Education Opinion

Non-Traditional PD: Coaches Take Their Learning to the Forest

By Elena Aguilar — March 16, 2013 4 min read
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A “Director of Professional Development” from Iowa emailed this question:

I read the excerpt from your book on PD for coaches. Lately I've been exploring non-traditional forms of PD for the district I support and was wondering if you have ideas on that?"

I’m not sure what she means by “non-traditional,” but just last week I think I may have broken out of a PD Box that has long constrained adult learning; I’m still processing the results of this breakout, but I know it feels big. Big and epiphanous and potentially transformative. Here’s what happened: We left the building and took our learning to the forest. Let me explain.

I lead a team of nine coaches in the Oakland Unified School District, in California, who serve our most struggling middle schools. We spend Fridays in professional learning, reflection, and planning that I design and deliver.

The last few Fridays had been rigorous days of learning. I had a feeling (intuition guides me most of the time) that we needed to slow things down and absorb. We do a lot of inquiry on adult learning theory and are intentional about applying the principles to our work. I emailed our team, “I don’t know if what I am going to propose is based on adult learning theory or not--I just feel like we need a break and a different way to engage in our learning.” I proposed that our Friday PD be held in the Oakland hills while on a hike. They loved the idea.

We had three and a half hours before we needed to be back in our office for another meeting, and as always, I planned this time carefully Coach PD 3.15.13.docx. My coaches are paired with each other in Critical Friend (CF) partnerships. For a couple stretches of the hike I asked them to walk with their CF and respond to different reflective prompts. At one stop--on a grassy knoll overlooking the forest, we engaged in a grounding exercise. I am very committed to supporting my coaches to develop their emotional resilience and there are a number of exercises we use to do this.

The previous Friday, we’d read about the “confrontational stance,” and planned for how to use this coaching approach. Along another stretch of the hike, I asked them to form two groups and share what had happened when they’d used this stance. While walking through the oaks, they told these stories and asked each other probing questions.

At another point, below the redwoods, we stopped and two coaches described the professional development they’ve led this year for a small team of administrators. We learned about how they’d managed conflict in the team they facilitate, how they negotiated the different needs of their learners, and how an inquiry cycle drove professional learning. Every 10-12 minutes, I stopped their story and in pairs, we discussed the connections we were making, the adult learning principles we heard enacted, and the questions that were coming up for us.

For a stretch, I asked coaches to walk in silence--to shift their attention away from conversation and onto the towering trees, damp moss, blooming wild flowers, flowing streams, chirping birds, and so on. We live in a beautiful region.

There was also laughter. Connection. Community. We all like each other tremendously.

As we started our hike, I had said, “I know this is what we need. I know this is learning. But I’m not sure how to justify that we’re having our PD in the redwoods today.”

At the end of our hike, as we circled for appreciations, one coach thanked me. “We talk about teaching the whole child,” he said, “I feel like you are attending to us as whole adults.” Many echoed this sentiment and added comments such as, “We needed this.” And we did.

I’m always looking for evidence that the professional learning I design yields results--I want to see growth in my coaches, and then in their clients. After this morning, I could see and hear and feel how re-energized my coaches were. I also know that they learned something--about professional development, about themselves, about learning.

What the experts say.

After I’d designed the agenda, and emailed it out to my coaches two days before, I came across this in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s book, Leverage Leadership:

The importance of building in such time for reflection cannot be understated. When leadership expert Eric Jensen asked renowned neuroscientist Terry Sejnowski about effective learning strategies, he got a simple answer: 'Learn, discuss, then take a walk.' Though simple, Sejnowski's advice is deeply rooted in the way our brains function. 'The brain is not built for continuous focused input.' Instead, leaders need to make sure that 'stimuli are shut down and the brain can pause to link new information.'" (p.361)

This weekend I started reading Brain Rules, by John Medina. It’s fantastic and super easy to read and so interesting and the first chapter is all about how exercise boosts brain power. In order to think well, we need to move. Our ancestors walked 12 miles a day. That was when our brain grew and when we figured out some key things.

I know my body needs to move. I know we all need to exercise. But I think I’m uncovering a rationale for incorporating walking into work, specifically, into professional development for educators. I’m going to think about this. I might do an experiment with my team and take us on hikes every week for 6 weeks--and see what affect that has on our practice. And then I want to think about how we bring teachers into professional learning that is more aligned to what our brains need.

But the being in the forest is not only about the movement. It’s also about reminding ourselves of something beyond the struggles in our schools, about the fresh air, and the connections that form within ourselves and between each other when we’re reminded and oxygenated. I guess this is “non-traditional” PD.

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