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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

To Improve the Professional Learning Experience, Create a Welcoming Environment

The response can have a powerful impact
By Michael Nelson — August 23, 2023 4 min read
The favorite drinks of participants await them on a conference table, one of several offerings designed to get attendees to think in a new way about leadership.
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Without exception, no matter what you do, you can make a difference in someone’s life. You must be able to name for yourself why your work matters. And if you’re a leader, you need to encourage everyone on your team to do the same thing.
Unreasonable Hospitality, Will Guidara

My Italian grandmother died seven years before I was born, but her lessons of hospitality have been ingrained in me for over 60 years. My grandmother always had a pot of sauce on the stove bubbling away, which she never started from scratch.

She added to its base every day—a few tomatoes, some chopped garlic, a sprig of basil, a parmesan rind, a chicken neck—to improve on what she had. The sauce was there for a reason: to draw a family member, friend, or neighbor into her home where she would welcome them with a seat at the family table.

As the assistant executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA), my responsibility is to create learning experiences for leaders across the state. I’m also one of a team of six kicking off a new two-year monthly hybrid professional learning journey for school building leaders statewide called Next Level Leaders. In these roles, these memories of my grandmother have been impactful.

What’s more, I recently read Unreasonable Hospitality by Will Guidara. Both these things led me to ask our team how we could think differently about how we might start the opening session of Next Level Leaders.

Pre-Engagement Letter

Our pre-learning letter to all registrants, which shared our success criteria, also included a brief survey as a way to get to know each learner on an individual basis. You might assume the typical questions of a survey like this to ask why the participant chose to participate and what they hoped to learn during the two years.

It did. What was different, though, was that the survey also asked about their favorite nonalcoholic beverage, snack, and quote.

The responses came in quickly, and to our surprise, those questions were taken seriously. Even though they did not know why we asked, participants were very specific in giving us their answers.

The Welcome Before Entering the Conference Room

Using my grandmother and Unreasonable Hospitality as our guide, our planning team sought to create a welcome environment before participants entered our conference room.We created not the usual one registration and welcome table, we created five.

Registrants were greeted at the first station with their name tag. From there, they went to the second table where they received a customized glass with a Next Level Leader logo on the front and a quote from Unreasonable Hospitality on the back.

We heard comments like, “This is a different kind of welcome.” Or “Wow, I have never received a glass like this before I walked into a workshop.” It was the third station, however, where their body language and comments shifted. This was where they received their favorite beverage. Some participants shook their heads in disbelief. Some became emotional while others just laughed.

The pace slowed as they walked to the fourth station where each participant received their customized Next Level Leaders journal. The fifth and final station was a magical one. Most of the time at conferences you don’t see the keynote presenters until their stage introductions.

We wanted this experience to be different. Both Jenni Donohoo and Peter DeWitt, the facilitators, greeted each person and handed them a “pen to capture learning.” The participants simply could not believe Jenni and Peter would take the time to greet them.

Adding to the Sauce in a Purposeful Manner

Once in the conference room, we engaged in a conversation about the importance of what they had just experienced. Our team read the picture book Beneath by Cori Doerrfeld.

In this book, a grandfather takes his grandson on a walk and shares with the boy that it is not just what you see that matters, it is also important to explore what lies beneath. That led to beneath conversations about two things:

  • How the welcome made them feel as a participant and learner and how it changed their mindset about being in the program.
  • How doing a similar welcome with the teams they lead could have an impact on the ultimate work of supporting student learning.

Participants reflected individually, discussed in triads, and then moved to a group of six to come up with a word or phrase about the welcome. Each group captured their word or phrase on chart. The charts were placed around the room as a constant reminder throughout the workshop to the feeling of what was beneath the welcome.

A Full-Circle Closure Only Enhances a Powerful Welcome

In professional learning sessions our planning team has attended, the closure is often disconnected from the welcome. Our team wanted to close the session by connecting it to how we opened it.

We read Beneath again, this time asking several participants to do so. In this subtle yet symbolic way, we turned the learning points of the welcome and the book over to them to lead with their teams. Finally, we had them silently read the words and quotes from the charts still hanging around the room. As they read the words on the wall, we unveiled on a screen a large word cloud collectively representing the words from each team’s chart.

The words most frequently used were enlarged and written in bold, enabling participants to see how from the opening of our time together, and throughout, we added just the right learning ingredients. Soon, their teams will return for another school year. We are hoping this learning experience will transform their practice with their teams.

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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.


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