When I first became a professional development provider, much of what I was capable of doing was limited to speaking engagements, short-term projects, and workshops. I worked on a team that served over 25 different school districts, each comprised of multiple buildings. I was one of two literacy specialists in my department. Resources were tight. Time was tighter. I knew I had a lot to learn, and I knew that if I were ever going to work to my potential and serve others well, I would need to learn it. In April of 2008, I took a tremendous risk and left my position in order to make that happen.
Three years have past, and this blog is just as old as my career as an independent consultant now. Rather than celebrating those anniversaries though, I think it would be more meaningful to reflect on what I’ve learned and how that’s changed the way I approach my work. I began that conversation here, but that isn’t where it ends, and I know that the discoveries I’ve made have begun to influence the way that I blog too. That’s a different post for a different day, though.
The fact is that as an independent consultant, I’m still invited to lead workshops, keynote, or speak sometimes, and I enjoy this for what it provides me–the chance to help others gain an awareness of what is possible and the opportunity to meet other incredible educators. I often stay connected to the people I meet during these experiences long after our sessions are over, and I often find myself connecting them to others that I know as well.
That’s the fun stuff, but I know that much of it doesn’t really stick. Not the way that most teachers want it to, anyway.
As a result, much of what I do has become a bit more complicated than that. Each day brings a bit of hard learning, a bit of hard work, and a number of hard problems to try to solve. Over the years, I’ve learned that things get a bit messier once I move beyond workshops.
Whether I’m facilitating strategic planning sessions, engaging in instructional coaching, or leading inquiry teams, increasing opportunities for teachers to learn, collaborate, and lead change independent of me always my primary objective.
I have to remind myself of this often, because it’s far too easy to fall into some common pd patterns that prevent this from happening. In my experience, these include, but are certainly not limited to:
- Putting “stuff” at the center of our experience rather than learning.
- Delivering content to teachers rather than facilitating in ways that provoke learning.
- Assuming that anything that calls itself a “research-based” practice is appropriate for the unique circumstances at hand.
- Failing to use varied forms of evidence to guide decision-making.
- Promoting the notion that data are merely numbers and that we collect it in invasive ways.
- Doing work for teachers or things to them rather than creating the conditions that enable them to question, test, study, learn, create, and collaborate together.
- Acting as an independent agent within systems, rather than investigating other initiatives that have already been unfolding, connecting myself to those leading them, and ensuring that the work that I’m facilitating aligns with those efforts rather than derailing them.
- Making judgments based upon what I think I know rather than engaging in active listening.
- Engaging in active listening merely to hear what a person is saying rather than hearing a person’s heart as well.
- Doing what people want me to do in order to avoid conflict, rather than asking that people seek better understanding of what it is they might need me to do in order to realize their vision or goals.
How has this changed the way I approach my work inside of schools and beyond them over the years?
- When I’m asked to “train” teachers in researched-based practices, “give” them solutions, or “provide” them resources, I advocate for the establishment of collegial learning groups or inquiry teams, and I facilitate them in ways that enable the use of evidence, including formative assessment findings and their own research, to guide their decisions. This often challenges assumptions that have been made about which practices, solutions, or resources are the best fit for any team or organization.
- When I’m asked to “coach” teachers in the implementation of promising practices, I approach this as an opportunity to test our hunches about what might work–together. This requires us to build opportunities for quality formative assessment into our experience and to use the findings from them to inform the conclusions we draw.
- When I’m told that state assessment data “proves” that teachers need to improve performance in a particular way, I help groups use varied measures to form better hunches about what students might need. I also speak to the fact that we need teachers to share the expertise they gain from their work with kids inside of classrooms to inform what those other measures seems to suggest.
- Whenever I begin new initiatives inside schools and as I continue work within the districts I’ve been serving for several years, I consistently investigate which other initiatives are underway or beginning, I find out who is facilitating them, and I connect to them immediately. I work to connect their efforts to my own and to be transparent about what I’m doing and why. I ask them to reciprocate and have learned from some incredibly talented people over the years as a result. I’ve also learned some equally important lessons from those who aren’t ready or willing to collaborate in this way, and this enables me to intervene differently as needed.
- I’m honest about what I know and what I have significant experience with. I’m also honest about what I don’t know and what I don’t have as much expertise in. When I know that I’m not the best person for the job at hand, I connect those I serve to the people who are and position myself as a learner instead.
- I say no, kindly and respectfully, when I know that I saying yes would be irresponsible, particularly when people who have less expertise or experience than I do are advocating for processes or approaches whose unintended consequences are potentially destructive. Even if this means being unpopular. Even if it means refusing a contract.
- I’m becoming increasingly adept at evaluating the quality of the professional development that I provide by linking it to change in teacher practice and student performance. This requires me to pay less attention to the opinions teachers might have about whether they merely enjoyed the time they spent with me.
- I’ve learned that if all of the feedback I get is positive and I leave any session feeling it went “perfectly”, I’ve probably inspired very little change, prompted very little learning, or created a false sense of security by making people far too dependent on me. I’ve realized that my best work inspires people to consider things I may not have anticipated, to confront problems they may not want to, and to ponder perspectives and potential that may confound or even frustrate them a bit.
All of this has me reflecting on something else: a few weeks ago, a friend asked me why I tend to shy away from presenting at conferences. Typically, this isn’t an intentional choice on my part. I usually can’t attend because I work five days a week inside of local schools and I am booked in advance of registration announcements. I often regret missed opportunities to meet and connect with people I’ve learned from and come to respect over the years. I have to admit, I question the way that many sessions are facilitated though. I find myself at the front of conference sessions less and less often anymore, and until I know that I can “lead” one in a way that is truly in alignment with what I’m learning about good facilitation, I’m thinking I should probably lay-low in this particular domain.
In the end, it comes down to this: I know that it is really easy for consultants to be a bigger part of the problem than they are a part of the solution. I need to maintain a clear vision of the difference I hope to make in the systems I’m a part of, and I need to check my actions against this diligently. I also need to remember that when all said is done, mistakes will still be made, and I’ll always continue to fail.
I think what I’m realizing is that working to my potential is all about mindfulness, in the end.