quantitative) to note how it’s working. When when you are ready, add one more strategy.

I certainly remember times when I was completely exhausted after a workshop. Actually, I am usually spent after all of them. But it was worth it if participants left having demonstrated a new skill, expanded their mindset, and/or were asking deeper questions that would lead to change for themselves, their staff, students, and parents.

Workshops are a conversation. And the most unexpected gift? Not only did I see a shift in participants, but I was changed as well. I left having received as much, if not more so, than I gave.


For bookings and inquiries, send an email to [email protected].  I’m more than happy to confer about ways we can partner in achieving meaningful outcomes for students, particularly the ones below, outcomes that align with cultural responsiveness and social justice.

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