Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Professional Development

I recently gave a workshop to a room full of teachers, which in this particular venue amounted to 150 educators. First, let me say that I don't think I have ever given a 2 1/2 hour workshop to a group this size. In fact, I know I haven't. Although it may appear intimidating to be confronted with 150 educators from pre-school to high school, I felt quite comfortable once we got started.

I thought the workshop was going well and then I started noticing certain things. First of all, I always want to get workshop participants talking, to me and to each other, because I feel that is one way we learn best, and in a group this size with chairs in rows facing forward, there isn't much else to do. There was a bit of discomfort during these times. I used a 3-min pause purposefully, which I often do in workshops and in my classroom, as I wanted the participants to pick up some instructional strategies that they could take back with them to their classrooms. I also referred participants' questions right back at them, just like I do in the classroom. 

The teachers in that room wanted to be given the answers to their classroom conundrums. They weren't interested in or didn't know how to take their own questions and come up with possible solutions to their classroom problems. I probably should have stopped at this point and explicitly pointed out what I was doing though I'm not sure it would have made any difference. Nevertheless, there was participation by some of the teachers present and, when I walked around during share times, there were some interesting conversations going on.

Although the majority of the evaluations were favourable to the workshop, there were 50 or so comments that were mostly negative. As I read through them, I realized that many of them demonstrated uncomfortableness with a method of instruction where the teacher isn't the bearer of all knowledge. The participants asked questions during the workshop and they wanted me to provide all of the answers. Having me and the other attendees respond told them that I didn't know the material and/or that I wasn't well-prepared. Furthermore, some comments revealed that there was not enough background knowledge regarding the topic of the workshop for the participants to hook any prior learning to what they were hearing me talk about; they were expecting a different topic than the one I was there to impart.

So, what do I do with this information? In the classroom, I always adopt the attitude that the worst criticism, even if it's stated in a disrespectful tone, may still teach us something. So what is my take away from this experience? First of all, I will need to do more backgrounding before plunging into any workshop topic. A fun, stress-free oral true/false questionnaire, for example, might be the perfect tool to elicit information from the audience about what they do and don't know about the topic to be addressed. Then, I can adjust the workshop accordingly. In addition, I can be even more explicit about what I am doing during the workshop so that the participants can see the value of it for themselves even if it discomforts them, which obviously was true for this situation.

A piece of advice that I give myself whenever I attend professional development workshops, of my own choosing or mandated by my school or jurisdiction is the following: go into any workshop with an open mind that I will learn something, either from the presenter or the participants. A positive mindset will make all the difference in the world and you'll be surprised at how much more enjoyable and informative a workshop can be. I only wish the 50 participants who left such disparaging comments on my session had come in determined to learn at all costs and be happy about it. They might have walked away with more than a handout. 

How have you responded when a workshop you attended hasn't met with your expectations? How have you expressed your opinion to the workshop presenter? As a presenter, what have you done when you notice discomfort or disagreement about what you are doing in the session? How do you handle these situations?  

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