Try on someone else’s shoes – Alternative summer PD

Shoes to try on...

Shoes to try on…

Opportunities for learning abound when we open ourselves to the possibilities.
Here’s an example: My 6 year old son is attending summer day camp at my school this week. For him it’s a novel situation. He’s involved with peers who hail from all over the world and speaks English all day long (instead of German). He’s familiar with the school but is not a student there. He is having a blast and enjoys telling me about all the games they play and what he made during arts and crafts. The difference for me is that I get to take on the role of parent/customer on my home turf. And in this case, it’s awesome.

I drop him off with my smiling and good humored colleagues. He then starts chatting with his favorite counselors, most of whom are alumni or high school students whom I taught or coached at one point. I am also acutely aware of my responsibilities as a parent in making the cooperation a good one: packing him a good lunch, putting on the sunscreen, respecting the pick-up and drop-off times. When I come to pick him up, I get to stand among the other parents: relaxed, unhurried and so glad to be on the receiving end of excellent care and service. My appreciation for what my colleagues do in these days to challenge, encourage and delight my youngest is immeasurable. What a gift it is to be able to experience the operation from the other side!

This got me thinking about how valuable it can be for us not only as educators, simply as people, to shift our typical perspective and try on someone else’s shoes for a bit. It might be as easy as acknowledging the good work that someone is doing with your child or children and considering the specific elements which contribute to making that a reality. Other contexts present other opportunities. Listening to my oldest son describe the details of his creative process in putting together a well edited video of his last big drum and bass set and feeling his disappointment when the rendering got stuck some 20 hours in helped me think about the challenges of making art and the personal investment it requires. While researching for my coaching practice I recently enjoyed a conversation with a high school principal in which I asked him about the demands, rewards, and challenges of his job. The anecdotes and reflections he shared with me proved thoroughly enriching and enlightening. My curiosity was rewarded tenfold thanks to his openness and a generous time frame. He afforded me the chance to try on his leadership shoes and all I did up front was request a conversation.

Going to a conference? Take advantage of being the participant/learner and benefiting from someone else’s efforts to enhance understanding, generate enthusiasm or spark action.  And before you unleash the criticism, remind yourself of the bravery and preparation that most likely went into creating the offering. If you were his or her coach, what feedback would you give to help that person do better the next time? Try on the shoes.

While the summer is a great stretch of time for educators to explore a variety of professional development options, it can also provide countless opportunities for us to engage in the other PD: Personal Development. In these situations we can actively strengthen and grow the greatest difference-making resource we have at our disposal: our full humanity. That said, I see that  the muscles I really need to train this summer are : outreach, connection and perspective.  There are so many different shoes out there to see and try on!  My PD agenda just got a whole lot richer and deeper.

Being seen as the coach


I did it!  I delivered my workshop on “Co-Active Coaching Techniques for Better Communication” at an international educators’ conference and loved every minute of it.  The primary focus was on introducing and practicing active listening, paraphrasing, the use of open questions and demonstrating how these skills converge during a coaching dialogue.

What did my participants take away from the session?

An appreciation for:

“Open questions. They show you are interested in what people want to say.”

“[The] combination of different techniques to form a whole (duplicating, open questions…)”

“Open questions and giving time to listen.”

Some realizations:

“I realized that I don’t “ask myself” the deeper questions I often ask others.”

“I want to paraphrase and duplicate more.”

“I will particularly use the “you say,…” in active listening.”

What did I learn in the process?

I learned that when I take on the role of the coach, I bring my best authentic self to the task and some things begin to happen:

I feel myself flexing my integrity muscles.
I authorize myself to soar and in doing so, encourage others to take wing, make the leap, run the risk; to find their own music and share it.
I resist that persistent urge to keep my coaching a secret.
I make my practice public (by offering workshops).
I accept the vulnerability that comes with putting my work out in the world.
I get to live my passion and deliver on a promise to myself.
I open myself to new contacts and unexpected conversations.

Educators talk a lot about goals, outcomes and processes.  These were all part of my positive workshop experience.  And yet the piece that truly makes me hardly able to wait until the next opportunity: the sheer joy of coaching others!  That’s how I know I’m in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing.

What a blessing!

Keeping the PoCC Conversation Going

Celebrating with Dr. Hazel Symonette and Caroline Blackwell

Celebrating with Dr. Hazel Symonette and Caroline Blackwell

One of the things about attending excellent conferences is that one often leaves feeling empowered, energized, ready for action.  And then you return to your reality.  Not everyone else has been where you have been, has experienced the positives you have experienced.  You are feeling warmed up and limber. Many others may be feeling lethargic and sleepy.  This is the time when our best and reinvigorated selves need to remember to be kind; to be understanding; to become bridges and not the fence.

Before coming back to school this morning, I sent an e-mail to my colleagues in the elementary:

Dear colleagues,

I spent the better part of last week attending the National Association of Independent Schools’ (NAIS) People of Color Conference (PoCC) in Washington, DC.  In a nutshell I would describe my experience there as stimulating, resonant and uplifting.  In contrast to typical professional development conferences, PoCC provides opportunities for educators to engage in conversations which begin with social identity (race, gender, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, etc.)  as the context for addressing the what and how of our work in school communities. Equity and social justice are on the table throughout the conference.


This means that participants have space to consider and celebrate the intricacies of individual identity and the tremendous wealth of our collective diversity.  In this conference I was encouraged to speak about my experience as an African-American woman working in a European international school setting and to welcome others to share their unique identity and context perspectives.


The conference boasts high levels of participation: just over 2300 adults and 1400 students who attended their own Student Diversity Leadership Conference.  The caliber of keynote speakers is outstanding. Over the three days we welcomed activist Daniel Hernandez, award winning author Junot Diaz, Congresswoman Dr. Marisa Richmond and NPR’s Michel Martin.  Additionally, I enjoyed the privilege of co-presenting a breakout session with 3  Klingenstein alumni of color on the benefits of our online coaching experience last spring.


My learning from this conference has been particularly valuable and rich. I invite you to ask me about it.  We all have complex and interesting identities which we bring to work every day and the astounding diversity we create and navigate in our school community is worthy of our reflection and celebration.  In closing the conference, Michel Martin encouraged each and every participant to “keep the conversation going.”  This message to all of you is a step in that direction.


Thank you and it is great to be back! J




It occured to me during my long journey back home that I wanted to share my wins and discoveries from PoCC with colleagues and friends without overwhelming them.  That’s how I began crafting this message. The response has been remarkably positive and appreciative.  “Keep the conversation going”  provides a useful perspective on how to bring our best experiences back to our very unique communities.

Personal Professional Development

Yesterday I had the pleasure of leading a workshop on Team Building and Reflective Conversations.

Work in progress

Work in progress

It was a rare opportunity to pull together several pieces of my recent thinking on teaching, coaching and group dynamics among other topics into a lively learning experience for some of my colleagues.  In my planning for the event I arrived at some critical insights:

  • I don’t need to have all the answers,
  • I cannot plan others’ experiences, and
  • my job lies more in creating space than in conveying content.

These ideas helped me to let go of some typical teacher/leader/presenter tendencies to

  • above all, appear competent,
  • take up most of the air time,
  • fear the unknowable.

What I learned was that participants sincerely appreciate having a chance to do their job well: participate.  That is, to engage, be active, to give as well as receive, to hear and be heard.  Any time that we dare to stand up and volunteer to share our expertise, it is easy to fall prey to a host of expectations, real and imagined, which assure us that we will be doomed unless we have our hands on the controls at all times. And yet we forget that, in many ways, we are often among friends, or among colleagues or folks who share an interest in our topic.  We are surrounded by rich and remarkable resources in the particpants we have before us.  What would happen if we tapped into those resources more fully?  What could we create if we put more effort into facilitating exchange than in animating our power point?  What if we actively shifted the spotlight from presenter/facilitator to participant-contributor?

My guess is that professional development, particularly in the field of education, would be radically enhanced. If many of us who have been carrying the reform banner in favor of a fundamental shift from teaching to learning would actively practice what we preach, fewer educators would dread PD that may be professional but hardly developmental.  It’s also time to begin personalizing and significantly energizing the learning of our teachers.  And it begins by inviting more of them to take the floor, to share the stage and to be recognized as experts and researchers.  It is sustained by encouraging exchange, raising more questions than answers and accepting an outcome in which people may not know more but perhaps understand better.

Here’s what I love about offering a good workshop: many smiles, a good dose of laughter, genuine connection and a sense of time and attention well spent; another healthy investment in my personal and professional development.

Many thanks to my participants extraordinaire: Renee, Sheryl, Otti and Bonnie!