I recently experienced two major professional successes and feel a need to unpack the what, how and why of both. The first was the elementary school field day that I organized after a two year hiatus and the second was a full faculty professional development event at an international school across town. Although I thought I would look at these events separately, it dawned on me that considering them in parallel could offer some useful insights that I might not otherwise catch.
For openers, I need to provide a bit of context for each event:
Field Day took place on the next to last day of our school year. It involved all elementary students who participated in 3 distinct multi-aged shifts (4th grade + PK/KG, 2nd + 5th grades, and 3rd +1st grades). Each large group was divided into 9 mixed level teams which then moved through 9 activity stations together in the space of about an hour.
The all-faculty professional development session was scheduled for an hour and 40 minutes and was designed to get participants thinking and talking about dominant culture in both broad and specific terms. There were over 160 folks on site and it was my second visit to the campus as a speaker.
How do I know the events were successful?
Participants told me!
At field day, it was the smiles, laughter and pure delight among students which provided the telltale signs that the plan was working. Additionally, several colleagues commented on the smooth organization. They marveled at the students’ relative independence and shared how much they enjoyed themselves!
At the PD session, it was the level of buzz during and after the session that wowed me. Several people thanked me individually and there are few words to describe the satisfaction of seeing colleagues so deeply engaged in conversation with each other around the given topic. It was marvelous and wildly affirming.
What contributed to the successes?
In both cases I had remarkable autonomy to build the event that I thought would yield the best results for participants. As my friend M pointed out, I was trusted to use my professional judgment to get the job done. I’m grateful for that insight because it was not at all on my radar. It means I felt empowered and supported already in my planning to correctly assess the needs and desires of my audience.
I applied my specific knowledge of my audience and catered to their anticipated goals. Since Field Day is set up for students between the ages of 4 and 11, it takes some real thought to select activities that will be both accessible and fun to play for all levels. My strategy for addressing this was to include a fair amount of choice at different stations, like building with hula hoops and/or stacking cups, shooting at a bigger or smaller soccer goal, swinging on the climbing rope from a higher or lower platform. Simple options that make a big difference.
Previous to the PD session I met with organizers to hear about their hopes and aims for the opportunity. Those conversations were clarifying and informative for all of us. I was able to reiterate my role as facilitator, not as a DEIJ consultant. I also understood that my session should help prepare the audience for a follow-up discussion of concerns specific to their community.
I planned both events with maximum participant activity in mind. Field day is clearly about kids being active and having fun with each other. Stations were familiar to students and the multi-aged groups allowed for peer teaching and support where necessary. So the teachers supervising the stations could mostly step back and let the kids get on with the game with very little intervention. For the adult PD, I built in two significant chunks of time where they were in dialogue with each other: a 15 min dyad on a walk and then a 6-8 member breakout session for about 25 minutes. My primary message to them: Their listening to each other would be more important and useful than time spent only listening to me. Their dialogue becomes the basis for what happens next and must therefore be prioritized.
What are some foundational beliefs that show up?
- I trust my participants to do their best.
- I am conscious of my role as facilitator – one who makes things easier, accessible, worth doing.
- I love the idea of handing over the keys to the experience to participants. The content is structure we build and/or enter.
- I plan for my own enjoyment.
- I design opportunities for participants to learn from and support each other.
- I apply time boundaries appropriate to the occasion and audience.
I’ve written before about the joys and challenges of facilitating groups. It is work that I continue to prize because of its potential to truly shift perspectives. It’s deeply creative and relational work that in many ways brings out my best qualities. In the role of facilitator I find that I am inherently affirming of the folks in my sphere, I’m able to show up for them in my most authentic form, even if I’m on the stage holding the mic.
That said, I am aware that I have no desire to make it my day job. I probably love it so much because it’s intermittent and highly contextual. It’s the opposite of a grind. There’s a relief in seeing how this work helps me remember who I am and to what ends.