The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 201
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
GONZALEZ: Anyone who has ever been a teacher has participated in a lot of professional development. If you’re lucky, some of that has been time well spent, giving you new tools and helping you grow as an educator. Unfortunately for many of us, that isn’t the case much of the time. Hearing a teacher say, “I can’t wait to spend all day tomorrow in PD!” is something that almost never happens.
And why is that? Well, there are lots of reasons. One is that our PD is often designed to be one-size-fits-all, which means a lot of people in attendance will feel that the content isn’t relevant to their work. Another is that PD is often structured in a top-down fashion, where participants are passively receiving information, with little acknowledgement or use of their personal expertise. And another is that hardly any effort is made to ensure that the people in the room — the adult learners — feel physically and emotionally comfortable enough to give their full participation.
Solving these issues is the goal of my guest, Elena Aguilar. Her new book, The PD Book: 7 Habits That Transform Professional Development, explores seven different approaches we can take to make PD much more impactful. The book, which she co-authored with Lori Cohen, is full of incredibly insightful advice — stuff that really focuses in on the idea that PD is ultimately about groups of complex human beings gathering together to learn and grow. If you are a facilitator, the book will help you do your work better. If you’re someone who plans PD and hires folks to come into your school, it will refine what you’re looking for in that process. And if your role is primarily as a participant, it may help explain why you feel dissatisfied sometimes, and provide you with a blueprint for what powerful PD should look like.
Today Elena and I are going to talk about one specific piece of the book, where she talks about the importance of establishing psychological safety as part of the groundwork of good PD. This topic is especially interesting to me, because too many of my own PD memories include sitting with people who intimidated me, feeling like I couldn’t ask questions or speak up about concerns I had, even at times acting like I wasn’t interested in the material we were learning because apathy was the prevailing mood of the room and I didn’t want to look uncool. What I love about teaching is that there is no end to the ways we can grow and develop our craft, and the thought of doing that in a space where I feel psychologically safe is really appealing.
In this episode, Elena will share five specific things PD facilitators can do to build that psychological safety for participants.
Before we get started I’d like to thank Hapara for sponsoring this episode. Hapara is a suite of instructional management tools for K12 that is like nothing else. Hapara is the only tool on the market that provides ethical monitoring features, allowing educators to give students timely formative feedback with a reason for closing a tab. What is ethical monitoring? It’s a way to provide visibility into what your students are doing when they’re learning online and to help them stay on track without constantly closing browser tabs or punishing them. Ethical monitoring leads to good digital citizenship in students, which is why you need a monitoring tool with features that allow you to foster positive relationships with learners, not adversarial ones. No other product in the edtech space has a feature that enables educators to give reasons for closing tabs. They simply close browser tabs for students and, in turn, close off the possibility for them to learn how to exercise their executive functioning skills and make good decisions online. Hapara helps educators build relationships with students while giving them autonomy over their education. Visit hapara.com/cultofpedagogy to learn more about supporting digital citizenship skill building for students through ethical monitoring.
Support also comes from JumpStart, which is my very own self-paced online course designed to help teachers use technology more thoughtfully in the classroom. By guiding you through a series of 10 hands-on projects, this course will give you the confidence and skills you need to make smart choices about the tech you use in your teaching. It’s not about using the coolest, newest tools. It’s not about plugging kids into devices and forgetting about them. It’s about using technology to design rich, challenging learning experiences for students. Educators who take the course have a choice between JumpStart, which you do completely on your own, or JumpStart Plus, which adds the support of an online community and a team of experienced mentors who can answer your questions and give you feedback as you work through the course. Group discounts are available if you want to take the course with a few of your colleagues, and purchase orders are accepted! I’m really proud of how hard we’ve worked to make this a course that keeps sound pedagogy at the center. To learn more about JumpStart, visit cultofpedagogy.com/jumpstart.
Now here’s my conversation with Elena Aguilar about psychological safety in professional development.
GONZALEZ: Elena, welcome to the podcast.
AGUILAR: Thank you, Jenn. It’s so great to be here again.
GONZALEZ: Yes. I should have said welcome back to the podcast because we had you on a couple of years ago to talk about resilience. You’ve written actually two books, I think, since then. We missed one, but this is, we’re going to be talking about your new book, “The PD Book.” But before we get into what we’re going to be discussing today, just give us a little bit for my listeners who are brand new to you, just tell us a little bit about your background and what you’re doing right now in education.
AGUILAR: Sure. So I was a teacher, coach, and administrator in the Oakland Public Schools, that’s Oakland, California, for 20 years. And towards the end of that time, during my experience as a coach or because of my experiences as a coach, I started writing about coaching and wrote “The Art of Coaching,” which came out in 2013. That provided sort of an unexpected and unplanned new adventure into the world of my own business and training coaches and writing lots more books. I’ve written seven books now. Speaking and facilitating workshops on coaching, and also my own podcast, the Bright Morning podcast. So I still really feel like I am a teacher at heart, still live in Oakland, and feel really connected to what happens in the classroom.
GONZALEZ: And we were talking about instructional coaching just in case we have some brand-new teacher listening to this and they think that you are running a basketball team or something. We’re talking about basically helping teachers do their teaching better.
AGUILAR: Yeah, yeah. Helping people grow.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. So what we’re talking about today is “The PD Book,” which you have written to help people who lead professional development make their offerings more transformative for participants. And in the book, you talk about the use of the word or the choice of the word “transformative.” And you co-wrote this book with Lori Cohen. And so tell me a little bit about what made you both want to write this, what can people expect to learn from it, and talk a little bit about this word transformative and why that was so key to your approach.
AGUILAR: Sure. So I have been presenting, delivering PD for about 15 years now, and I would say for the last 10 years, I have gotten a lot of feedback from folks who attend that sounds like, “Oh my God, that was the best PD I’ve ever been to. How did you do that?” I will say prior to those 10 years, I also did a lot of PD that people did not appreciate. So I learned a lot about presenting PD. But when I started getting all this appreciative feedback and people saying, you know, “That time went by so fast.” I heard it as an invitation to do what I call pulling back the curtain and describing, well, here’s how I made that decision. This is why I thought about putting you in these groups or asking you to do that. And what I wanted people to know, and these were teacher leaders and instructional coaches and administrators was, you can do what I’m doing. You can create the conditions in which people can learn. I’ll say we also — both Lori and I — had had lots of experience in PD sessions where we didn’t feel like we were seen or respected as the professionals that we were, where we felt like this is something to endure. And so we want to invite people into really shift the way that we think about PD into being an experience that can be deeply nourishing and rewarding, something that can change the way we think, we feel, the things that we do. And really an experience that people can walk away from saying, “I learned so much about myself. I can take what I’ve learned into the classroom and into my life.” So something that’s not just about what happens in the classroom but really that impacts our entire life. Because those are the things that we’re going to remember and use so much more. So when we talk about transformative PD, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s something that is holistic, that addresses our behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being. That is the definition of transformative. It’s not just learning a new strategy that we can implement tomorrow. That’s really important, but really shifting how we feel deeply, something that cultivates our resilience. So in “The PD Book,” we describe seven habits that transform PD, and those are things that span the range of very technical skills like exactly what to include in an email that you send ahead of time to very adaptive skills and behaviors, including how to navigate power dynamics, how to manage your own mood, how to respond to the moods of other people. So that’s what’s in the book. I also really want to say that for folks who are listening who may not be in a position of delivering PD or designing PD, this book can really help do a few things. It can help you understand perhaps why the PD that you’ve experienced feels like it doesn’t work for you or maybe why the PD you’ve experienced hopefully does work for you, but also give you ideas for how you can improve the PD sessions in which you are a participant, because there’s a lot that we can do from the seat of our participant’s location to support those who are designing PD, delivering PD. And also perhaps this book might entice some of your listeners into exploring opportunities to take a leadership role. Even as a teacher-leader, I found there were always opportunities for me to do that and maybe to move into facilitating PD. So hopefully facilitating PD for adults draws a lot on our skills in teaching children, and so it can for many feel like a natural extension. Not that people have to move into full-time coaching roles, but as a way to share what you know and what you’ve learned as a teacher.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. I think that’s a great addition there, because so many teachers out there have really valuable stuff that they could be sharing, but probably the process of giving PD is intimidating because I know that what I hear from a lot of teachers that I know, they just dread it. They just can’t stand it, and it’s just an awful, awful feeling and so nobody wants to put themselves at the front of that room knowing what all of the grumblings are. And so for you to break it down for them and say, here are all the pieces that have actually really worked, especially since you’ve been on the other side as somebody who didn’t always get compliments on your PD. So you know what you can change that’s made the big difference.
AGUILAR: I also, I just want to say that I want to draw people in hopefully to delivering PD because it can be so incredible and so energizing. And I think for teachers who have been teaching for a while, it can be a tremendous boost to your energy. Yes, it can be really hard to be on that side, but when you get it right, and when you’ve got 30 or 40 or 100 teachers who are like, “Thank you” —
AGUILAR: — it is so energizing. I feel like I really stayed in teaching because in my sixth- or seventh-year teaching, I had opportunities to start learning about how to do PD and it just, it pushed me much deeper as a teacher, and it helped me build these additional skills that really, it was like I got to learn again, and I got to do something new, and it was so energizing.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. I’m just imagining a school where teachers are reading this and learning these skills. The school may never have to hire out much PD ever again because if the teachers learn how to give good PD, they’ve got lots of knowledge to share right there in the building and could end up with a really incredible system just right inside. So that’s a great encouragement. So we’re going to be focusing, so you’ve got these seven different habits that teachers can practice in order to give good PD. We’re going to be focusing in this interview on the second one, which is called engage emotions. And I love this one because I just feel like emotions drive so many things that happen in school buildings all day long. And you and Lori do a really beautiful job of establishing how much that influence happens. One of things that you talk about, and this is the piece we’re going to focus on, is how important it is for facilitators to create a feeling of psychological safety for participants in order for anything really productive to happen. So what you’re going to be doing is sort of giving us some specific strategies that can create that psychological safety. But before that, in the book you sort of summarize what the research tells us about psychological safety and learning. So tell me a little bit about that first, and then we’ll get into thing specific tips.
AGUILAR: Yeah, I love that you want to talk about this chapter because I feel like it is everything that I did not know when I started doing PD. So the research, I love reading research, and this chapter makes me feel like, look, we can either understand the science and heed the science or we can just fight with the science and fight with our brains. So psychological safety is a prerequisite for transformative learning to occur, and this is about our brains and our bodies. So when we are afraid, children and adults when we’re afraid, our brains basically shut down. If we feel like someone, especially someone in power, poses a threat to our well-being, and that could be physical or psychological, then what happens in our body is it goes into protection mode, it prepares for battle, it generates hormones, neurochemicals to help us survive, our attention narrows and it focuses on little cues from the person who has power to indicate when it is time to flee or fight or freeze or appease. And yes, this happens even when you are in a PD session in the library. It sounds really primal and dramatic, and it is, and we are human beings with these brains and bodies that respond in this way. And so what that means is when we experience this kind of fear, what we might notice as participants is that we’re not really following the PD anymore or maybe that we’re losing interest or maybe that we’re getting sleepy or checking out. We may not remember much of the presentation later, and this is happening because the part of our brain where complex thinking happens is kind of slowing down. It kind of shuts down. And that’s what happens when our psychological safety feels threatened. So I find, again, this research to be really compelling to help at least convince me, myself, that I got to take this seriously. There’s other research. There’s a really well-known study that was done by Google which studied highly productive teams, and their results are that emotional intelligence and psychological safety was, this is to quote the study, “far and away the most important dynamics that set successful teams apart.” And so this is really relevant. That was a massive study, and it really did help again to convince me. I was like, do we really have to pay attention to all this emotion stuff, all this psychological safety? I kind of battled that truth for years and the answer was yes, yes, yes, yes. We have to consider, if we want to build successful teams, if we want to build spaces where people are learning, if we want to build instructional leadership teams where we get stuff done, we have to pay attention to psychological safety.
GONZALEZ: So I’m trying to put myself in the mind of somebody who’s listening, and they might, because you said, it sounds a little dramatic to say that we’re experiencing actual fear in a PD. And so could you break that down a little bit more and maybe with an example or something. Because I’m sitting here thinking, somebody might be like, “No, it’s not fear. I’m just annoyed. I’m annoyed that we’re being told to do something that is nonsense or my time is being wasted.” They might not choose fear as the emotion. So I can see how that can be masked by some other thing. But what actually is the fear? What are they afraid of?
AGUILAR: Yeah. That’s a great question. So that has to do, your question has to do a little bit with how we understand emotions, which is information that many of us didn’t get as children. We didn’t get social-emotional learning in school. Maybe some of us have done some reading and learning or therapy. So fear often shows up as anger or frustration. So the frustration of “my time is being wasted.” We can ask ourselves, “What is underneath that frustration?” And often it’s the feeling of, this is a waste of time. There’s other things that are more important. The fear is of not having the kind of impact we want to have, of not being able to express ourselves the way that we want to, of not having meaning. Fear is often hiding under a lot of our uncomfortable emotions, including, often, anger or frustration. So an example, let’s say you go into a PD session and the facilitator has a do now, and there’s a timer going, and the do now is asking a question that makes you feel like, “Oh, there’s a right and a wrong answer to this.” And you’re noticing the countdown timer, and you’ve come in after a really busy day during which maybe you didn’t have prep, maybe you didn’t have lunch because it’s a minimum day. So that is all either subtly or not so subtly heightening sort of the stress, the anxiety. And then the facilitator says, “Time’s up,” and says, “Okay, I want you to walk around the room and when the music stops, grab a person, and you’re going to share your answers with.” Now again, consciously or unconsciously, this is creating a situation in which our, there’s a pressure, there’s, many of us are going to feel kind of nervous, like, “Who am I going to be with? Am I going to feel comfortable talking to them? Is this going to be someone I have a relationship with or someone that I don’t really know that well?” There’s all these very subtle small ways in which we either build a sense of safety, the conditions in which we can kind of relax, or we heighten the tension, the pressure, the anxiety, the sort of there’s a right and a wrong answer. Who am I going to be with? Am I going to be called out? Is this facilitator going to call on me and say, what’d you get for that question? Am I going to be, is my status going to be preserved? Am I going to be seen as someone who knows something?
AGUILAR: Right? So there are so many little things that contribute to creating psychological safety. The fact that we come into PD sessions so often with no transition, with no opportunity to, like, take a deep breath after what may have been a really full day, that undermines psychological safety. Psychological safety includes being seen, being recognized as like yeah, it’s a Wednesday, and I didn’t have prep. I didn’t have lunch. I rushed in here. I thought I was going to be late, and I know that now my principal is tracking who gets here on time, and I sat down and the first thing I was asked was like, “Name three formative assessment strategies you used today in teaching.” And I’m like, “I need to breathe. I haven’t even, I’ve barely had time to go to the bathroom.” That undermines psychological safety because we don’t, as teachers, feel like yeah, the person in front of you gets what my day was like. We don’t feel seen.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. So it sounds like it’s, there’s sort of a running thread here, which is this fear of being maybe embarrassed or feeling sort of like your ego is going to get bruised or you’re going to maybe lose some credibility in terms of your colleagues. It’s reminding me of a piece I wrote a bunch of years ago about academic safety and how much we have to focus on making sure our kids feel comfortable in the classroom asking questions, making mistakes, saying they don’t understand something because they don’t want to look stupid in front of their peers. And so a lot of times kids won’t, and teachers are the same humans, just a little older.
AGUILAR: Yeah. We don’t want to lose social acceptance.
AGUILAR: We depend on each other. It’s a healthy thing.
AGUILAR: We don’t want to be embarrassed. We don’t want to be, you know, think of the teacher who’s been teaching for 15 years, 20 years, and there’s new information, new strategies. They don’t want to be exposed in front of their peers as losing status, losing relationships. It’s, learning requires us to be vulnerable and yet facilitators often don’t create the psychological safety, the conditions in which we can be vulnerable, take risks and say, “I don’t know.”
GONZALEZ: Right, right. So now we’re going to get into these specific things. You’ve got five specific things, and then there’s a sixth sort of add-on comment at the end of that. So let’s just, let’s get into it. This is really the main stuff here. If I am facilitating a PD. If I’m walking into a room, or I’m planning on walking into a room with 80 people. I don’t know them. I don’t have a relationship. What are these things that I can do to make this group feel comfortable and safe enough where they can be vulnerable enough to learn.
AGUILAR: Yes. And I’m going to get really specific, and there are a lot more specifics in this book.
AGUILAR: So the first thing is good news and bad news. The good news is everything starts and ends with you, and that’s also the bad news because it implies a tremendous amount of responsibility that you can take. So the first strategy is to cultivate your own emotional intelligence. Everything starts and ends with you. Our emotions are contagious. This is science. This has to do with mirror neurons that exist in our brains. We catch the emotions that others are feeling. We catch the emotions of the people who have power. When you are facilitating PD, you have power. Learners look to you for cues about how you feel, and they mirror your emotions. Now you probably know this as a teacher in a classroom. It’s the same thing that happens. So if you walk into a room and you’re feeling annoyed by the participants, by the learners, the teachers in that room that you’re going to facilitate a learning experience for, they’re going to pick up on that. If you walk in communicating openness and acceptance, and if you feel like your learners are skilled, capable, smart, caring people, then your learners, the people in front of you, are much more likely to be open and receptive. So what you think and feel is everything. So there’s a lot more in my book and in “Onward” about how to cultivate your own emotional intelligence. And again, these are skills that when you learn, they extend outside of the library when you’re doing PD. Your life improves, your relationships with everyone improve when you learn how to understand your own emotions, to recognize them, to regulate or manage them, to build your resilience. That improves your life outside of your professional context.
AGUILAR: So that’s the first strategy. I’ll stop there to see if you have anything to follow up with.
GONZALEZ: No. That, that, I think, I see why you’re saying that’s the good news and the bad news though, because that’s a lifelong process. That’s not something that somebody can quickly do over a weekend and lock it down.
AGUILAR: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
AGUILAR: So the second strategy is to learn how to cultivate a group’s emotional intelligence and creating an emotionally safe learning environment requires a leader or a facilitator to have emotional intelligence but that’s not enough. So you might be really skilled at using empathy to connect with a grumpy teacher, let’s say. But when that teacher sits down with her colleagues, those colleagues might get triggered by her mood and then there’s this whole new ripple of tension that starts. So if you’re a PD provider, you’re going to be a lot more effective if you find ways to teach people how to understand their own emotions, how to navigate the emotions of others, and this actually can be a lot simpler than it sounds. So here’s an activity you can do. Takes five minutes or so at the start of a PD session, and it begins with inviting people to identify three words that describe how they are feeling. This just gives people a chance to bring awareness to their emotions, which is something that often we feel like we don’t have time to do, or we just don’t do it. You can use a resource like a tool that I offer called the core emotions. It’s in a number of my books. It’s on my website. That’s a document that gives people a basically list of words that describe emotions, and they’re organized in a certain way. Many of us just don’t have the vocabulary to describe our emotions, and so giving people a tool helps them say, this is what I’m feeling, and then you give people a chance to share with each other what they’re feeling, maybe what is contributing to that, and it gives people an opportunity to cultivate self-awareness and empathy for each other. And so the teacher who walks in and says, “Right now I’m feeling frustrated, disappointed, and disheartened because I put so much time into this lesson that I did today, and it flopped, and I’m just feeling like I am not making any growth as a teacher. I feel hopeless.” What happens then is everybody sitting around that teacher feels that, right? Again, mirror neurons. Like, we know that feeling.
AGUILAR: We feel empathy, and so then we realize, okay, so here she is. She’s kind of grumpy. I’m not going to take it personally, and actually I feel like I get it. I resonate. So that’s a way to cultivate group emotional intelligence, and that’s just one example of an activity you can do that helps that happen.
GONZALEZ: So regardless of what the session is going to be about, this is just a five-minute, it’s almost like a formalized check-in around tables or something? Where they would share with each other and kind of centers everybody on this and allows them to sort of settle down any emotions that are really distracting them, at least by getting them out. I love that idea. It sounds super easy too.
AGUILAR: Yeah, and it’s so simple.
AGUILAR: And it helps people transition from the day.
AGUILAR: It helps people move into a learning space, and you know that the amazing thing is we think that dealing with emotions is big and complicated and takes so long and like 20 years of therapy. But a lot of times when we just say, “I’m feeling disappointed. I’m feeling sad. I’m feeling frustrated.” It’s almost like this magical, it lifts. It can lift even just a tiny bit, and when other people are nodding, and you can see on their face that they empathize —
AGUILAR: — it’s incredible. And then people will often say, “You know what? I feel better just saying that.”
AGUILAR: And it’s seven minutes, and you can move in to talking about formative assessment or academic literacy
AGUILAR: Or whatever it is that you’re presenting on.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. And you know, I think one thing — without us getting too deep into this thread, which I feel like we could — sometimes we have our emotions, and then we have our own judgment of our emotions. “I shouldn’t feel this way. No one else feels this way.” And just hearing that everybody else is carrying baggage around with them too, it kind of, okay, it’s okay.
GONZALEZ: We’re all wrestling with stuff all the time, and that can also lighten it.
AGUILAR: It normalizes emotions, and we are human beings. Human beings have emotions, and if we could just accept that we have them, and share them a little bit more often, it would be a different world. So yeah, normalizing emotions is a tremendous strategy for releasing them, for accepting, releasing them.
GONZALEZ: That’s a great strategy. Okay. So that was the second one, cultivating the group’s emotional intelligence. What’s No. 3?
AGUILAR: No. 3 is to explicitly teach communication skills. Now, most of us have not learned a whole lot of communication skills, at least, speaking for myself, I did not until into my fourth decade of living. And sometimes as a PD provider, I feel like, really? Now I also have to teach people how to listen and how to ask questions and so on? I have a lot of arguments with myself, and the answer I tell myself is yes, absolutely. And so, you know, imagine being in a PD session. Maybe you can recall being in a PD session where you felt like your colleagues weren’t really listening to you or someone else interrupted you and talked over you, or you felt like you were sharing an idea and other people judged you for your ideas. And maybe what happened in those moments is that you kind of started checking out, and you felt like, “Ah, what am I, this PD is not really helpful.” In order to create psychological safety, we need to have effective communication between people and so there’s a lot of ways to do that. We can talk about addressing interruptions, talking about when we give advice, talking about how we listen, how we ensure that our body is communicating that we’re listening, paying attention to nonverbal communication. We can learn how to be aware of the judgment that often for many of us naturally comes up when we’re listening, and how to shift into listening with compassion and curiosity. I really think that poor communication is often at the root of many problematic adult cultures in schools. I hear so often, unfortunately, people in schools saying, “I feel like I’m just not understood. I feel like I’m not heard.” And that can be by colleagues, by administrators. And so when we are providing PD, when we’re aspiring to create psychological safety, we’ve got to get into the root of how we listen to each other, how we disagree with each other, how we challenge ideas, how we deal with conflict, and we’ll get into that later. How we probe for deeper understanding, especially when we start talking about doing PD and doing work around equity and addressing some of the systemic issues in our schools. We’ve got to work on our communication. So this is another area that may sound really overwhelming and massive and yet there are things that we can do that take five to seven minutes in a PD session that help people learn communication skills and therefore really deepen their ability to be vulnerable in PD, to take risks, to listen to each other, to support each other. So yeah, it might feel like, “Now I have to do this also?” And my answer would be, “Yes.”
GONZALEZ: So what would that actually look like in, I’ve got this check-in with the three emotions to get everybody kind of, so what would it look like to be, is this sort of like a norm-setting session before you actually get into the formative assessment stuff, in terms of how? Yeah. Like, what does it even look like? Because when you were talking, I was like, that sounds like a three-day, wonderful three-day, PD on all of those communication skills. So how would you condense in a way that would make a difference?
AGUILAR: Yeah. Okay, it could be three days. It could be two hours at the beginning of the school year followed up by an hour each month. It could be 15 minutes of a 90-minute PD session once a month. There’s different ways to chunk the learning. You could start with doing an activity that I have in my book “The Art of Coaching Workbook,” it’s also in “Onward,” around listening to your listening. So often when we are listening to other people talk, we do a number of things, including thinking about our rebuttal, thinking about stories that we’re going to share in response, thinking about how we’re going to tell someone they’re wrong, what is the argument, what is the, what am I thinking of? Thinking about how what they’re saying is wrong. Thinking about questions that we want to ask to sort of challenge their thinking. So often when someone else is talking, there’s so much going on in our mind, which then directs a conversation. It’s not listening.
AGUILAR: When all of that is going on in our mind, we’re not listening.
AGUILAR: And so in a lot of my workshops, I teach people how to just become aware of how they’re listening. And often when we have awareness, when I listen and I realize, oh my God. I’m always listening to fix someone, then we can start making choices about how we listen, and we have a choice then. Do I want to move into listening from curiosity? Can I be curious about what someone is really expressing? Can I listen to what they’re saying for possibility, for hope? Can I listen with compassion? That’s a starting place is just learning how to listen. Learning how to ask questions, questions that are non-judgmental, questions that help someone truly probe for what they’re understanding or what they’re thinking. These are all topics that could be mini lessons, that could be, they do, they require practice.
AGUILAR: But they can also be skills that we make quick growth in because people want to learn how to connect with each other, and we connect through communication.
GONZALEZ: So if I’m giving just maybe like a 90-minute PD, it sounds like what you’re saying is it, especially if this is a group I’m not going to be working with long-term, if it’s just a one-off thing, it may be worth it to strip away some of the content that I was going to cover in order to allot some time at the beginning to just maybe focus on one or two skills that I think people need to be thinking about when they’re in the breakout rooms or something like that. When they’re having conversations and maybe just give some sentence stems or models or something of things that they can be trying or being aware of or something like that in the way that they communicate.
AGUILAR: Yes. Yeah. So I want to link that back to the purpose is to create psychological safety.
AGUILAR: If you are facilitating a 90-minute session with a group that you won’t be working with ongoing, my first question would be, what is the level of psychological safety that exists within this group already? Maybe I do need to spend some time cultivating a context in which people can listen, but maybe not. Maybe I’m coming into a group that has incredible levels of psychological safety. Maybe they do listen to each other. Maybe what they need is a little bit of a primer or reminder or to be set up to engage in conflict with each other. Conflict can be super healthy. And so that’s the first thing that I would wonder about. It might be, and yet we have also all experienced going into virtual breakout groups or breakout groups in person where one person dominates the conversation.
AGUILAR: And we feel like, okay, what was the point of that? And so that might be the kind of thing that takes seven or eight minutes in the beginning for us to do some norming around sharing and how we listen to each other. So it really depends a little bit on the context, but I will link that back to considering levels of psychological safety and what’s needed in that group.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So it sounds like there might be some room for getting to know who you’re about to present to ahead of time. Maybe doing some sort of a survey or something to find out a little bit about where they are.
AGUILAR: Absolutely. And that is something that we also write about in “The PD Book” when we’re describing designing, identifying purpose, is you need to know your learners and part of that is knowing, I need to know when I’m going into doing a 90-minute session on equity in the classroom, I need to know what this group has done and whether I’m walking into a really tense context, into a context where there’s going to be a lot of conflict or whether I need to understand that they’ve already done some norming about how to have these conversations and what they need is just the primer or reminder. So yeah, that’s absolutely part of it is knowing your people.
GONZALEZ: I’m looking at our list of items, and it looks like we’re about to get into maybe some more of the specifics of how, what that looks like when you’re working. So what is the fourth strategy here for creating psychological safety?
AGUILAR: Yeah. The fourth strategy is to use norms or community agreements, and this may be familiar to lots of listeners. If you are working with a group, let’s say, that you know really well, you’re colleagues, then ideally, you’ve got some community agreements and what happens in the beginning of a session is that folks are brought into those. Those are perhaps discussed or activated. If you are dropping into a group for 90 minutes, then either use the norms that the group has, or you might offer your own set of norms. And so in my workshops, the norms that I offer, again for folks who are just coming in for a four-hour workshop once, the norms I offer are take care of yourself, be fully present, take risks, and be mindful of other learners. Now, it’s essential that there is some meaning making about what these mean, some discussion of, what does it mean to be mindful of other learners? That means don’t interrupt each other. It means come back from breaks on time. It means no side conversations, that kind of thing. But to do some meaning-making. So we, you know, I know that there are lots of places where norms are not used in a way that makes us excited about using them, and they are essential. It’s an agreement about how we’re going to show up together, how we’re going to be in a way so that we can learn together. Looping back again to creating psychological safety, it’s kind of like when you get married, and you make vows. You’re like, this is what’s going to guide how we behave together, or you have, you know, rules or agreements. They’re essential right now. They’re essential in any group to begin with. How are we going to treat each other? And then, you know, we can talk more about then they need to be upheld. They need to be addressed when the norms are breaking down. So that’s another just really key action for a facilitator to take to establish them, to ensure that people are anchoring in them and to address them when they break down.
GONZALEZ: So you have a story here about a time when things sort of started to feel like they were breaking down and how you handled that. Are you, do you want to share that?
AGUILAR: So I was presenting a two-day workshop, and I’ll tell you this is after about, like, 10 years of presenting workshops. I felt really confident and competent, and it was a two-day workshop and in the afternoon on the first day, I noticed that a lot of the agreements were being ignored. And I was noticing that there were 150 people there. I was asking people to do silent activities, and people were engaging in side conversations during small group activities. People were on email. And my first thought was, well, okay, if people don’t find this useful or if it’s not relevant to them, then fine. That’s their choice. They can check out. They can do what they need to do. I was trying not to be triggered or reactive, but I was also recognizing that the whole learning environment felt like it was kind of being undermined and it was deteriorating. And I was then noticing that some of the learners who were really engaged were looking at me as I was looking at the people who were obviously, like, scrolling Facebook. I could see their eyes, like, their eyes were looking to the person, to me, to the person. And I could, I felt like I could hear the thoughts. Like, these were the learners I wanted to keep. These were the people who were engaged, and I felt like I could hear that they were thinking, okay, so Elena sees this person is not engaged in the activity. Is she going to do anything or is she going to ignore that? And in that moment, I knew that I was risking losing the trust of the people who were engaged, and I risked deteriorating the psychological safety that I had been developing, and I realized, like, it’s my responsibility to say something. I felt so nervous. My heart was racing. And I was like, okay, I’m afraid, and I’ve got to take a stand for what matters. And that’s what my fear is telling me, this matters. And I was like, it’s okay. It’s going to be worth it. So right before this scheduled afternoon break, my heart is racing, my palms are sweating, I’m holding the microphone, and I say to the 150 people, “I’m feeling really uncomfortable right now, but I have to name something I’m observing. Over the last couple of hours, during several independent activities and pair shares and small group activities, I noticed that some people have been disengaging from this learning. And my concern is about the impact that that’s having on others in your groups. Some of you have noticed me noticing this. You’re watching me noticing what’s going on, and I realize that I’m risking losing your trust that I can hold this safe, focused learning space until, unless I name this breakdown of the norms.” And so I said, “So this feels really awkward to say, but it’s my responsibility to make sure this is a safe learning space.” So then I said, “If you are unable to participate in these activities, for whatever reason, I invite you to step out and return when you are. So if you’re in this room, I’m asking you to recommit to these community agreements and keep this space focused on learning.” And I was like, looking around the room thinking, “Oh my God. What have I done?” I did address the elephant in the room.
AGUILAR: The elephant was that people were checking out.
AGUILAR: And I was like risking that people were going to, I don’t know what I was worried about, like people were going to throw tomatoes at me. Or I, you know, I was afraid people were going to feel like I’m trying to control them. And so then I said, okay, let’s take a break because I kind of timed this. Half the people in the room started clapping and half of them, half of the total people in the room started clapping, and I was like so surprised. And then people went to break, and several people came up to me and said, “I just really appreciated that. That was, you know, we really needed to see how a leader does that. I needed that modeling.”
AGUILAR: And I really realized later that like my fear transformed into courage. I felt aligned to my values. I felt like, yeah, I was responsible in that room, and it felt good. And so that was hard. It was still, like even telling you, I can see that room, I can see the faces, I can feel my heart racing.
GONZALEZ: I know. My heart was racing too, but then there’s that huge dopamine hit when you actually line up and do something brave with your own, you know, your own truth and what your own, and I bet a ton of other people, the people who clapped especially had never seen that done before.
GONZALEZ: Because it’s just, it’s just something that we as humans, maybe it’s something that’s an American thing, but we, just a lot of times just don’t say anything and let that kind of garbage go on. And my question though is how many people didn’t show back up again after the break?
AGUILAR: Oh, that’s such a good question. Everyone came back.
GONZALEZ: They did.
AGUILAR: Everyone came back, and, and, I mean that’s such a good question. I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned that. Everyone came back, and there was the most deepest engagement in our learning. It’s like, people, sometimes I feel like people want to be, sometimes I feel like people want to be called on their behavior.
AGUILAR: Like, they want to be called in. They want someone to say, “This is important.”
AGUILAR: “You can do this.”
AGUILAR: “Come on. Let’s be together.” And no, I mean it turned into the most deepest, profound learning experience that there was, there were no phones out. That was part of it. I was worried people are not going to come back, they’re not going to come back the next day. They’re going to write bad things in their feedback form. And it turned into a really powerful learning experience. And it also was, for me, just this reminder of like, yeah, you’ve got to take action on what you know is right. If you believe that this is essential for creating psychological safety, then live your word, walk your talk.
GONZALEZ: So, so this, this point that we were on is about setting norms and community agreements, but then it’s also about actually holding people to them. That was such a great story. I love that. Man.
GONZALEZ: Okay. So what is the fifth one?
AGUILAR: Yeah, so the fifth one is actually, it feels like it really emerges from that example, which is to address conflict and breaches of psychological safety. So when there is a breach like there was in that room when people were checking out, when they weren’t listening to each other, they weren’t looking at each other when they were talking, then it is the responsibility of the facilitator to say something. Because when conflict isn’t attended to or recognized, it negatively affects the whole group. And so there is a whole range of conflict that can occur in a group, from infrequent conflict to chronic, toxic conflict. And there are many ways to address conflict. You know, the first thing is really to identify signs of conflict and to say something. So, for example, if you’re perceiving tension, you can say something like, I’m noticing that there’s disagreement about how to use this engagement strategy. So I’m going to create time for us to hear different perspectives and work this out. You might say something like, this is, I’m hearing an issue that’s been coming up repeatedly, and I can see that the tension — maybe it’s tension about classroom management strategies — is getting in the way of us learning from each other. So I’m going to hit pause in our learning right now so that we can address this issue. In my book “The Art of Coaching Teams,” I offer a lot of sentence stems for how to engage in productive conflict. That’s really essential to build psychological safety. We have to learn how to disagree with each other. And you said maybe this is an American thing, and maybe it is. In a lot of parts of the world we have conflict aversive behaviors. I think it’s really, we don’t know how to do it. We don’t know how to talk to each other. We can incorporate strategies like process observers. Those are people who play a role to help people in a team or a community recognize when they are not holding their community agreements who can say things like, “It sounds like we are not,” if a team has an agreement to be fully present, then a process observer might say something like, “You know, it sounds like there’s some diminishing of our presence right now, because I’m noticing that people are stepping out a lot or are getting on their phones.” And so there’s different ways that a process observer can address breaches of community agreements. So there’s lots more to say about how to address conflict. It is a challenging and sort of a more intermediate or advanced skill set. But it’s also essential because conflict is inevitable. Conflict can be really healthy, so we do have to learn how to address it.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. I mean, I’m thinking about how many hours of PD schools go through without addressing any of this stuff, and it’s almost a waste of time if these things haven’t been dealt with because people will just be sort of checked out a lot of the times. And they’ll just be sort of bodies there instead of really participating actively. So I think if anyone’s thinking about this as this sounds kind of time consuming to deal with all this, it sort of seems like the kind of thing that you do early on with a group, and then once those types of things are in motion, then you can get back to the pedagogy or whatever it is that you’re talking about. Okay. So we’ve got, the last piece is about recognizing your sphere of influence. That wasn’t necessarily one of the tips, but it’s almost like an addendum, I guess.
AGUILAR: Yeah. So it’s really important for a facilitator who’s committed to creating psychological safety to recognize that there are some things that can make it really hard or even impossible to create psychological safety. And so recognizing these factors allows you to be clear on your sphere of influence. So you can decide what to do, so you can figure out what to do. So if you are a facilitator in a school or an organization where there’s just a lot of toxicity, it can be really hard to create psychological safety and deliver the kind of PD that you might be imagining wanting to deliver. Another factor to be aware of is when there are people who are just going through a really hard time. I like to frame it that way because at some point in our lives, we are all going through really hard times.
AGUILAR: But you know, you can have a group where there are a couple of people, two or three or four people, who are struggling in a way that impacts the entire group. And so I name this to say you could use all of the strategies in my book and still feel like I can’t create psychological safety or do the kind of transformative PD that I want to do. And I would say yeah, it’s, there’s a limit and it’s important to recognize that. It’s important to recognize, like, the times when yeah, you do need to build your own skills and do more or times when you need to say, “I’ve given it all that I can. This is about us as individuals recognizing when we have boundaries that we need to respect and when we might need to find additional support or even sometimes step away from a situation that is too challenging.”
GONZALEZ: Anything else that you want to add before we wrap up that people should be thinking about? First of all, I want to say that the book, I mean we have really just scratched the tiniest little bit of what’s in that book. You go into so many other things. So I would really encourage people to get the book and read it if they have anything at all to do with giving PD. But what else would you want to sort of add to this before we go?
AGUILAR: I love that we focused in on creating psychological safety because it’s essential. It’s absolutely essential.
AGUILAR: And I also want to say, you know, it shouldn’t be our ultimate aspiration, just safe. Because safe is the minimal required condition for learning. When I think about creating learning spaces, I want to think about creating places where people feel calm and centered and connected and curious and engaged and absorbed and joyful and satisfied. And so I want to create an experience which can be a microcosm for how we could experience work or life or community, an experience that we walk away from saying, “That was so great. I learned so much. I feel so energized. It was so much fun. I feel like I know people better.” And so for me, a PD space is a learning space. In order to create the kind of world that I know so many of us want to create, we need to learn. We need to learn new skills, all kinds of skills. And if that learning space can be joyful and energizing and really just fulfilling, we can create those schools, the communities, the classrooms, the society in which people will feel not only safe but again, also connected and energized and joyful. So I think that’s what, you know, creating psychological safety is essential, but let’s not stop there. Let’s have bigger aspirations.
GONZALEZ: You have so much more to offer, not just in this book but in your other books and through your other channels and stuff. I just, I have writer’s envy of you. I have calmness envy of you because I feel like you just express things so beautifully. So I feel like if this has, you know, touched anybody listening, there’s so much more that you have out there. So where can people go online to find you and learn more from you?
AGUILAR: Thank you for that. So I would direct people to my website, which is brightmorningteam.com. The other thing for folks listening is that I do have a podcast, the Bright Morning podcast where I demonstrate coaching conversations. I have a lot of content about building your individual resilience, about how to address equity and really how to address racism in the world. I have a series that I did called “What to Say When You Hear Something Racist.” And so yeah. I do really think about addressing the myriad of needs and problems that we experience as educators and human beings. I’m also on Instagram and you can find those links through my website. But yeah, I really appreciate you having me back here.
GONZALEZ: Every time I read your stuff, see your stuff online, I’m just like, this woman is a treasure trove of so much good stuff, so I just want to keep directing people at all of your work because it is really, I think, the core of what we need in order to keep learning in all of the other, you know, way, all the tips and tricks and strategies that we use to teach people. If we don’t get these emotional things down, then we’re just going to be limited. So I really appreciate the work you’re doing. Thank you for coming on.
AGUILAR: Thank you so much, Jenn. Really appreciate it.
For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, along with links to Elena’s book, visit cultofpedagogy.com, click Podcast, and choose episode 201. To get a bimonthly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, courses and products, sign up for my mailing list at cultofpedagogy.com/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.