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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Consultant Confidential: We’re Not Always Happy After Professional Development Either

By Peter DeWitt — October 02, 2016 5 min read
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For eleven years I was a teacher, and a principal for close to eight more years after that. For the last...almost three years...I have been the dreaded consultant. It’s still a position and title I’m getting used to. Truth be told I don’t feel much like a consultant, and really enjoy working with groups. I learn so much, which is not what I thought consultants ever did. In my mind consultants were snake oil salesman selling the greatest and latest potions that will change your life...but rarely ever do.

As consultants running professional development (PD) sessions, we love seeing the eager teachers and leaders walk into the room. They’ve read the books, the blogs, and seen the videos. They’re on Twitter and involved in different Facebook groups. They come with the book highlighted and re-highlighted, and a few extra added post-it notes inside as well. They are super excited!

Despite what the title might suggest, most consultants really like the hard to reach participants too. They’re the ones who inspire us to be more engaging and help us want to come with more practical tools. Those cynical educators are the ones who push back on what we say, and get us to do our best thinking. The dialogue we have with them help deepen our own learning. We love when we have to dig deep.

But there is another group who we don’t always like see coming, because they’re the ones who leave disappointed and it’s too late to engage them. Those are the participants who know it all already. They’ve been there and done that. Despite providing time for those individuals to engage in dialogue with other participants or ask questions from those of us there for the day, they sit back with their arms crossed and engage in confirmation bias.

You know confirmation bias? It’s where they enter into a setting with a belief and only look for the information that will help support that belief. They don’t feel like asking questions of the presenter because they came in with the idea that they know more than the presenter already. Those are the participants many consultants don’t like to see enter into the room because they don’t just put up walls...they bring their own Fort Knox with them, and begin building their fortress with every word the consultant says.

Truth is We Can Both Do a Better Job
Personally, I strongly believe it is the job of the consultant to make sure each and every participant is engaged. That’s not always easy because there are situations where teachers are attending professional development that they know nothing about. They were called the day before and told to be there. They don’t know the research and don’t know the names of the researchers. Additionally, they’re not sure what they’re supposed to do with the information after they learn it, and yet they may have to be turn-key trainers when they return to school. Even with all of that, it’s the job of the consultant to help achieve that final goal.

Consultants need to do a better job of setting up a climate in the morning where participants feel as though they can ask a lot of questions. Actually, more than just asking a lot of questions, they need to feel as though they can ask any questions at all. That means consultants have to share the learning intentions and success criteria, and lower their status that has been established when a superintendent reads the consultant’s amazing bio at the beginning of the day.

Consultants need to listen to the questions that come up, and make sure they’re answering them. And they have to provide time for participants to have dialogue so that they can have real authentic conversations at the same time consultants listen in to hear some of the challenges of the information being shared.

Lastly, (and probably first as well) consultants have to be providing research that challenges participants’ thinking (Timperley), at the same time they provide practical steps to help achieve the final goal that the teacher or leader set for themselves.

As important as what the consultant does, the teacher or leader needs to come to the session with an open mind, and an eagerness to learn. Regardless of whether they chose to be there or were voluntold, there may still be something to learn. Even if it’s the second or third time it’s been taught, there may be something new to pick up.

We, as consultants, get that it’s hard for teachers to leave their classrooms for the day or principals to leave their buildings. Doesn’t that just make all of this even more important. Don’t we all have a responsibility to engage? If teachers or leaders aren’t getting what they need, they need to actually speak up and ask questions that will help them gain a deeper understanding. Too often teachers or leaders won’t do this and they stay in the back of the rook, fold their arms, roll their eyes and say they know all of this already.

If the consultant provides time at the end of the day to create an action plan, participants shouldn’t look at that as a time to check their e-mail or Facebook. They should use it as a time to call the consultant over and ask some deeper questions...or at least some questions they didn’t want to ask in front of the whole group.

In the End
To be honest, being a consultant is hard. People attend PD sessions wanting to be entertained, and don’t always expect to be there to learn. If it’s a one day session and it doesn’t go as well as it could, the participants may talk badly about the consultant. As a teacher or leader I had the benefit of having bad days because I could always follow them with good ones. As a consultant, I may never get a second chance to make a first impression. And not all of my first impressions have been stellar.

If you walk into PD with a close mind, you may walk out with the same one. Consultants need to provide research that will inspire and challenge at the same time they provide practical steps. They also have to make sure they’re listening to questions, and answering them, as well as providing time for dialogue and action planning.

Teachers and leaders participating in PD need to stop expecting consultants to be mind readers and actually speak up when the opportunity arises. Questions create dialogue and deeper understanding. If we expect students to be lifelong learners, we should probably hold ourselves to the same standard.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.