6 Tips for Designing Engaging Professional Development Sessions

Written by Gen

Engagement seems to be a common concern right now. What sometimes gets lost in the talk about student engagement is the fact that teachers need to be engaged in their professional learning as well in order for classroom instruction to become more engaging for students. Literacy coaches have their work cut out for them in this regard since groups of teachers have diverse backgrounds, strengths, and goals.

Recall the last professional development session that you attended. Was it great? Interesting? Boring? Painful to get through? Did you walk away with a greater understanding of the topic? What made it that way? If developing and delivering professional development is a part of your job, your goal, most likely, is to have teachers walking away not only feeling good about your session but able to put the information to good use in their own instruction. Here are a few suggestions for how to accomplish these two goals:

1. Make it fun. But not too fun.

People like to have fun. Just not during paid working hours when there are a million other things that need to be accomplished. Strike a balance between amusing features and serious learning. The fun cannot overshadow the learning, so be entertaining, but keep in mind that teachers do want the serious stuff- what they really don’t want is to feel like their time has been wasted. Make sure they walk away with new learning. Sessions that are overly creative may look like they engage the audience, but the purpose is to have teachers bring some new learning back to the classroom, so make it fun. But not too fun.

Here are a few simple ways to include some fun, without overshadowing the purpose:

  • Door prizes: Have a few coveted school supplies on hand to give away at intervals during your PD session. Post-it notes, Sharpies, and stickers are always a safe bet.
  • Partners: Allow teachers to have a say in who they work with if you are using partners or small groups. Mix up how many in a group for diversity. Move from partners to quads, to whole group.
  • Themes: Put a theme into your PowerPoint and carry it through into other aspects of your presentation. For example, when I presented the topic of Higher Order Thinking, I used the acronym, HOT. My presentation theme was a fireplace. Door prizes were mugs and hot chocolate, staff summarized learning on logs to feed the fire. We kept track of our “burning questions.” All protocols were academic in nature, however, with analysis and discussion.
  • Multi-media: Whenever possible, provide information with different media, videos, articles, sorting, etc.

2. Make it worthwhile.

It is important to remember that a classroom teacher will be thinking about all of the work back in the classroom unless what you are presenting is perceived as more valuable. Make sure your presentation has a clear goal and a way for a teacher to easily apply the knowledge the next day. If it can’t be applied immediately, if it requires more thought, planning, or preparation, it’s not going to happen. Sometimes you cannot choose the topic that you are presenting, so before crafting your session, carefully consider how to make the topic relevant to staff.

3. Consider your time and space.

Be careful not to squeeze too much learning into your session. Trying to do too much in too little time will not result in carry over to the classroom. Carefully decide on how much to cover based on how long you have and how many sessions you have. Be sure there is time to construct knowledge and debrief the learning. If you provide choices or alternate locations for stations, be sure to take into account how long transitions will take. It always takes longer than I think it will!

Consider the physical space and the number of participants when crafting activities. If your room is going to be packed, it might not be the right time to use a protocol like “pack and stack” or other ways to get everyone moving. Instead, plan activities that can be done at table groups.

4. Consider your audience.

Ask yourself these questions: What do the teachers like? Do they like to talk? Are they quiet? Does everyone in the room get along? What type of learners are they? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, it can be quickly gathered through the use of an anonymous electronic survey. If you find that you have a wide variety of personality types, build choices into your presentation that takes them into account. I have found over the years that asking participants to go out of their comfort zone is counterproductive. If you plan an activity that makes someone feel uncomfortable, that participant will spend the time thinking about how to get out of the task rather than thinking deeply about the topic.

5. Craft it carefully.

Make sure your presentation has a clear goal and a way for teachers to easily apply the knowledge the next day. If it can’t be applied immediately, if it requires more thought, planning, or preparation, it’s not going to happen. Take into account all that you know about your staff, their personal goals, and the topic. Go above and beyond in your understanding of the topic and project possible questions and concerns. It is also important for the presentation to fit your own style. Information will best be conveyed if you feel comfortable and prepared.

6. Flexibility

Build in a little flexibility. Have alternatives for if your presentation takes too much time, or too little, or when you have more people than expected or fewer. Think about what you might do if what you think will be easily understood causes a lot of confusion, or if what you thought would take a long time to work through is easily understood. Be prepared to be spontaneous.

Think back to the professional development session you recalled at the beginning of this article. How many of these tips did the presenter follow?

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