Emily and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Professional Development Session

Illustration by the very talented Ashlin Day

The presenter started five minutes late and said “Can you see my screen?” and we all said “No”.

I could tell this was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad professional development session.

The presenter spent 10 minutes giving us an overview of what they would talk about for the next hour (I calculated 16% of their allocated time taken up with a verbal table of contents that could have been a 30 second glance at the screen).

Not a great start to this terrible, no good, very bad professional development session.

At first I was kind of excited by the new information I was learning but after five minutes, I had the feeling that our highly-specialised, well-researched, paragraphs-disguised-as-bullet-points presenter was secretly a mad scientist in disguise as an educator, trying to laser beam all available earthly knowledge on this entire vast and complex topic into our sad little empty brains. I felt slight panic while some of the extremely knotty information that our presenter took years to learn and that we were to memorise in one hour started to melt my brain and dribble out my left ear.

I felt the drone of an agitated fly stuck in the curtains was a welcome distraction from the droning monotone of the presenter poorly reading out a clipart-less slide. My butt was starting to feel the poor choice of sitting in a tiny children’s chair.

I tried to stay positive, but this was a terrible, no good, very bad professional development session.

Mercifully, question time arrived. We directed our questions to the presenter. They gave the answers they wanted to give, which were only sometimes the answers to the questions asked of them. Ruder, faster or more assertive people got to hear responses to their questions while I shrunk in the back, wondering if my question was smart enough to ask in front of all my colleagues. I eventually thought maybe it was, but then we ran out of time as there were 38 slides to go and the presenter was “conscious of the time”.

The presenter then talked for a stretch on a bunch of stuff I already know back-to-front. I wanted to check my emails for a bit but apparently it’s more professional to sit and nod and pretend not to know things.

I made eyes at my friend across the room that said “This is a terrible, no good, very bad professional development session.” She made eyes back that said “Duh”.

The time was perilously close to the end of our union-mandated time allocation for this meeting. My miniscule kids’ chair was really making itself known. At that point the presenter sped up, doubling up on both content and confusion. Laptops around the room started to thud closed to signal that time was up but this only quadrupled our presenter’s efforts at cramming.

Terrible. No good. Very bad.

My head swam with new vocabulary, books to read, recommendations of poor quality outdated videos to watch and jazzy activities to try out in the classroom, but I felt it all sinking or washing away because I had been given no headspace to form a question to reel in the important parts. I hadn’t been allowed a conversational net to catch it with, or the pause in content to observe and lay out my learning to keep the useful bits and discard the rubbish. Not even a toilet break which was important because it was nearing five o’clock and I hadn’t been since 10AM.

Once it was over, I wanted to politely thank the presenter for their time and effort but my throat was dry and I’d forgotten how to speak, not having been allowed to do it for over an hour.

My friends say some PDs are like that. Even in 2021.

Safe to say, I’ve been through some very bad, no good, professional development sessions. Some online, some in person, some were required, others were chosen by me. This story isn’t indicative of a particular session or presenter, but an amalgamation of all the worst parts of professional learning sessions I’ve attended been subjected to in my ten years in education. I’ve even been that presenter at some points in my career. 

I really believe that people educating room full of experts on learning should be absolute masters of learning – otherwise they’re hardly qualified to be doing that job.

I’ve tried to come up with answers to the question “What makes good professional learning?”. My answers are questions.

  • I believe I know how children learn. Do I know how adults learn? If I don’t, should I be in charge of running this session?
  • What is the point of the session? What do teachers REALLY need to leave with? Answers? Questions? Skills? Content? Attitudes? Enthusiasm?
  • Do I want to teach them what I know? If I do, what do I know that is so important that 30 adult professionals all need to hear it, in the same way, at the same time? Is me putting it on slides and talking about it the best way for them to learn it?
  • I believe people learn by meaningfully doing. Will people be learning by doing or will they be passive? How can I remove that tendency for the presenter to do all the doing? 
  • Is my ego involved? How can I remove it if it is?

I know in my near future it’s my job to create conditions for some professional learning in a one hour session. But I’m DETERMINED that it won’t be like the ones I survived.

2 thoughts on “Emily and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Professional Development Session

  1. You are amazing Emily!!!!
    You are articulate
    You captured what PD session should be
    You wrote how I felt
    It was presumed by presenter that no one had knowledge
    I your fan!!!!


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