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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.

Professional Development Opinion

If You’re Conducting PD, Seek Engagement With Educators

By Peter DeWitt — September 14, 2021 4 min read
Theory and Practice
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About five years ago, I was running workshops and feeling as though they were one-sided. As much as I loved delivering content, meeting educators, and engaging in conversations, I felt that there was something missing. Many of us who facilitate workshops have bios, which many directors of professional development use to introduce us at the beginning of each session. However, I wanted to know more about the audience than just what I heard from the directors on a pre-engagement conference call.

As a former teacher of 11 years and a school principal for eight years, I always took time to get to know students, teachers, and families. Of course, much of that was due to the fact that we are trying to engage in a community when we teach or lead. Still, why can’t we create a sense of community within the time it takes us to run a workshop?

I took to Facebook and posted a question on my wall. I wrote that I was trying to find a way to engage with audiences before I showed up in person to actually engage with the audience and asked my “friends” if they had any suggestions. Pernille Ripp, the renowned teacher, literacy advocate, and all-around good human, responded by asking if I ever thought about using pre-engagement surveys. I answered that I had not, but I was interested in creating one.

So, I did…

I took some time to ask the basic questions, such as their location (i.e., country, state, city) to differentiate among the surveys since I had multiple engagements on the calendar. I asked their position within their school, so I could connect the content to their context. I asked if they were in an urban, rural, or suburban setting and then began asking a few deeper questions such as:

  • What they wanted out of the session
  • Their biggest challenge
  • Their specific area of need
  • What they knew about instructional leadership
  • What they knew about student engagement and how they currently engaged students
  • Those of us who run workshops should be more interested in our audience, so I asked a few more open-ended questions such as:
  • What did they wish the presenter knew about them
  • What was one question they wished I had asked that I didn’t

Over the years since using pre-engagement surveys, I have received some deep and reflective responses that changed the way I felt about running workshops.

What I Have Learned

For full disclosure, there were many participants who never filled out the survey. However, there were many more who took time to fill out the survey, and their answers provided me with insight into their challenges or areas of growth, as well as their positions, so I could make sure that the content fit into their context.

Equally as important to all of the information they provided about their positions and needs was the fact that they wanted to provide me with insight into how hard they work or their passions.

Some examples are:

That I have struggled to gain basic foundations of educational practices, but that I gain “bits and pieces” and have a broken understanding ... and have gained mentoring in broken environments and over the last 4 years, I have strived to become a great educator and will continue to strive to do better each year. Teaching is becoming a love for me, and I cannot imagine doing anything different. I cannot imagine my life different now, even with all of the real-world experience I have before now.

I am a classroom teacher who is currently enrolled in the Educational Leadership master’s program through USM. I am very passionate about instructional leadership and looking forward to learning more about implementing instructional leadership schoolwide.

Sometimes their examples provide me with an important heads-up such as:

1- that we are adults and will need some leeway in directing our own learning 2- it is always helpful to have leaders model the best instructional practices, not just lecture about those practices.


I don’t know who you are, have never heard of you or read your books, but in looking at your work on safeguarding LGBTQ students, I am intrigued. I just hope you are better than the last guy who showed up and had us build houses out of popsicle sticks.

Why We Should Do It

I’m thankful for the guidance Pernille gave to me because as workshop facilitators, activators of learning, or whatever we may call ourselves, if we truly read the responses on the pre-engagement surveys, we will be much better prepared when we meet our audiences in person or remotely.

Educators, especially now during COVID, need to feel valued and heard. They don’t need more experiences where they are talked at, and pre-engagement surveys can help us foster ways to inspire active learning and not just sit-and-get.

Even for the on-demand, asynchronous courses I teach through Thinkific, I do pre-engagement surveys because the process allows me to connect with those taking the courses in deeper ways, and in many instances, creates a relationship or friendship that can last much longer than the time it takes them to take the course.

In the End

As workshop facilitators and providers of professional learning and development engage with audiences around content that will hopefully help impact student learning, one of the important components that they can focus on is how to engage participants before they ever actually meet.

Pre-engagement surveys do not have to be lengthy; in fact, it is better if they are not. Asking a mixture of content-related questions along with open-ended questions is key. Using the answers to the pre-engagement surveys in the workshops is also necessary so participants understand we listened and learned from them.

Again, for full disclosure, I’m always looking for ways to be more human in my interactions. Running workshops is an honor, and I should not be the focus because the learners in the room and the content should be the focus. Pre-engagement surveys go a long way to help that happen.

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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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