When your workshop isn’t awesome

A few weeks ago my workshop should’ve been awesome. But it wasn’t.

I thought it was going to be. I had three 90-minute sessions lined up – all of which I’ve done before – that I thought fit together quite nicely:

  1. Powerful technology, powerful students. The media focuses too much on students’ negative uses of technology without recognizing the powerful and positive uses that also are occurring. We will feature examples of youth who are doing amazing things with technology. You will be inspired!

    [I always try to work in some big picture / our world has changed / sense of urgency stuff into every workshop that I do. I know that educators hunger for the practical but, as Simon Sinek and others remind us, without ongoing reminders of the WHY behind our efforts, it’s easy to revert back to traditional practices. Session A was supposed to be inspiring, informative, and – as we looked at powerful extracurricular uses of technology – thought-provoking regarding how to pull that power into day-to-day instructional practices.]

  2. How do we know if our technology integration is any good? It’s often difficult for us as leaders to know whether technology usage by students and teachers is productive or just eye candy. This session will begin with a discussion of frameworks that help us think more deeply about effective technology integration. We then will apply those frameworks to multiple video scenarios that allow us to refine our understandings of powerful technology usage and how to better coach teachers.

    [Session B was intended to take us from Session A’s bright vision of technology-enabled student empowerment into critical reflections about instructional technologies and deeper thinking work. We moved in and out of small groups, talking about the video scenarios and where various educational uses of technology fell regarding cognitive complexity and student agency. If Session A focused on the WHY, Session B focused on the WHAT.]

  3. Deeper thinking, technology infusion, and student agency. It’s difficult to create lessons that focus on deeper thinking, student agency, and rich technology infusion. In this session we will focus on the challenging task of operationalizing the high expectations we now have of classroom educators. Bring your construction helmet; we’ll be doing complex lesson design work!

    [In Session C, we then were supposed to slide into design work, modeling the process of what it could be like to identify cross-disciplinary standards and then create unit plans from scratch. This work also was done in small groups, which then gave each other feedback to improve their units using the frameworks and language we had learned in Session B. Session C was intended to take us into the HOW that educators crave so often.]

Off the rails

Train Car Tilt

So that was how the day was supposed to play out: three sessions, each of which has always gone well in the past. But that’s not what happened this time. Not on this day with this group…

Session A, which I’ve done multiple times, always to rave reviews? That session, instead of being inspiring, was interpreted by some attendees as teacher-bashing. Obviously I was NOT striving for evaluation comments like ‘choose your words wisely when critiquing what our current practices are‘ and ‘several people I spoke with seemed skeptical and defensive after the first session‘ and ‘the first part of the session seemed that you were not on the teachers’ side.‘ Somehow this time my language was different, or my tone, or my exact words, or the tenor of my presentation, or something compared to previous instances. Instead of being inspired and reflective, they were defensive. Not all of them. Many comments stated that the first session was ‘very engaging‘ and that they really liked ‘seeing examples of what kids are doing.’ But the ones I unintentionally put off were enough to pull down many of the rest.

Session B was the session in which we moved into the more practical realm of looking at technology integration video examples and figuring out how to make them better. We spent some time answering questions and addressing concerns from Session A. Then we did a quick overview of some technology integration evaluation frameworks and worked in small groups to analyze, dissect, and rebuild various technology-infused lessons. But, despite the troubleshooting focus at the beginning and the small group collaboration and discussion in the second half of the session, some of them didn’t feel it. A few participants thought that it still was too much talk by me and not enough talk by them. Some said that ‘we needed to be doing more‘ or that they wished for ‘more practical application.’ One attendee even said that this second session felt like ‘a barrage of how horrible we are as teachers.’

Session C, our collaborative design session, was our best one and they echoed that in their comments. But unlike any other group I’ve done this with, several commented that the set of three science, writing, and speaking/listening standards I gave them to design with was ‘overwhelming‘ and that they wished that I had made ‘the lesson topics narrower. We struggled with how broad our topic was.

So there it is: a workshop that was supposed to be great but went a bit off the rails instead. Not for everyone, not by a long margin. I got plenty of comments like ‘learned great stuff and can’t wait to use with kids‘ and ‘I loved the interaction – the bouncing of ideas and inspiration‘ and ‘I liked the overall structure of this session; it was much more well-planned, practical, and immediately useful to me than that of many other sessions that I have attended‘ and ‘I wish my entire staff could have been here.’ But the overall evaluation averages weren’t where they usually are. Instead of hitting my customary ranges of 4.6 to 4.9 (on a scale of 1 to 5), for this group my averages were as follows:

  • Your comfort level and safety as a participant: 4.21 (average)
  • The quality of what you learned: 3.94 (average)
  • The amount of what you learned: 3.76 (average)
  • Your ability to interact with others: 4.13 (average)
  • Your overall experience: 3.90 (average)

Ugh. Not what they wanted. Not what I wanted. Not what they deserved.

Now what?

It would be easy for me to blame the size of the group (90+) or the auditorium seating (instead of tables) and its resultant impact on our small group work and my ability to attend to everyone. It would be easy for me to simply say that I had an overly defensive bunch or, as the comments seem to show, that they were a group that had trouble seeing past their lack of access to technological resources back home. It would be easy for me to give myself a break and say that I was just flat that day. It would be easy for me to say, “By the way, Mr. Impossibly High Standards, even though they weren’t in your usual and desired range of 4.5 or higher, your ratings still were much better than simply ‘average’ on the overall scale so don’t be so hard on yourself.”

But that’s not the right response. My credibility and validity stem from my utility to educators in the field. Whether I’m in the role of professor, Area Education Agency Director of Innovation, professional learning provider, or keynote speaker, if what I’m offering isn’t helpful to educators and schools, then what’s the point? The reason that folks invite me in is because they believe that I will do an amazing job for them and their educators. Otherwise they would bring in someone else. They’re giving up precious time (and funds) for an empowering learning experience. It’s not fair to them when I don’t fulfill my end of the bargain.

So now comes the difficult part. Dissecting our day together, figuring out what I said that day that didn’t resonate, restructuring for next time, making sure not to ditch what’s worked in the past, and so on… And, of course, the apology to the group that brought me in:

Thank you for the opportunity to work with your educators a few weeks ago. I always appreciate the chance to learn with and from other teachers and administrators and am grateful that you thought that I had some expertise and experience to lend to the group. Unfortunately, our day together did not meet my usual standards of high quality. I’m guessing that you probably felt the same way too. Can we talk soon about how I might be able to make it up to you?

Name the problem. Own it. Apologize. Try to fix it, both for them and for next time. That’s all I know to do, along with an overall insistence on high-quality work and continual improvement. But, as always, I’ll take any and all suggestions. What do you do when your workshop isn’t awesome?

Image credit: Train car tilt, Alex Cockroach

26 Responses to “When your workshop isn’t awesome”

  1. Be careful. Self-reflection is important, but too much of it could be a big problem. You have a workshop that you have done before that has worked extremely well. If you try to make too many changes based on one B day, rather than your usual A day, you might mess it up in the future. It is quite possible that it was a group of participants that wasn’t ready for what yo have to offer. If so, your job isn’t so much to change things around to meet there (potentially problematic) expectations but rather to see if there is a way to figure that out in advance so you can change things up if and only if necessary. In other words, be careful of over-reacting and over-correcting and possibly making it horrible for the next (possibly more typical group).

  2. Sometimes people aren’t ready to hear what you have to say, or they are not in the right place to hear it. I remember presenting an all day Web 2.0 inquiry based, student centered workshop to a small school district. When I arrived, I realized they thought they were ready, but they were not…not in the way they allowed themselves to teach, not in the area of access to technology, just not ready. It was a lesson for me to do my homework on who I am addressing, and what they expect to get out of the day. I know that feeling of going off the rails, and it’s funny that it doesn’t bother me nearly as much when it happens with kids…I think they are more willing to roll with it, and less judgmental:).

  3. I attended 3 awesome workshops you facilitated.
    You are fire and don’t let educators off the hook…
    Too many others do…
    Fire can’t be politically correct.
    Let it burn…

  4. The explanation is likely related to what stage of change the audience was in. Different audiences have different needs related to where they are on a continuum. If they are in a pre-contemplative stage, they are not ready to change their practices. Someone else maybe was and put you in front of them wanting them to change. Better if they were in a contemplative or preparation stage, then they already know why they should be doing things differently, and are prepared for action. Thus, your workshop was probably great for the right audience, but maybe this group needed a “why it’s important to think differently” workshop. Just not a right match of needs, not the presenter or material. Psychologists often face the same problem in therapy, were they self-referred or referred by someone else (court appointed)? Different plans of action there.

  5. I would agree with Kevin Kelly, above. For example, I had a class last year that frustrated me because they didn’t like the content. As a result, what I usually did caused me to feel that I was ‘reaching for the moon’ in that particular class. Rightly reflecting on what has happened, is great, as is your response to the group afterwards, but sometimes it is just that their level of enthusiasm does not match yours. I did gut-checks with that group daily, asking them what they wanted to happen differently–more project time, more reflective time, more concept time. No answers. They obviously hadn’t mastered the material, and the same is true for your sessions, because people would have told you this was too elementary. It’s one of the worst feelings when people tell you that what you have to offer is just not what they want. It always leads me to ask, “Why is it ok for people who just don’t want to not to play?”

  6. I agree with what David, Tansmom, and Kevin Kelly said. Don’t over correct due to over-analysis of self. I’ve been presenting in one way or another for most of my professional life and, yes, self-analysis and change is good, but there could be several variables at play here that you are unaware of.

    1. How was the day “billed” to the participants? What were they told about this particular day and the expectations of the campus/district for them?
    2. What is the campus culture/morale? Sometimes it’s not what you think.
    3. Where are they, truly – not where they or their leaders think they are? Like was said previously – they may simply have not been ready to hear what you were saying.

    As a person who regularly over-analyzed every single presentation, I empathize. I think it’s admirable of you to want to address it with the school, and I think it’s a good idea to have a conversation with them about it. Just don’t discard your foundation and what you know to be true.:)

  7. Hey Scott,
    I appreciate your honest and open reflection. In my limited out-of-district experience leading workshops, I’ve found pre-workshop surveys to be useful. This helps me (and any co-facilitators) gain a better understanding of the learners’ needs, preferences, experiences and/or misconceptions. As a side note, it can help personalize the content during the workshop, i.e. “A majority of you indicated you grade homework to build responsibility in students. Let’s explore that notion right now…”

    Did you pre-survey this audience or have you pre-surveyed in the past? I realize it’s not always possible, too, but thought I’d throw it out there as you ended your post asking for suggestions (although this isn’t a suggestion for *after*, but instead a look back at the planning phase).

  8. I would also add that perhaps these teachers have had other experiences with other presenters or district politics that have colored their perceptions of you. It’s really hard to know sometimes to know what’s happened in a district prior to your visit.

    Also, I had a conversation with a teacher friend about ed tech last night that made me ponder how to best approach teachers who have not bought into everything we espouse. She is willing to dabble and try new things out with support, and knows she should be going to more conferences and workshops, but isn’t very excited to do so. In her experience, she’s been made to feel badly using technology in her classroom by peers and presenters to which this stuff comes more naturally. So my question is how do we help teachers to not be intimidated and to participate in exploring how to leverage technology in deep and meaningful ways? How do we get them ready to learn and be receptive when we pay them a visit if they are not there yet?

    Very interesting post, Scott!

  9. First of all, I appreciate you being transparent and putting your work and the reviews out for many to see. This summer I’ve been thinking more and more about this notion of student agency as I believe in it whole heartedly and have seen students thrive as a result of having voice and choice in their own learning. If we think that students should have more ownership in their learning, why wouldn’t we think that teachers should have more ownership in their learning (PD)? I wonder if more PD sessions were designed collaboratively with admin. & teachers to include the teacher agency component, would they be more successful? Would love to hear your thoughts as well as others!

  10. Hi Scott,

    Your post and the discussion in the comments is exceptionally powerful on a number of levels. You’re modeling what a true leader does and how one behaves.

    A true leader’s character is measured by his or her actions. To quote you, “Name the problem. Own it. Apologize. Try to fix it, both for them and for next time. That’s all I know to do, along with an overall insistence on high-quality work and continual improvement.”

    Your commitment to those you serve and to the message is clear here. — You are committed to quality and those you do workshops for. If it’s not what they needed or how they needed it, you are willing to reflect and think of other approaches.

    You are also committed to those who read your blog. Your transparency shows us that things don’t always work out, and you’ve given us a model for how to approach that.

    Leaders impact other with what they do and how they act. They push themselves, take risks, own when things don’t work out, and move forward.

    In the classroom, if students thrived from the lesson in hours 1-6, but in hour 7 they didn’t, the teacher should not blame the kids; instead, the teacher needs to figure out what would work for hour 7 instead. When the teacher talks about it with the class, they can help brainstorm those solutions. … Which is what I’m seeing here in this post.

    Thank you for modeling this and sharing this with us.

    To quote John Wooden, Hall of Fame basketball coach, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

    Kind regards,

  11. I applaud your transparency and self reflection. You are modeling what everyone in education should do but rarely does do. Having been at the pd day you are writing about, I was initially shocked by the reception. I found that day particularly useful and am excited to try a few of the rubrics you used. But then I thought more about the general response. As teachers or educational leaders we have a responsibility to meet our peers/students/audience wherever they are at. The sad reality is that many teachers are not at the point for transformative moves in their classrooms or districts pedagogy. That’s very sad when it happens in a state that likes to see itself as a leader in education.

    So how will you modify your presentation to meet this type of audience?

  12. I have enjoyed learning from you many times — and appreciate the thought-provoking conversations & pushback to each other —

    So, based on this , I’d just like to reflect on one thought you said

    “Session A, which I’ve done multiple times, always to rave reviews”

    Did you go in with a preplanned agenda?? Did you stop before you began??

    Just a thought —

    I wasn’t there, so based on your blog post — i think your reflection & your effort to remedy it is GREAT!!

    A year ago, I made a choice to stay up late & then was super sleepy for a seminar & I stumbled through it — the way I remedied, besides an apology written to all involved, I returned the fee I had been paid & no matter how much fun I am having, if i present the next day, I am in bed at 10.


  13. Hi Scott,

    First of all–bravo to you on collecting data to see if your workshops are having the desired impact on learning. Reflecting on our practice is the best pathway for growth. I appreciate your professionalism in working with the group that brought you in to make adjustments for future learning. (Although we are often our toughest critics–there were many positives and overall the rankings were still in the higher quadrant of your scale!)

    While yes, this is just one audience and there are many variables to consider, it is worth the reflective process you are engaging in. This is the same concept we ask teachers to consider when lessons they have taught frequently are not having the same impact that they once did. We can’t say–oh it is just the students–I will keep doing these lessons. On the flip side, we can’t completely revamp our designs based on one group’s response. Somewhere in this balance is the art and science of teaching and this illustrates the power of the reflective process to help us refine our craft. What an authentic example you have given us for future consideration and growth.

  14. Thank you the honest post. Even seasoned presenters have an off day. I am at the point of aspiring presenter and new elementary admin–many missteps and mistakes along the way. I try to own it,address it and move forward. Reassuring to hear it from others. Thank you.

  15. Scott,

    I am 99% sure that I was at this workshop and I was struck by the low level of excitement from the beginning. It seemed that many were attending because they had to be there and were working in groups of teachers they they already knew – a detriment in my opinion. I also think the physical makeup of the room played a huge role and that you shouldn’t underestimate its effect on everyone’s mood.

  16. Wonder if it’d be worth having a ‘plan B for less-than-excited groups’ – The troubleshooting at the start of session 2 shows you knew the issue was there – perhaps having an alternate session up your sleeve specifically for low-motivated groups. A “What small things can you do straight away to get going” or something. If they’re not convinced by ‘tech’ in the first place then looking too critically at whether what they do have is strongly embedded, measurable and all that IS going to be a challenge!

  17. I never believed in “awesome” workshops.There is something about them that makes me wonder how much preparation and staging are required to produce such an impact.

  18. Scott,
    Transparency=helping others adopt the great and avoid a pitfall
    Sharing=the wisdom of the crowd

    Thanks for sharing, friend.

  19. Scott,
    I think you have done an amazing blog by sharing your experience and follow through. It reminds me of daily interactions with people I work with on staff and/or colleagues who just aren’t where I am in terms of learning and ubiquitos use of technology, connectedness and collaboration. I struggle daily with the gaps and continually try to comprehend and facilitate discussion and movement forward. When I do so, without their lead, it falls flat and yet the current urgency for required change to practice is not being felt or adjusted upon – because people are too busy, overwhelmed, scared…..?????? You have hit the tipping point and parallel that I have struggled with and continue to feel “hit by” daily. Ahhh how to move forward?

  20. Scott,
    Don’t over-think this – we all bomb sometimes! It sounds much more like your audience was required to attend your workshop, and weren’t truly interested in being there. As a former teacher, I can attest to what a terrible attitude that creates towards the presenter. As we all know, tech use is still a hot button for some resistant teachers and I think you stepped in/on it.

  21. Scott –
    Because I have learned so much from following you, your comments have inspired me to comment (where I usually am more of a consumer of your blog).

    First, as many have stated, kudos to you for being an excellent model for educators by continuously reflecting on your instruction and tweaking/personalizing it for your audience/participants.

    Second, I too have had many experiences in the “hot seat” where participants were looking at me for more (when you think you can hear crickets chirpting, LOL). That feeling of letting others “down” can be devastating to someone who has dedicated the time/energy/passion you have to changing learning as we know it. You seem to have taken their “message” to heart, but used it as constructive instead by adjusting expectations and outcomes as a result of their feedback.

    Third, and most humbly, I offer a bit of advice that has helped me connect with more educators from all over the spectrum of “readiness” in the transformation of learning picture. As an educator, the hardest thing to hear is that you are not doing what you set out to do – that passion and drive to help kids and change the world is inherent (although deeply buried in some) in educators. Touching on that in a perceived “negative” way (where they don’t feel like their very hard work is honored) can make them tune you right out. What I have discovered is the thing I have been committed to all along is the perspective that should be focused on…the learner. How does what you are learning impact your learners? How will new approaches change/engage/give agency to learners? When I focus on that perspective I am more engaged myself, connecting with other educators at their heart, feeling our way through discussions and examples about learners and what has changed for them as a result of a new practice or approach from an educator. When I make it personal to the kids they teach or even their own kids (if they are parents) it is so much more powerful and relevant.

    For my own learning, I am always striving to keep in my mind that while I am engaged in the process of helping other educators, my impact is ultimately judged by how the learners are served. That “data” in my head (how many of those teachers I have worked with multiplied by the number of students they impact) keeps me on the rails and acting as the train whistle touting all the amazing places and experiences that the train cars (in my analogy that would be the educators/participants) are driving toward.

    Thank you for your ability to get us thinking once again about the “why”….

  22. Remember that often how people perceive professional development is informed by their preconceived notions about that session, their preconceived ideas about the presenter, and their work circumstances (pressures they are under, deadlines, changes that are going on all around them) which often may have little to do with you and your topic.

    I have found that often a successful workshop with one group can be a disaster with the next based solely on the factors I listed above. Now certainly you can “pre-test” the audience, but as a presenter you can’t blame yourself as some of those factors are out of your control.

    I think one technique to try is an exercise where you ask people to inform you about the problems they are facing (not that you can specifically address their concerns or do anything about them at all) other than listen.  Through listening, you give the participants a forum to register their concerns.  I think once people see that you are actively relating to their issues, than they can better accept your message to them.

    Perception is a powerful thing.

  23. Sounds like a teaching moment to me. That happens.

  24. Don’t focus too much on the negative – Its easy to sit in the audience and say ‘meh, meh, meh’ about it all. Teachers can be the worst! I wish I had the cojones to do what you did.

  25. Welcome to the wonderful world of teaching! Remember that many (most?) teachers have to present that much material every day. Can’t knock ’em all out of the park, and every one, good and bad, is a learning experience for all involved.

  26. I feel you might have done grand job. Prior knowledge of your participant could have given the gauge as to what changes are required to meet your expected scale value.

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