Priorities for Positive Professional Development

This month marks workshop season for me. I’ve had the chance to facilitate three workshops in total in the last two weeks (2 versions of one plus a stand alone event). Every time I finish I feel grateful, satisfied and also a little wiser. I’ve been designing and facilitating workshops for at least 7 or 8 years, often for educator conferences in Europe and once in the US. My favorite topics revolve around effective communication and collaborative work.

image by Spelic

One of the things I have learned about myself in this process is how critical it is for me to see myself in my participants. I know what easily bores, tires or frustrates me in a professional learning environment and I take measures to avoid those habits when planning each event. Whatever the specific topic, I have established certain priorities in designing experiences that participants will ideally find stimulating, relevant, and worthwhile. These are:

  • high levels of participant activity – Whether talking, moving, writing, thinking, keeping participants actively engaged in the topic requires a steady diet of activity throughout a session. Sitting and listening may be good for a while but we all need brief breaks to process and digest what we are taking in.
  • Movement – I like to have participants physically move, by walking, standing, switching partners, perhaps even dancing or playing a short game. Movement injects energy into the space and offers a change of pace. Depending on the group’s needs, with movement you can slow things down or shake them up, calm the waters or stir the pot and it can loosen the atmosphere and allow participants to experience each other in a different light.
  • Experience over content. In an adult learning environment we often assume that content is what people are after. My experience tells that this is a “Yes, and” proposition. People want content – skills, tips, tools, ideas that they can use and apply in their specific context AND they want an experience which will help them connect with and retain this precious content. For this reason, I think of the content as a vehicle for creating a meaningful learning experience for participants. This means that processing time, practice and reflection are built into the plan. Being a realist, this priority has helped me see the need for the next:
  • Doing less.  In order to balance content sharing with high participation, I usually decide to cover less content. In my design I allocate the time that participants will need to share their experiences or  think carefully about a subject. Rushing folks through multiple activities is of little use if participants feel stressed and pressured as a result. I strive to be clear about my priorities and plan accordingly.
  • Being present to what the group needs and offers.  This is a broad, catchall way of saying, have an agenda and be flexible enough to tweak or alter it, if the needs of the group demand it. It is also a reminder to be open to the wisdom and experience that resides in the group and seek ways to tap into it – for ultimately, this is the reason we come together at all.
  • Designing a learning experience that I will like.  So far I have enjoyed the privilege of creating the learning experiences that I value. I have not had to deliver anyone else’s message or curriculum. So when I create a plan, I do so with my audience in mind as well as considering which content and methods excite me as the facilitator.

When I manage to pay attention to and recognize these priorities from the design stage through to the workshop’s conclusion, the results for participants and me are remarkably positive.  What has also become apparent to me when I work with adults is how important validation and recognition are. My teaching roots are in physical education, an arena where different people can feel inadequate and lacking at different times and the sentiment is often quite visible. So much of my work is grounded in cultivating an atmosphere in which all skill levels can feel welcome and free to express themselves. In my workshops, a similar frame of mind is critical. Creating a safe environment where participants feel encouraged to share and bring their whole selves to the learning lays the foundation of the work I aim to accomplish with any group.

To this end, I invest time and energy thinking carefully about the language, both verbal and body, that I use to communicate my essential values. I say, Thank you, after nearly every interaction. I try to listen without interrupting. I use an invitational tone of voice. I move around as I speak. I laugh at my own mistakes. These are habits which express who I am and they also represent a conscious and deliberate way of  “showing up” for participants and clients in these special learning spaces.

In my most recent workshops, participant feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And while the content was certainly of interest, what people most often acknowledged was how they felt as a result. Following a workshop on inclusion activities, the room did not empty until 15 minutes later as participants were still deeply engaged in conversation. Inclusion took place. In fact, one participant offered me the best facilitator feedback I believe I can ever hope to receive: “You practice what you preach.”


A hat tip to Laura Thomas (@CriticalSkills1), a facilitator over at Edutopia, who sparked my interest with this post on a recent experience she had with a group of educators. Let there be more positive professional development experiences for educators. We deserve them!


Leaders of Color Roundtable – A First Assessment

Early on in my coaching venture I articulated where I hoped to be most active and with whom. My goal was to work with leaders in education. I suppose I envisioned work with title-holders: principals, chairs, heads, coordinators. In many ways, they remain a primary target group and yet I am noticing a shift in focus.

In the fall I initiated a Roundtable Group for Leaders of Color and I publicized it through a message board of the National Association of Independent Schools website. My vision was to create a safe space for participants to share and exchange ideas at the intersection of identity, leadership and education with colleagues from a variety of schools. Groups were designed to be kept small (2-5) and scheduled to meet online monthly for 90 minutes.  Two groups emerged and our conversations thus far have been especially rich, nuanced and edifying.  Our topics have included leadership, identity, hiring and being hired, collaboration and competition, and individual school context.

As the meeting convener I create an agenda and offer some reading related to our topic and share these electronically. Here’s what I have learned so far:

  • Reflective conversations can be hard to come by for all of us working in schools.
  • When educators claim the opportunity to listen and be heard by colleagues who can relate, space is created for further reflection and grounded practice.
  • Opportunities specifically for leaders of color to engage with each other in this way appear to be few and far between.
  • At the close of our session there is a mutual gratitude for the time and support that we have shared with each other.

Of all of the initiatives I have started this year, developing  these groups counts as my proudest.  As a concept and practice, the Leaders of Color Roundtable has a future. Each conversation opens the door to much wider dialogues happening in our respective school communities while providing ample room for the individual to explore related terrain.

6 months into this work – the work of  groups: of space making, support fostering and community building – this is the work I recognize as genuinely soul-stirring for me. The more I work with and in groups, the more I realize how much self-care benefits from outside support. Going forward I relish the opportunity to engage more fully with groups, with leaders of color, with the gifts of humanity to create bonds which support, uplift and encourage.


*If joining such a group interests you, please contact me via Twitter @edifiedlistener.

On Becoming Adaptive

...and I'm in.  CC via

…and I’m in.       (CC via

When we experience new learning that is exciting and valuable, we are often bubbling over with the desire to share and to envelop others in our heartfelt enthusiasm. I’ve recently returned from exactly that kind of learning experience.  A seminar where I left feeling love and gratitude for everyone in the room, where I had daily “a-ha” moments which nearly knocked me off my seat, where the teaching was so good that it often felt more like magic than learnable practice –  that’s the kind of experience it was.

I attended the Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar ( which was hosted by the Tashkent International School in Uzbekistan (TIS). The 4-day training which focuses on developing individual and group capacities in leadership and collaboration was sponsored by the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) of which my school is a member. A small contingent of international educators from Delhi, Dubai, Bangkok, Vienna and Vilnius joined the TIS staff in creating a tremendously trustful atmosphere for exchange and community. Our facilitators, Carolyn McKanders and Fran Prolman,  guided us expertly through a rich program of awareness raising, skill building and actionable next steps. And yet, the content, as compelling and applicable it may be in its own right, was not the star of the show. No, the real star, the giant outcome for me, was the overarching process which I would dare to call a transformation.

In four days it’s possible to cover a lot of content. And we did that. What was different was that at every stage we were consistently exposed to these four things:

  • Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.
  • There was 100% transparency on the What, Why and How of each step.
  • We received both modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced
  • Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.

Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.

Both facilitators engaged participants by being authentic, welcoming and approachable. Questions were encouraged. Attention to feedback was meticulous, so that small changes in the program which better served the group’s understanding were honored and carried out. As a participant, I felt empowered to participate fully without fear of stepping on the facilitators’ toes. In the Adaptive Schools framework, I believe this might fall under the heading of “promoting a spirit of inquiry.”

100% transparency of the What, Why and How of each step

Skilled educators understand the value of making it clear to students, participants and group members why something is going to be done, exactly what it is that is going to be done, and how it will be done. Throughout the training every strategy, reference point and skill was described, explained and recorded, so that the information was consistently visibly available – posted on the walls all around our meeting space. By the last day we were literally surrounded by the fruits of our learning. If I was ever unclear as to what we were doing and why, all I needed to do was look around or ask a question. I never needed to leave thirsty for an answer.

Our facilitators provided modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced.

This practice really hit home for me. “What? Why? How?” is in fact a strategy which says that you answer these three questions for the group before asking group members to do something.  You play with an open hand by providing clear rationale and reliable instructions. This frees group members up to actually focus on the task at hand rather than second guessing the possible motivations or likely outcomes.  This piece is so important because it, demonstrates and reinforces an uncontested respect for group members’ time, presence and energy.  And the effect of seeing the strategy in action and then actually practicing it in real time builds a participant’s sense of efficacy. Seeing is believing – believing that, “yes, I could try this, too.”

Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.

The oft repeated sentences offered by our facilitators spell it out: “The learning is not in doing the activity, it is in the reflection” and “any group that is too busy to reflect on process is too busy to grow.”  We don’t get smarter by simply doing, we need to reflect on what happened and how, in order to make sense of it on our own terms and eventually internalize what holds meaning. In the space of 4 days, there were no superfluous activities. All of our doings had a purpose and at each stage we were given opportunities to process our thinking sometimes silently, or by talking with a partner or in a small group; sometimes in writing and in pictures. This habit of reflection steadily contributed to group trust, participant efficacy and enthusiasm, and a gradual anchoring of the content in our lived experiences.  Brilliant!

While there may be plenty of resources, agencies and consultants out there that offer to teach a group how to run more successful meetings, boost employee morale or even how to build and sustain professional learning communities, the capacity to stimulate genuine transformation remains rare.  The Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar achieved more than most by attending to the needs of adult learners in fundamentally deep ways. Rather than focusing exclusively on tips, tricks and raw skills, we addressed the significance and contribution of identity, mission and values in the mix. In order to do that we had to make ourselves a little vulnerable from time to time. In some cases we had to let go of a few long held ideas while making friends with new ones. Carolyn and Fran, by applying the four characteristics mentioned above provided the space, structure and atmosphere for the group to feel capable and prepared for true transformation to take place.


For more information on the work of Adaptive Schools, please visit the thinking collaborative website (see above) and consider getting a hold of the sourcebook: The Adaptive School, Garmston and Wellman, 2009, Christopher Gordon Publishers, Norwood, MA.



What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Back in August I joined a professional life coaches group on LinkedIn. As a freshly minted leadership coach testing the waters of self-employment for a year, this seemed like a wise idea. Here’s my picture so far:
There are a ton of coaches out there, scattered across the globe.
Since we’re all on this particular networking platform it makes sense that people use the space to call attention to their unique offerings.
Sometimes a contributor posts a link to a useful article or interesting video.
Some coaches post questions, usually about the business side of things.
It seems that the vast majority of us need or would like to have more clients. Some folks have some tricks of the trade they are willing to share (for a small fee).
Several contributors seem like actors in an empty theater, just hoping that someone, anyone will stumble across their special slice of heaven on offer.
If you read a few introductory tag lines, you may be overcome with either infinite optimism that You Can Change Your Life Right Now or perhaps remarkable cynicism that what sounds like so much snake oil marketing is perhaps just that, backed, however, by someone with really good intentions.

The more notices that land in my in-box, the more convinced I become that this probably is not the right group for me. If more of the conversations were about the practice of coaching – good, bad and in between – I would feel more inclined to stay and contribute. As is, I feel like just one more face in that immense target audience who ought to be wooed, won over, impressed and ultimately sold. That’s not what I came for and I see this set-up is not serving me. At all.

My year of self-employed coaching is going just fine if I allow it to just go. Focusing on doing my best coaching every session with every single client is the best way I can think of to retain great clients and attract new ones. Extolling the virtues of my offerings through random social media appearances will likely never appeal; recruiting the most interesting and forward-thinking clients I can discover absolutely does.

If you happen to fit that description (interesting and forward-thinking), I am on the lookout for you and the lessons you have to share. Until that time, thrive, be happy and pay no mind to the snake oil sale underway in your neighborhood.

The Way of the Coach CC CC

Professional coaching is a passion. When I immerse myself in the process of accompanying my client, then I feel much closer to my very best than in many other situations. And some of my deepest learning related to coaching has come about by instructing others in the practice.

Back in 2005 I trained a group of high school girls to become peer coaches in their school community.  I designed the course and wrote all the handouts. This was during the early stages of my formal training.  Re-reading the materials I developed for them at the time, I am struck now by the clarity of my belief in the power of the coaching alliance.  In preparing them to conduct full coaching conversations I wrote the following:


You are the most important resource in coaching others: your precious attention, presence, and personal style. When you turn your attention and focus it intently and generously on your conversation partner, you are already doing your partner and the world a great service. Every time you open your ears and heart to not only hear what your partner is saying but also to feel and understand what he or she is experiencing and offering, you become a source of energy rather than a drain. You create space rather than close it off. You welcome and accept the other rather than dismiss him or her. This is the role of the coach and each of us possesses the wonderful potential to serve those around us in this way.

When you step into the role of the coach, bear these things in mind. Your presence and capacity to listen are to be given the highest priority. As long as these two channels are completely open and free, your competency in the coaching role will grow and become increasingly natural. You won’t need to grope for the next right question. The questions will come on their own, because you are there where your client needs you to be. Finding the best questions for the situation, person and intended direction require time and practice but above all, begin with your willingness to truly accompany and be with your conversation partner.

Be patient with yourself. Free yourself from feeling that you need to provide your partner with answers or advice. The attention you shower on your client and the first rate listening you offer are already huge gifts that can make a substantial difference to someone.

Thank you for your willingness to make the world around you a better place.  (Peer Coaching, 2005)

While it has been nearly a decade since I wrote those words, they are a great help to me today. I know well that professional training takes plenty of time, money and a strong commitment to work, above all, on oneself. Professional coaching programs abound and are expanding around the world. Be that as it may, learning to listen fully, deeply, and without judgement need not cost large sums.  Cultivating a form of conversation which empowers, uplifts and sustains others should not require certification. We can all learn these skills and be purposeful in how we apply them in the varied situations we face.  These are the inroads to building trust and modeling empathy. As Tony Sinanis argues in a recent post, we need both trust and empathy to build successful schools, and I would argue that this holds true for human organizations, in general.  The way of the coach provides valuable guidance on this path.

Let us take heart, be brave and risk being as present as we possibly can with our fellow travelers.  Or, how else shall we set about making that proverbial difference?


The Scale Tipper

In coaching, the star of the enterprise is the client, not the coach. The client does the work, sets the goals, and follows through. That’s how results are achieved. The coach facilitates this process by raising critical questions, offering direct feedback and providing a source of unswerving commitment to the client’s agenda. Clients build their own momentum toward the desired outcome. The coach’s assist tips the scales in favor of success.

As a coach I am your dedicated scale tipper.

“Wrong Way” Need Not Apply



If you are starting something new as I currently am, you may find yourself running into obstacles you could not have easily anticipated beforehand. And some of those obstacles may prove to be downright discouraging. They seem to bear signs saying: Dead End, Wrong Way, or Do Not Enter. If you are typical rule follower as I tend to be, you may take those signs at face value and  do what appears to make sense: turn around, change course.  At present I see those signs in front of me and I’m thinking: how can I be sure that these signs apply to me? Maybe these signs are for cars but I’m a pedestrian.  What if these signs are outdated and no longer accurate?  How brave am I feeling right now?  What if I ignore this sign and keep on going?

That’s the abstract. The concrete version goes like this: my head is full of great ideas, plans, offerings. So I seek my audiences, find out who might have an interest and make the necessary pitches. And then I wait. And wait. And wait. Then I come up with more plans, more ideas, more offerings and share. The waiting for responses drags on. The silence and the waiting become my daily companions.  The waiting is my obstacle, the lack of response: a wrong way sign.

While I contemplate the potential accuracy of that “wrong way” sign,  I refer to this quote from The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist in which she explains the power of sufficiency as a mindset:

“Sufficiency resides in each of us, and we can call it forward. It is a consciousness, an attention, an intentional choosing of the way we think about our circumstances. In our relationship with money, it is using it in a way which expresses our integrity; using it in a way that expresses value rather than determines value. Sufficiency is not a message about simplicity or about cutting back and lowering expectations. Sufficiency doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive or aspire. Sufficiency is an act of generating, distinguishing, making known to ourselves the power and presence of our existing resources, and our inner resources. Sufficiency is a context we bring forth from within that reminds us that if we look around us and within ourselves, we will find what we need. There is always enough.” (p.74-75)

Wait a minute. In the scenario above  I have of course made my waiting a burden; something to be gotten through, endured.  I have given the obstacle and the signs their meaning.  And yet, waiting is a choice. Seeing the waiting as an obstacle or an opportunity is a choice.  I can choose to view and  use the time differently. I can create value in this time at my disposal rather than watch it evaporate untapped.  This assumed period of “inactivity” between creating and connecting becomes a resource.  If I dare to  “call forward” a sense of inner sufficiency, I create the opportunity for developing resources around me.  Once I realize that I am too curious to quit now, that is when and how those “wrong way,” “Dead End” and “Do Not Enter” signs lose their power over me and my judgment.  I let go of scarcity as my default mindset and press on.

To scarcity thinking, I hold up my own STOP sign and say:

I am waiting and I am productive.

I’m scared and I am enough.

I’m uncertain and I am enough.

I’m taking a risk and I am enough.

I fear that I won’t have, do, or be enough and yet, I am and continue to be enough.

Here I go.

(For those of you who following this as a process, it is an example of “reframing” which enables you to change the perspective on a topic and work from that new perspective.)