By Heather Hairston, Kevin Veal, and Jim Davis

Every summer, a large group of dedicated professionals flock to Harvard University for the SEL Summer Institute. Before the Institute, a faculty retreat is hosted to align mission, vision, curriculum, and strategies.

Professional development is essential. Schools, businesses, ALL organizations who engage in routine PD see incredible return, especially when compared to their peers (Becker, Huselid, and Ulrich, 2001).

But it’s not all equal – the true impact of PD is determined by its content and delivery. It’s not always perfect. We, as practitioners, have all had moments where things did not go to plan. Stage fright. Self-doubt. An audience glued to their phones. On the flip side, this crew feels fortunate to have had a great deal of successful engagements as well. In fact, we’ve gotten pretty good at it.

“Schools, businesses, ALL organizations who engage in routine PD see incredible return, especially when compared to their peers… But it’s not all equal – the true impact of professional development is determined by its content and delivery…”

Factors that contribute to successful PD

To expand the spirit of this learning community, factors from effective (and ineffective) professional development sessions have been distilled below, and we are eager to share.

Effective Professional Development must…

  • Be Distributed by Credible Messengers

Why should we listen to you? an audience will almost assuredly think. The fact of the matter is, audiences are often skeptical. From word one, the facilitator is tasked with making the audience feel as though their time is well spent. Not only do they have to be a compelling speaker (content and presentation matter, of course), but they also have to fill the position of ‘credible messenger’.

Credibility can be earned from experience, accomplishment, and skill. A football coach should probably have won a few games before telling others about their ‘successful’ strategies. A school leader should have some experience dealing with difficult parents before leading a workshop on the topic. Academics should have examined the research and published on the area of concern.

Kevin recently experienced professional development on school relationships delivered by active paraprofessionals in the building. Had they not been active practitioners, their messages would not have landed in the same way. They successfully use the skills they distribute.

All things equal, would you rather attend a presentation on football strategy from a coach who had won a Championship and was celebrated by his peers, or one who had not yet won a game?

The tricky part: what determines credibility will vary by audience. To account for this, see Factor Two:

  • Include the Head, the Hand, and the Heart

Successful PD will include the Head (cognitive, research-based), the Hand (practical, experience-based), and the Heart (emotion, vulnerability, personal stories). Including content from all three areas will demonstrate credibility across a wide variety of audiences. And it will create a compelling presentation.

Pure research can be dry. Boring. Pure practice can create skeptics. Yea, that worked for you but that’s not my situation. Pure heart might move an audience for a moment but will leave them wanting something more tangible.

Discussing a strategy for conflict resolution? Explain the strategy (practical), explain why you believe it will work (combination of research and experience) and tell an interesting story from the heart to bring the ideas to life.

Include all three components. And always keep the people in the room in mind.

  • Leverage the Expertise of Leaders in the Room

For a recent engagement in Baltimore, Heather conducted a diagnostic survey of 9 Domains associated with school culture. This information not only influenced her PD session, but allowed her to leverage the expertise of schools and principles who had been doing it well.

For instance, if the selected domain was ‘attendance’, she was able to identify schools in the area whose attendance scores were improving. Then, during her session, she could ask leaders from those schools to share their strategies. In this way, the presentation becomes a sort of partnership. Everyone benefits.

This takes some foresight, of course. She had to begin with the end in mind. Success could be measured, but only because the 9 essential domains had been identified.

  • Establish a Common Language

More than one might expect, audiences can be unclear with “common” terminology. Speakers to often assume that folks who have shown up for a presentation are familiar with many of the passwords they might throw around their school or lab. 

For instance, what do we mean by Grit? Are you referring to the capacity researched by Angela Duckworth and her team? A John Wayne movie? Or a 1950s disposition imposed upon many students, one that old timers often lament that “kids these days” are lacking? 

For that matter, what do you mean by “SEL”? Ask around your office. A dozen people might give you 12 different responses – similar, perhaps, but different. And until you align, true learning will be limited.

If you are called upon to facilitate a professional development workshop, you are considered an expert. You deserve the title, of course you need. But you can’t expect everyone there to be an expert as well… Get on the same page first. Develop a common language around the key terms you will be using.

Hosting a Professional Development session?? “Successful PD will include the Head (cognitive, research-based), the Hand (practical, experience-based), and the Heart (emotion, vulnerability, personal stories)”

Moving Forward

Give these a try! If you have an existing professional development session, review it through these four lenses. If you’re in the process of creating one, keep these in mind.

While these are tried and true strategies, another truth is that your sessions will improve over time. They will not improve while sitting in a PowerPoint deck, you will have to create opportunities to share. Practice creates improvement. 

So if you have something meaningful to share with the world, share it! REACH OUT if we can support.

And until then, we hope to see you in Cambridge this summer at the SEL Summer Institute:

We hope to see you in Cambridge this summer at the SEL Summer Institute!!


Becker, BE, Huselid, MA, Ulrich, D (2001). The HR Scorecard: Linking People, Strategy, and Performance. Harvard Business Press, 16-17.

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