Twelve Grand Truths of Leading a Workshop

Yoda Wise

Dear Workshop Leader,

Don’t take this personally. I’ve been where you are right now, plenty of times, and I know it’s not an easy task. 

Any time you’re trying to drag a roomful of teachers through required district PD, or breakout sessions at a conference somewhere, or state training on the latest curriculum hoops, it’s a tough gig. Teachers make the worst students.

But if you’ll allow me to be so bold, a few words of advice from someone who’s also been where they are right now… far too many times? 

You don’t have to be the funniest, smartest, or most energetic person in the world to run a successful teacher training. In fact, there are some fairly straightforward things anyone can do to dramatically increase the odds of a decent workshop.

Here, I’ll use big letters so it’s extra serious and true:

Twelve Grand Truths of Leading a Workshop

1. Have a plan. Flexibility is great, but meandering through the day without clear direction or explicit goals is both insulting and frustrating for your audience. Just because you have tons of time to fill doesn’t mean you should blatantly waste it.

If there’s a good reason to change direction, that’s great – but make it a clear change, not an utter lack.

2. Learn the technology ahead of time. I realize you were promised a certain set-up and it didn’t happen, or you asked for internet and it’s not available. But you’ve known for at least a day or two that you were going to be leading today, so do us both a favor and figure out how stuff works ahead of time. 

Come early and use the provided computer. Test the projector. Practice opening apps and closing windows, and try pulling something from your flash drive. There’s no shame in struggling, but need we watch? 

Of course you never RELY on technology to cooperate. Just like in class, have a plan for when the computers rebel. But you know this… right?

3. Don’t read your presentation or the handouts to us. You think I’m kidding, but despite being something of a cliché for the past decade, people still do this to us ALL the TIME. 

If there are excerpts which simply must be covered verbatim, fine – but reading Powerpoint slides? Perish the thought. Same thing with written instructions, prompts, etc. If we can read them, let us read them. If you wish to tell us what to do, then tell us – conversationally, in your own words. 

If I’m to be read to, I’d at least like a bottle and my blankie. 

4. Someone already finds you credible or we wouldn’t be here. If there’s a need to explain who you are and why we should listen to you, do it up front, and briefly. Better yet, put a short bio in your handouts.

Constant references to former students, cool people you’ve met, or fancy events you’ve attended, are fun lunch chatter - but when you work them into every conversation, you sound insecure.

We get it – you’re awesome. Your methods are impeccable and your scores are tops. You’ve read all the best books and been to all the best places. 

Yay for you; let’s move on.

5. A little diplomacy goes a long way. If someone wants your opinion about homework, textbooks, or classroom management, then give it. Keep in mind, though, that plenty of other sincere, experienced, just-as-smart-as-you educators have different opinions. 

Speaking in absolutes doesn’t strengthen your credibility – often the impact is quite the opposite. Plus, there’s no benefit in alienating or annoying your participants, making the rest of the day less effective and leading to negative evaluations. 

Examples of diplomatic responses:

“You know, I’m personally a big fan of ___________________”

“I’ve never had much luck with ____________; my problem with it is _________________”

“With my kids {insert age and demographic clarifiers}, I usually __________; have you considered trying ___________?”

While I get that you don’t want to seem wishy-washy, you'll generally sound thoughtful and wise when you recognize that not everyone’s style is like yours and not every roomful of students are the same. 

6. Participants often appreciate the books you think we should read, websites we should visit, or videos we should watch – so compile them ahead of time, or during lunch, or at the end. They should be addressed in a clump. 

Recurring stoppages to address the book/website/video that just popped into your head derail whatever flow you’ve established, and disrespect participants’ time. Then, of course, everyone has to ask how to spell the author’s name or if you’ll repeat the URL, and suddenly they all have these other books/sites/resources everyone should know about and dear-god-kill-me-now.

7. If you’re going to assign us to read or do something, give us time and space to do it. Don’t ask questions if you’re just going to immediately answer them yourself, and don’t pretend subjects are open-ended if you have a ‘correct’ response in mind. 

I know you’re not doing it on purpose – some of us feel very insecure relinquishing the reins, even for a few minutes. If it helps, set a stopwatch for yourself and MAKE yourself allow some time. Walk around and listen, but don’t jump in unless asked. 

It’s one thing if participants are clearly finished or totally off-topic, but don’t step on participant work time or insert yourself into every conversation just because you’re bored or uncomfortable. 

8. Unless this is a purely informational workshop (i.e, you’re explaining the new budget or covering important changes in the AP Exam), don’t talk so much. Watch the clock – if you’re in front of the room pontificating for more than about 10 minutes, we’re bored. You can be as offended as you like that we’re on our phones, but you’re the one rambling on and on.

If we’re here to learn strategies, let’s do the strategies. If there are parts worth discussing, stop and let us discuss. Heck, leave the room for a few minutes and get a drink – it keeps things moving for you as much as it does us.

If there are entire blocks of time scheduled with nothing for us to stop and talk about, or to do by ourselves or in small groups, you’re doing it wrong. Period. 

9. Assume your audience are capable professionals, but don’t assume they all have the same body of content knowledge. We all teach different grades and subjects, and come from different backgrounds - but we’re all teachers, so have a little respect. 

It’s tricky to know what to assume ‘everyone knows’ and what to explain. That’s where reading the room and being tuned in to your participants comes in. That’s a teacher skill, and you’re a teacher – right?

10. Never go to the scheduled ending time. If the email said 4:00, start wrapping up at 3:30. If you MUST go to 4:00, make sure the email says 4:30. And never never EVER no matter WHAT keep them past the required time. 

Ever.

No.

Don’t!

11. There is no Eleventh Grand Truth. We're cutting it so we can wrap up a bit early...

12. Sometimes you’ll do everything right and your participants simply won’t cooperate or care. If you can solve this or adjust, then certainly do, but if not…

Don’t take it personally; teachers make the worst students.

Comments

Great advice for anyone presenting. I have been guilty of a few of these but I have avoided #3 like the plague. It's the worst.

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