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Thursday / September 21

Leading Effective Professional Learning: Q&A with Jenni Donohoo

Jenni Donohoo is a world-class PD facilitator and the author of two Corwin books: Collaborative Inquiry for Educators: A Facilitator’s Guide to School Improvement and the forthcoming school leader’s guide The Transformative Power of Collaborative Inquiry: Realizing Change in Schools and Classrooms (May 2016). She is an expert on the impact of collaborative inquiry on teacher practice and student achievement.


Q: In your experience working with schools and districts across the US and Canada, what are the characteristics of effective leaders of professional learning?

A:  Effective leaders of professional learning are responsive, trusting, and curious.

Responsive in the sense that they are able to read situations accurately and respond a) sensitively to participants’ aspirations and apprehensions; b) flexibly in their approach; and c) supportively in order to ensure high-leverage strategies are tried and tested in classrooms.

Trusting is another important characteristic. Effective leaders place trust in others by allowing teachers to help lead and shape their professional learning. An effective leader stands back and trusts the process of teachers innovating together. By doing so, leaders demonstrate a belief in empowerment over efficiency, choice over decisiveness, and autonomy over control.

Curiosity is another important characteristic. Being curious means you are eager to learn. An effective leader of professional learning is authentically inquisitive and exhibits a desire to gain deeper understandings, alongside participants.

Q: What’s one common misconception about the leader’s role in facilitating effective professional learning?

A:  One common misconception is that the responsibility of facilitation lies in the hands of formal leaders. When teachers are provided opportunities to facilitate professional learning, their influence is expanded and teacher leadership is fostered. Often, classroom teachers neither recognize their role as informal leaders nor how critical their role is within the system. When provided with opportunities to hone their facilitation skills, individuals begin to see themselves as agents of change. In order to cultivate the characteristics of effective leadership in every educator, opportunities for teachers to expand their influence need to be provided.  Facilitating professional learning provides an excellent opportunity for classroom teachers to expand their reach while further developing their capacity to lead.

Q: How can leaders build trust and increase the depth of dialogue when working with teams?

A:  Building trust and increasing the depth of dialogue entails speaking the truth and saying what might be difficult to say. In order for teams to feel safe to speak the truth, it is critically important to make the distinction between ‘person’ and ‘practice’ explicit. Leaders need to help team members recognize that teaching, as a practice, can be improved by studying and reflecting on the application of teaching methods and approaches and resulting student outcomes. Criticism is taken less personally when team members come to realize that teaching practices (not individuals) are what is subject to scrutiny.

In order to increase the depth of dialogue, teams benefit from identifying and articulating agreements that will guide their conversations. For example, a team might agree that when discussing student learning, they will ensure the conversation is grounded in evidence. Another agreement might be to generate and pose critical questions during learning conversations. Posting the team’s agreements in a visible location helps keep the conversation focused on the agreements made.

It is important that leaders listen carefully in order to capitalize on moments that can be used to surface important issues and redirect the team if agreements are not adhered to. For example, if a team begins to talk in generalities about impact on students (e.g. “I am sure it made a difference” and “I noticed students were much more engaged”) the leader would remind the team of the agreement made of ensuring their conversation is grounded in evidence.

Q: How can we build leadership skills in others so that team members see themselves as leaders of professional learning?

A:  Leadership skills can only be built through experiences and practice. Provide the opportunity and support for teachers to lead the work. If team members are apprehensive in taking on a leadership role, start small. Ask a team member to consult with colleagues in designing an agenda for a professional learning session. Ask a team member to facilitate a short protocol or design an exit slip and analyze responses in order to make recommendations for future learning opportunities. Put structures in place (such as World Café or Open Space) that allow for leadership to emerge from within the group.

In addition to providing teachers with opportunities to lead and facilitate work related to school improvement, in order to build leadership skills, it’s important to engage teachers in reflection about leadership practice and facilitation practice. Once teacher leaders become more comfortable leading their peers, they might consider soliciting feedback on their facilitation and use that information to further hone their skills.


Thank you! For more about Jenni Donohoo’s consulting work on facilitating collaborative inquiry, click here to see her experience and inquire about availability.

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Jenni Donohoo is a best-selling author and Corwin consultant with more than 15 years experience in leading school change. Jenni and Moses Velasco’s latest book entitled The Transformative Power of Collaborative Inquiry: Realizing Change in Schools and Classrooms is available through Corwin.

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