How to improve inhouse professional development in your school

A Framework for Effective Inhouse Workshops: 9 steps that will improve your delivery of inhouse professional development in your school

Working hard, inspiring your staff, and raising the progress achievement of all your students: it is the dream for many of us. An important factor that will determine your success as a professional is your capacity to grow the skills of all your staff. Most schools set aside time to work with their staff on a weekly basis, usually after school. Some have an early-release day to create even more time. Typically, international schools have set aside up to ten days throughout the year for learning, many focused on providing PD in-house. And you are in the privileged position to deliver some of that PD! So how do you know your in-house PD is having an impact? And how do you make sure you are having an impact that lasts? In this article, I will highlight how you should design each of your in-house PD sessions to maximize the time you have with your staff.

Engaging school staff in professional learning is a skill that can be learned!

Why is Inhouse Professional Development More Difficult?

For one, we are busy, and these sessions come around each week: just when you deliver one, you are having to prepare for the next one… Equally important, though, is the added difficulty that comes with trying to teach adults who see you as their boss. This is why schools often feel they have more success when bringing in an outside PD provider – staff seem more open from the start as they have no preconceived notions that may be blocking their learning. And it is true: bringing in a ‘third point’ helps smooth over emotional barriers educators may have. However, it is too costly to do so every time you have time for professional learning, and more importantly, they don’t have your contextual knowledge of the school. All this means you must become an expert facilitator.

A Framework for Effective Inhouse Workshops

If engaging school staff is a skill that can be learned, and you can be an expert at it too. Using a tool like my ‘9-step framework of effective in-house workshops‘ is your roadmap to effectiveness. I developed this tool that pulls proven research together, helping you stick to what works well. Too often, we read the theory of facilitating, even think about the theory, but don’t follow through when we design our delivery of in-house PD. The 9-steps allow you to standardize your process of preparation, so you know you hit all the right buttons each time – and you won’t get sidetracked by your own enthusiasm for the topic. It gives you the headspace to focus on the content of the meeting. Content is what gets talked about and decided. Process is how the learning happens and how decisions are made. It’s important to pay attention to both.

Priming Your Audience For Learning

We all need some time to ‘settle in’. Adults are more likely to engage in learning when they perceive a need for it and when they feel ready to learn. So how you welcome your staff and connect with them on a ‘human level’ aids that process; and you need to be doing this within the first five minutes. Don’t skip it, don’t cut corners: and only if you can reach all personality types within the first few minutes will you be able to help your audience to get ready for learning. You complete this part by tuning learners into the ‘here and now’ of the session: what is the purpose of our time together?


The opening is your primary opportunity to establish rapport with your audience as they enter the virtual or in-person session. Feeling welcomed motivates the learner and predisposes them positively to the learning experience and is achieved by planning for three elements: the opening welcome statement, providing reassurances, and connecting on a human level. These can be learned through practice and will allow even the most inexperienced facilitator, or awkward personality, to achieve ‘rapport’.

For example, you could provide reassurances around the amount of time today will take, or the limited amount of effort needed in the follow-up, etc. Reminding staff about (one of) the norms for professional learning that will be needed today is another way. Connecting on a human level can be done in different ways, but always boils down to ‘naming the different emotions’ that you anticipate being present amongst your staff. Connecting what is happening in the school, or how they may feel right now, and name those various feelings will generate rapport.


The next step provides adults with a chance to exercise control over the learning experience. The format of this step is based on neurological research and allows for participants to relax and breathe in order for their curiosity to be stimulated, all the while feeling safe and secure as they activate prior knowledge. In its simplest form, it asks two or three individuals to turn and talk in response to a prompt you provide. The prompt must generate different perspectives so individuals can show themselves to their talking partners in a way they choose. And while the content isn’t the most important thing, it should either be about connecting with their colleagues on a human level or a tantalizing issue that is relevant to the content of the learning that is about to happen.


The purpose of this step is to tune learners into the ‘here and now’ of the session by motivating the topic of learning and carefully and intentionally delivering the objective in a way that allows adults to feel confident their time is going to be well used. The key here is to present a rationale for the content and the process.

There are three steps to include:

  1. Clearly state the reason for the learning they are about to experience.
  2. Ensure you connect the rationale to the guiding statement of the school and the improvement goals.
  3. Supporting this with empirical or anecdotal evidence of effectiveness strengthens your rationale.

Delivering Your Message: How Adults Learn

Now that you have succeeded in engaging your teachers’ mind and heart and they are ready to engage with your message, you can start the actual learning process. Andragogy, the theory of adult learning, typically emphasizes two key elements during this stage: the amount participants can influence how they learn and to what extent their experience can be used as a resource for learning. Learning activities should be designed to tap into these experiences.


We start with a brief and dynamic exercise that (continues to) connect their previous knowledge with the session content, as well as provide an opportunity to explore their understandings and misunderstandings of the topic of interest. Ideally, this learning activity provides your staff with ‘the right amount of drama’: a reason that makes the learning matter to the individual. In-house PD in schools often lack some tension, which means they are boring. Your job is to find the arc that allows for some emotion, but a structure that prevents this emotion from boiling over.

It must end with an opportunity to verbally articulate what was experienced in the learning engagement in front of the larger group. Listening to, and interacting with, other experiences helps learners connect and give meaning to the experience. Having one or two speak up is fine; not all need to speak as listening or making meaning is more important.


At this point, participants are open to new information and insights. Through an engaging and effective presentation of theoretical conceptual understanding, the facilitator takes the audience on a ‘journey of the mind’. Yes, this is the ‘talk and chalk’ bit: you or your designee delivers verbal instruction using visual aids, with limited active participation or interaction from the group.

Alternatively, you could introduce the new learning through a video or text you created or curated, and that delivers the same message while your instruction adds the contextual information your learners need.

As you present, allow for little moments to make meaning of the new information or insight through mindful interaction: they are using the new insights ‘in their head’, and are thinking of practical ways this is relevant to them individually.


The main course! Now that teachers have received new information, and you have contextualized why that new information is relevant to them, it is time to allow the adults to interact with their peers and make sense of it. Create an extensive learning engagement where the adults can examine the insights and experiment applying the new information in a hands-on manner. They have a degree of autonomy in the learning content, yet you still set the process method. This learning activity should be designed in such a way that adults can make the connection with their own experiences.

It is here they start making a ‘journey of the heart’ as they transition from cognitive input to contextual output and consider how they embed the learning and change (their) practice through critical analysis and interaction.

Priming your audience for action

Adult learners need autonomy, but autonomy without accountability leads you on a road to nowhere. At this stage, you must challenge your learners to rethink their practice and bring in some urgency through a mix of motivation and a plea to their responsibility to student learning. The final segment asks the audience to evaluate their understanding of the new information or the insights you presented and look for transfer into their practice.


The aim of this step is for you to push the learners by challenging their internalized ideas and beliefs and provide time for serious thought about the implication of the learning and formulate next steps to embed the learning and change (their) practice. Just like the Animate step, you provide a brief and dynamic exercise that connects their new learning with their individual practice, as well as provides an opportunity to explore their context and how to transfer the learning into it.

In short: spark deep reflection. Your prompts for reflection should end with exercises that summarize their intent such as ‘I used to think…’ followed by ‘I now think…’, ‘Think, pair, share’ or a ‘List three key takeaways and what you will do differently from tomorrow’.


By now the heavy lifting is done but we need to indulge one element of adult learning again: tap into their experience as participants and ask for their feedback: was the experience engaging? Was it effective? This reinforces autonomy of the adult learner and it allows us to refine and improve the experience. Easy does it and a short survey with limited, short answer questions is all it takes.

Examples are asking: ‘1) what should I stop doing, 2) what should I continue doing? 3) what should I start doing?’ or asking ‘A) what needs clarifying, B) what do you value, C) what concerns you and D) what would you suggest?

End this step by taking the last opportunity for you to maximize the impact: you summarize the learning by repeating key understandings you wanted to get across. However, the key skill to learn here is to listen for misunderstanding during the previous activities and address those while you summarize. Now you are facilitating like an expert!


I often see facilitators get their timing wrong. If you are in that situation, you must adapt, but don’t save time by skipping or reducing time for the delivery of this final step. You need to call for action and inspire your troops by ending your session with an appeal to the heart and the need to act on the learning. An uplifting closing allows the learner to remember the experience in a positive manner, which improves results and inspires behavioral change.

Finally, just as the opening starts with a positive statement, the closing ends with one too: celebrate the success of the session, and recognize the work done by the learners, you end by providing ‘a memorable moment’ to apply the content. Using a quote, an anecdote, some humour can all work, but connecting it to something that shares all participants, such as the success of our students, works best.

Dealing with Difficult Participants

Best laid plans can be derailed at any time. A simple comment by you or one of your participants can drag you into a different direction and before you know it your message is diluted or even worse: opposing views take hold. My next blog looks into the reasons that cause certain behaviors and how you can prevent these. In general, it is important to understand your own boundaries, so that you know when you need to step in, and when you can keep the PD going as planned. Three elements are important to recognize: content, process, and distraction.

When you deliver in-house PD, you must encourage cognitive dissonance around the content, but not tolerate behavior that challenges the process. Knowing that distinction will help you know when to step in, particularly when norms of collaboration or essential agreements are being abandoned. Don’t be afraid an opposing view is aired; in fact, encourage it because it presents you with an opportunity to address the argument in public. And hearing you address it strengthens others as they are now equipped with the words to address them in their own day-to-day interactions, which we all know happens in the corridor conversations and sometimes with more hostility.

Always have a place ready in your space, where you can deflect any distraction. You are encouraging participants to bring in their own experiences, but sometimes these are distracting as they are only tangentially connected, or the school is not yet ready to engage with the can of worms that topic opens up. Write down the issue on a big poster titled Important issues and spend a minute or so exhausting the participants’ thoughts. It is important that the poster is literally on the fringes of your space, because you can then walk away and physically demonstrate you are now moving on and drawing everyone back to the issue at hand.

For more tips & tricks in dealing with difficult participants join here and here.

The Benefit of Solving the Problem

Engaging your staff and improving how you facilitate meaningful professional development opportunities will create adult learning spaces where participants are excited to learn. It boosts communication and trust between leaders and staff, and consistently applying the 9-step framework of an expert facilitator makes any in-school workshop meaningful and relevant. You will be able to maximize your time together, we know it is scarce in schools!

As you apply the framework, these are the signs of an expert you can look for in feedback:

✔ Clarity in message
✔ Engaged teachers and higher morale
✔ Provoked a healthy level of cognitive conflict
✔ Inclusive practices that worked for all participants

You’ll start to notice how people enjoy attending your PD. You enjoy it more as you learn to maximize your impact and see their learning result in a change of practice. And the framework may look somewhat daunting, practice makes perfect and not insignificant: you will automate your facilitation skills and know what to do with disengaged learners without thinking twice – and with grace.

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About the author: Aubrey Curran helps you build capacity in your school and teachers

I want to help talented and ambitious educators live impactful professional lives. I live to cause growth: whether in students in the classroom, in adults in your schools or my own personal growth.

With 20+ years in international schools across four countries and over a 100 school visits world-wide as consultant, workshop leader or trainer of workshop leaders, I have learned how to get the most out of talented educators.

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