How to Plan Effective and Engaging PD

Written by Kirstin Fowler

Think back to your early days as a student teacher. Surveying your classroom, you hoped to see eager faces, engaged in their learning tasks. They listened to your instructions, participated willingly, and maybe even generated a few ideas for you to consider. Or, at least this is what you hoped for. In every teacher’s experience, he or she spent countless hours honing how to present material in order to engage students; after all, engaged students could better retain information, make meaning, and transfer new learning.

Now, think about the last professional development day that you led. Perhaps you had to ban cell phones, or use proximity to monitor computer screens. Asking for participation felt like pulling teeth – except for that one eager hand in the front row, questioning every word you spoke. Maybe the day seemed to drag on. And on. And on. It was hard when you were a teacher to find the time for reflection, but as the administrator, did you take even a moment to think “Why aren’t my teachers as engaged as my students were?”

Too often today, professional development is packaged as a necessary evil that one must endure. Standards, policies, and procedures need to be relayed to staff. Questions should be asked. New methods modeled. But how many teachers and administrators would admit to looking forward to presenting professional development? How many of us simply resign ourselves to the potential of wasted time and uninformative meetings? How many of us channel bored students, texting the babysitter every hour, just for something to do? The more ambitious amongst us might even bring work to grade.

It’s clear that PD should be a time for growth and learning, a productive period when engaged and enthusiastic professionals come together to absorb new information to be implemented later. But, how does one engaged their audience? What tips and tricks can we draw in from other industries such as consulting, medicine, and law to shake up our own methods to better engage TEACHERS? I believe that there are five primary points that an administrator must keep in mind in order to plan effective and engaging professional development.

The Agenda

Have you ever been to a meeting that dragged on for hours, where seemingly little was accomplished? Maybe you’ve created an agenda that was never followed. Perhaps you were interrupted constantly, and the agenda was immediately off track.

Schedules are crucial to success in schools; our students count down the minutes until a class ends in the same way that we, as adults, count the minutes until we can return to the 165 research papers stacked on our desks. If we don’t have a sense of time, time drags. I could argue that a professional should be dedicated to chronos, or measured time, but realistically, we are all affected by perception of time. When a day drags, engagement dips, distraction increases, and the goals to be accomplished are lost.

An effective agenda sets a goal or intention for the meeting (or meetings). Then, it begins to break down the primary question into three or four sub-topics. These subtopics should be briefly described and further structured so that the participant knows exactly what he or she will be learning, how he or she will gain the experience needed, and, perhaps most importantly, when there will be time for hands-on experience and questions.

By providing a structure, the PD facilitator signals “I respect your time” to the participating professionals. This is important, and will be discussed further below. Ultimately, an agenda removes anxiety about “what comes next” and “how am I going to learn/use/implement this” – two of the most common questions that I have encountered in PD experiences.

The Speaker

As teachers and administrators, we’re performers. We perform in our classrooms, act out scene after scene in the office for parents, and script our IEP or counseling meetings for maximum efficiency. So, why don’t we remember this in the PD room? Too often, administrators give in to the disgruntlement of disengaged teachers. Acknowledging “Look, I know you don’t want to be here” seems to foster camaraderie, however, think about the tone. The negative tone of assurances like this, or “let’s just get through this, so that you can go do …” is oddly reminiscent of the arguments that we have with our students – especially the toddlers and teens.

By putting down the presentation that he or she is giving, an administrator negatively impacts the success of the program. It becomes OK to hate PD days. It becomes OK to ridicule the more mundane presentations (they’re going to exist!). It becomes OK to disengage and go through the motions, with the intent to discard this new information later.

The Administrator
Think back to your old classroom. You didn’t allow your students to drag their feet when learning fractions, or just skim the surface of cell biology. You encouraged them to push through that challenging text or to dig deeper and make inferences about lab results. Much in the same way, we need to encourage the adult professionals in front of us.

Acknowledging that a new program is a huge change or departure builds empathy. Openly discussing how difficult it was for you to learn the new scheduling software fosters camaraderie. But be sure to pay attention to tone. Be positive. Be encouraging. Be consistent. Be proactive. Just as the agenda keeps you on track, your own word choices and energy keeps the agenda moving forward. Maintaining a professional demeanor that is still approachable is a challenge, but this is one of the most important roles of an administrator. You’re still the example for those in front of you, and that includes the teachers.

The Outside Expert
Sometimes, we bring in experts. Behavior experts, counselors, software developers and specialists, and researchers all play important role in expanding the knowledge of the teaching professional. By ensuring that the specialists that you hire are dedicated to the purpose of the professional development, you can ensure that the professional development you are delivering is engaging and informative. Not only is hiring the appropriate specialist imperative, but discussing what he or she is responsible for presenting is part of your role.

Consider this – school law and school codes are highly specific, detailed, and potentially mundane. Major changes might necessitate an invitation to the school solicitor. Rather than allowing him to drone on for three hours, reading the legal documents verbatim, ask him to break down the information into manageable sections. Encourage pre-reading so that he can simply cover the salient points. Work with the solicitor to create scenarios to which the laws might be applied. In other words, model the style of presentation you hope for and lay out your expectations to the expert in advance. By holding the experts that you hire accountable for the services that they provide, you’re creating an engaging and effective presentation that is respectful of the information and the professionalism of your own staff.

The Engaged Classroom

Throughout this discussion, I’ve brought back potential classroom scenarios. Why, you might ask? Because for an administrator, PD is a class. It should be goal oriented, targeted to the needs of the professional learning community, and effectively engaging. If this sounds familiar, it is because that’s our shared goal for every day of every course we teach. If administrators consider the professionals in front of them to be their class, and if they utilize some of the same tips and tricks picked up from years in the classroom, they’ll begin to scratch the surface of engaged learning.

The structure of lessons in the classroom is important because it helps our students know what to expect. When students know what to expect every day in class, behavior problems drop and engagement increases. The same is true for adults in professional development sessions. Provide an accurate agenda and maintain consistency across programs for the school year. Laying out expectations in advance helps all participants to feel more comfortable, and therefore engaged, in the PD process.

The style of presentation can keep an audience engaged. In particular, your tone and attitude play an important role in setting the mood for the presentation. Acknowledge that your audience, the teachers, are experts and professionals, too. Provide them with adequate time to interact with materials, to try out programs, and to critique and reflect on new systems. Be positive, transparent, and clear. In other words, be a professional!

Furthermore, pull out some classroom tools here. Think-Pair-Share is highly effective for both youth and adult learners. Short, targeted lectures followed by questioning periods facilitate the acquisition of knowledge punctuated by experiences for transferring and making meaning out of the information presented. Using such a familiar structure increases the comfort of the participants due to both the ability to chew through new information and to do so in a consistent pattern.

Stop and Reflect
Wrap up every section of professional development with a takeaway. By summarizing the experience, you begin the process of reflection. PD is ongoing and the continuous nature of many larger scale programs often leaves the participants hanging until next time. Much as you would wrap up a lesson in the classroom, wrap up the PD. This can be in the form of a discussion, a written response, or product produced throughout the session. Re-focusing on the goals of the PD not only emphasizes the importance of the initial goals, but it provides an avenue for reflection.

The Lab

Active learning processes help to contextualize new information. There are different ways to run a lab experience, which requires that the facilitator first presents and models new experiences, and then encourages participants to experience the method or technology for his or herself. This model for presenting PD is particularly effective when used with technology.

Large Group
When debuting technology or a new curriculum design process to a larger group, it is imperative to provide pre-training to the whole group or a select group of co-facilitators. This ensures that basic questions can be asked and answered efficiently, and that professionals of all experience levels can be supported throughout the learning process. This style of PD presentation is useful for department or small school level meetings. Teachers can bring their own materials or interact with a curated set of materials designed to serve as a “problem set”.

The most highly rated and effective PD sessions that I have observed and participated in have included seminar style learning and learning labs. Small groups encourage teachers to feel more comfortable to share questions and concerns, while troubleshooting alongside colleagues. Learning labs that are 40 minutes to an hour in length provide ample time for modeling and experimentation.

A key feature of smaller seminars is the ability to enable self-selection. By providing a menu to participants, administrators are naturally engaging them in the PD process. Suddenly, participants are empowered by their choices, and can customize the experience to best benefit his or her skills and classroom style. Such an environment fosters greater experimentation, and when consistently available, draws in even the most trepidatious participant!

The lab is made for experimentation. Small group environments facilitate greater levels of comfort and participation naturally. Self-selection builds upon this by encouraging individuals to consider “what do I need to learn?” “where should I focus my time and energy?”, and most importantly, “who is going to answer my questions?” By facilitating active engagement in the PD process, an administrator highlights the importance of personal responsibility for and utility of continued learning.

The Relationship

Finally, administrators who present PD need to be aware of the many relationships that exist within the school or district. By remaining positive, and pro-active, and respectful an administrator begins to model the type of professionalism that should exist in schools.

Respect the Information
Let’s start with respect as a key component of the relationship between the facilitator of PD and the participant. Understanding that your teachers might be swamped with other work is important, but be careful of your tone. Saying “I know you’d rather be doing something else” sets a negative tone and disrespects the task at hand. Rather, consider saying “Today, we’re going to focus on learning x, y, and z only. If you need more time, I am available afterwards for additional questions” places the focus back on to the learning. Keep your presentation targeted to those points. Acknowledge off-topic questions, and provide the questioner with a timeline for response – but keep moving. By directing the meeting efficiently and addressing questions (perhaps at the end, maybe by email, or in the next meeting), you’re respecting both the process…and the individuals.  

Respect the Individuals
Respecting the individual is as important as respecting the process. For instance, think about presenting new technology to your staff. You’re going to have different types of learners, different speeds of learners – just like in the modern classroom! Facilitating success requires you to consider using an alternate model of PD, perhaps a self-selecting lab experience, to cater towards different speeds of learning and levels of ability. Or, think about that one person who always needs to know the details of every new curricular point. You don’t want to dismiss their anxiety, but need to keep moving. Build in time for small group discussions, written questions, or a group question period at the end so that you can respect both the group’s task, and the individual’s needs. By acknowledging that you’re dealing with a diverse group of adult learners in the PD environment, you’re preparing yourself to not only facilitate learning, but to model great teaching practice, too!

Ultimately, engaging PD is about building knowledge through an understanding of building and staff needs. We, the adult learners, are as diverse as our students, and engaging us can be as difficult. Modeling professionalism, being proactive, planning creatively, remaining respectful of the process and the individual is sure to keep your PD sessions effective and engaging.

About the author

Kirstin Fowler

Kirstin Fowler (@KEFTutoring) is an entrepreneur, teacher, and writer who advocates for the development of new and creative ways of facilitating student learning. Kirstin's current position teaching high school allows her to move between classrooms and subjects, exploring many different styles of teaching and learning. She is also the founder of KEFTutoring, a company that specializes in tutoring, test preparation, college counseling, and educational planning for students in grades K - 12.

Kirstin earned her AB from Duke University in 2007. She continued her education at the Sotheby's Institute of Art (University of Manchester), earning a Master of Arts degree in 2009 and at Chatham University, earning a Master of Arts in Teaching degree in 2012.

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