Accounting for Vulnerability in Peer-to-Peer PD - ASCD
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February 1, 2021

Accounting for Vulnerability in Peer-to-Peer PD

Teacher-led PD can be powerful—but leaders need to create safe conditions for it.

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Professional Learning
Social-emotional learning
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What's not to love about peer-to-peer professional learning? It affirms teachers' expertise, builds on community values, and creates a culture of curiosity—not to mention that students ultimately benefit when their teachers share good practices. Although outside experts can offer helpful perspectives, many teachers express understandable frustration when a highly paid guru without knowledge of their instructional context comes in and tells them what to do. And with COVID-19 still a threat, it makes more sense than ever to draw on insider knowledge rather than cross-expose with outsiders.

But even if teachers have the time to devote to the extra work of presenting, and schools have the budget to compensate them, school leaders should recognize that peer-to-peer PD presents a challenge for teachers that bringing in outsiders doesn't: It creates the potential for vulnerability.

Why Presenting to Peers Makes a Teacher Vulnerable

A teacher who feels confident in a (physical or virtual) roomful of students might become tense and flustered in front of colleagues. Numerous doubts may arise: What if they can't read my slides? What if I forget to say something important? What if I'm telling them stuff they already know, or that feels obscure or irrelevant? What if someone asks a question and I don't know the answer? What if I answer wrong? What if I come off as arrogant? Or stupid? What if I end up wasting their time?

As soon as we put our work in front of peers, we open ourselves up to judgments—theirs as well as our own. Teachers who present to colleagues make themselves vulnerable for (at least) the following reasons.

Peers May See the Content as Irrelevant

Teachers might not readily see how their colleague's presentation is relevant to their work, so might be dismissive of it. Imagine a geography teacher who presents his lesson in which students learn about the three types of tectonic plate boundaries by choreographing them as a dance. His colleagues seem warm and encouraging, but as they leave, he hears comments like, "Cool lesson, but I hope next time we do something with math" and "Well that was cute, but I have too much content to cover."

Given time and support, teachers can distill general principles from specific lessons their peers demonstrate and can adapt colleagues' strategies to work in their own classrooms. For instance, a teacher could use the arts as a means of teaching content in any discipline (not just geography) and through any art form. But teachers might need time to discover and discuss these general principles and applications. If a presenter's colleagues seem unreceptive, the presenter will likely feel frustrated, disappointed, and embarrassed—and reluctant to share their work in the future.

The Delivery May Fail

When we present to colleagues, we not only expose our teaching practices to their judgment, we also make it possible for them to judge our presentational skills. I once absolutely bombed a presentation to 400 teachers. I talked too fast, didn't explain the material clearly, and ended up having a panic attack while my co-presenter took over for a part he hadn't rehearsed. No surprise that we were never invited back to that district! My only consolation was, I never had to see those people again. I could learn from the experience and put it behind me. If I'd been presenting to my colleagues, I would've had to face them afterward.

Some teachers might be confident in their knowledge about a particular topic, but associate themselves with the role of teacher, not presenter. They might compare themselves to accomplished or credentialed presenters and find their own abilities wanting. Conversely, knowing the many ways PD can go wrong can make teachers worry about how their own presentations will go over. Most teachers—including me when I was in the classroom—have sat through a lot of boring, confusing, and patronizing professional learning sessions. Insiders are likely more aware than experts of what their own colleagues do and don't know, are and aren't interested in, and so on. Still, when teachers present for colleagues, they might worry about wasting their time—because their own time has been wasted in the past. They don't want to visit similar harms on colleagues.

Logistics Might Be a Headache

As a PD provider, I've dealt with many logistical challenges. At one conference, I was placed in a kindergarten room with chairs sized for … kindergarteners. I've shown up with slides to a room that lacked the promised projector. I've planned 75-minute workshops only to listen to the principal talk for 30 of those minutes. I've prepared for 30 attendees but had 8 people show up, and I've had 110 people show up when our Zoom account only accommodated 100.

Arguably, insiders are better prepared to deal with such contingencies because they know their school's rooms, technology, and culture. On the other hand, as an experienced presenter, I know how to shift when the setup, time, or group isn't what I expected. If that shifting requires labor beyond the scope of the original contract, I can bill for it. But teachers might not be included in all decisions around their presentations. They might not have the authority to ask for everything they need, the experience to change their presentations on the fly, or the power to bill for extra work.

Peers May Resist Because of Personal Feelings

Collegial relationships aren't always so collegial. Awful as it is to consider, teachers might at times prejudge a colleague's presentation as not worth listening to because they don't like him or her. Worse, they might cross their arms, pull out their phones or knitting, whisper to each other, or otherwise say in words or deeds, You don't matter to me. Ouch.

Managing Vulnerability

Vulnerability means something important is at stake. A colleague's judgment wouldn't bother a teacher if relationships with colleagues weren't important. Teachers wouldn't worry that their work isn't good enough if it weren't important to them to do good work. Teachers fret about wasting colleagues' time because that time matters to them.

If the idea of peer-to-peer PD evokes uncomfortable emotions, let's help teachers acknowledge those emotions—and the values underneath them. With an awareness of their vulnerabilities and values, teachers can choose just how they want to approach in-house PD. And school leaders can honor teachers' vulnerability while encouraging them to share their knowledge with peers.

Psychologists Gareth Holman, Jonathan Kanter, Mavis Tsai, and Robert Kohlenberg (2017) developed a framework for supportive relationships they call ACL: Awareness, Courage, and Love. They define awareness as "being awake and alive to what's happening in the present moment in a social situation" (p. 70), which could include situations in which teachers share ideas with their colleagues. Courage means "being able to, despite vulnerability, express oneself appropriately, meaningfully, fully, and effectively in social situations" (p. 72). Love isn't a word we typically use in professional contexts, but Holman and his colleagues define it as "acting for the good of the other person" (p. 74) by providing safety and acceptance, expressing understanding and validation, and giving what is needed.

With these definitions in mind, school leaders can support teachers before, during, and after peer-to-peer PD.

Building Awareness

As a leader, you can build your own and others' awareness of the knowledge and skills within your faculty, looking beyond the usual suspects. It's important to explore how biases within your school—including your own—influence actions and decisions about professional learning. One school where I worked held a summer institute at which teachers could present to each other. Sadly, year after year, the same teachers presented—the same ones who spoke most in meetings and received frequent accolades. This wasn't an environment where equitable peer-to-peer learning could thrive.

When seeking in-house expertise, ask yourself:

  • Who is considered a "good" teacher at your school?

  • Who created the standards that your school uses to define good teaching?

  • Do certain people get listened to by virtue of their institutional role, when others might have just as much expertise but not the title?

  • Do some people command attention because they're confident and charismatic?

  • Who else's voices are worth hearing?

  • When considering which teachers are highly regarded, do you see patterns in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, first language, or other sociocultural identifiers?

Try using questions like these to start discussion with colleagues and students about what constitutes good teaching. Students may even provide good insights, such as about who is considered a good teacher and why. Making such conversations part of school culture can be a helpful step toward undermining biases and creating a safe environment for sharing knowledge.

Modeling Courage

One way leaders can help teachers overcome the vulnerability associated with presenting to peers is by presenting first. You can model the behavior you're trying to elicit, just as teachers do when they show students how to solve a math problem or write a paragraph.

Author, activist, and university professor bell hooks (1994) explains her willingness to "go first":

In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take any risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share. When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators. It is often productive if professors take the first risk. (p. 21, emphasis added)

What hooks says about teaching seems just as true of leading peer-to-peer PD. If you put your work out there, you'll show teachers they can, too. You'll demonstrate that you're willing to do the very thing you're asking them to do. You'll also be better equipped to relate to the experience of presenting to colleagues. While you might not struggle in the same ways some teachers do, you'll be able to have authentic conversations about the process of presenting, how it felt, and why it was worthwhile.

Imagine that the chair of a math department is about to present on a project in which students wrote advertisements for different problem-solving methods. She might say, "This project is a different way of teaching than I'm used to, and I still haven't worked out some glitches. But it got my students to think more deeply and creatively about problem solving, and that's important to me. So I'm sharing what I did and hope it's useful to you." Because this leader explains how taking a risk serves her values, she creates space for teachers to take risks in the service of theirs. You don't have to feel confident and relaxed to give a good presentation; you just need to be willing to be nervous and also give the presentation.

Finally, instead of always positioning yourself as the leader, be the learner as well. By learning alongside your faculty, you show them they can contribute meaningfully to your practice, and by extension, to one another's.

Showing Love

In this context, love is not a feeling but a set of actions: providing safety and acceptance, expressing validation and empathy, and giving others what they need. As a leader, you can provide safety and acceptance by elevating the work of many different teachers—not just the most vocal or popular ones. You can respect each teacher for who they are and how their identities show up in their work. You can express validation and empathy by simply listening to teachers' concerns and showing you understand—even if their worries seem unfounded or their experiences don't match yours. Try saying something like, "I hear what you're saying, and I appreciate your willingness to share that with me." It's too easy to jump to problem solving without fully hearing the other person. Often, that sense of being heard and understood is all they want.

Finally, you can provide teachers with what they need to make their PD presentation successful, giving them adequate time and resources—just as you would for outside presenters. Ask how much time would be ideal, who their target audience is (and isn't), how the room should be set up, and what supplies or technology they'll need. You might not be able to meet their specifications, but having this conversation shows you're taking their needs seriously and you'll do your best to meet them.

You can also give teacher-learners what they need to make their experience meaningful. Try asking teachers to use protocols that center learners and their learning rather than the presenter and their presenting. Professional learning protocols ensure active participation in PD and move beyond models that position a single presenter as the only member of the group with knowledge worth sharing. When a single presenter shares expertise, encourage them to deliver their content experientially, so participants learn about a new strategy by trying it themselves. That way, the spotlight isn't on the presenter but on the activity that leads to collective learning—which is the whole point.

Whatever format you use for peer-to-peer PD, build in time (that day or later) for participants to debrief the experience and exchange ideas for using what they learned in their own classrooms. Centering the learners' experience shifts the focus away from the presenter and toward how the PD can build teaching repertoires.

Keep Inviting Them!

Even if you show awareness, courage, and love, some teachers will still avoid sharing their practices. It's always up to the individual teacher to decide whether or not to open themselves to the vulnerability that presenting to peers brings. Your role is to keep inviting teachers to share their work and keep showing that your school is a space where that work matters.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ In your experience, what are the pros and cons of teacher-led PD?

➛ Think about a time when you led PD or presented to colleagues. How could your school have provided better support?

➛ How might you change conditions for peer-to-peer PD in your school in the future?

References

Holman, G., Kanter, J. W., Tsai, M., & Kohlenberg, R. (2017). Functional analytic psychotherapy made simple: A practical guide to therapeutic relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Porosoff, L. (2021). The PD curator: How to design peer-to-peer professional learning that elevates teachers and teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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