Professional Development with a Heart

by Noelle Apostol Colin, a Bright Morning Senior Associate and guest blogger

“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

A couple of months ago, I taped a small scrap of paper with this quote, attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, to the wall in my office. It resonated with me and I wanted to look at it while planning my workshops.

Last spring, I facilitated a three-day workshop in Mexico City. At the end of the workshop, a participant thanked me and said, “There wasn’t a moment in the whole three days when I didn’t feel cared for. It felt like you had thought of every detail and anticipated all of our needs.” Communicating care in my workshops is something I’ve come to understand is a precursor to deep learning and community. I believe that scrap of paper on the wall focused my attention and prompted a new planning structure that I want to share with you.

When I’m planning for a workshop, I always go through several rounds of revisions, looking at the workshop through different lenses. One of the lenses I’ve started to look through is that of the participant’s emotional experience.

I ask myself questions about what participants are going to feel and experience during each activity. I include a column in my facilitator plans where I write them down. Then I can scan through it and see if I’ve included enough varied, positive emotional experiences and have planned ways to minimize anxiety, release tension, connect and build trust.

One of the principals in a group that I’ve worked with during the past seven months told me recently that since the group began meeting with me for professional learning, their group culture has changed. She said they’re kinder to each other, more open and more trusting.

She said they feel like a team now and have the trust and learning structures to support one another. Hearing this, I know I’m leaving behind a foundation upon which the team can continue to learn and grow on its own.

When I think about the teacher strikes occurring around the country, the increasing health-care costs, the lack of salary raises, crumbling buildings and ballooning class sizes, I think about the emotional toll this takes on teachers, the constant in-your-face message this communicates that you and your profession don’t matter.

Then I contrast this frustration with how appreciative teachers and leaders are when professional development experiences meet their needs, both learning and affective needs. They are so hungry for meaningful learning experiences! How similar to our students! Whether we work with adults or children, we are leaders of learners.

A principle of adult learning theory that constantly resonates in my head is this: adults want to learn.

It may be that the conditions are not present to allow someone to be an open and vulnerable learner, but adults want to learn. So what can we do to maximize the possibilities that someone will be able to learn?

Here are some of the questions I ask myself and write down answers to in a column right next to my sequence of learning activities on my facilitator agenda:

  • Will this be energizing?
  • Will they feel hopeful? Joyful?
  • Will they laugh?
  • Will they feel like they’re getting something done?
  • Will they learn something concrete they can apply?
  • Will they connect with colleagues?
  • Will there be anything that causes discomfort (perhaps intentional discomfort)? If so, how can I set up things to support them through this?
  • Is this too long to sit? Will they feel tired?
  • Is there a balance of new input, meaning making, and reflection?
  • Are there varied ways of taking in new input, meaning making and reflecting?
  • How can I help them feel creative and expansive?
  • Will they feel a sense of community?
  • Will they feel appreciated?
  • Will they get to appreciate someone or something else?
  • Will they get to connect with their core values?
  • Will they get to express themselves creatively?
  • How might I use art, poetry, music, video or drama to help process an idea or feeling?

Teachers and school leaders want to learn and be their best everyday for our kids. I’ve been humbled again and again by their appreciation of learning experiences that show them respect and care. Showing this type of care might just be the key missing ingredient in high levels of learning.


The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning.