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  • Writer's pictureDr. Sue Chapman

You’re Invited! Transformational Professional Learning that Feels Like a Party

Updated: Mar 30

cover of The PD Book

What if professional development could be more like a party? In their new book, The PD Book: 7 Habits that Transform Professional Development, Elena Aguilar and Lori Cohen guide us through processes for designing and facilitating transformative professional development using the idea of a party to envision how professional learning could and should look, sound, and feel.

​If PD was more like a party, you’d see teachers sitting in small groups around a fire telling each other stories; you’d hear people expressing affection and appreciation for each other and wondering how they’d been matched up in the same group together. You’d also see people having hard conversations and challenging each other’s thinking, and you might witness educators grappling with new ideas and skills. PD would still be purposeful and rigorous and structured. But the atmosphere would be lighter, more joyful, and characterized by meaningful connections between participants. (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 7)

Elena and Lori also use the word party as an acronym to describe the conditions of high-quality professional learning that leads to changes in practice which make a positive difference for student learning and wellbeing.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Elena about this exciting new resource for educators who design and facilitate professional learning. Here are some highlights of our conversation.

Click here to listen to Elena talk about her vision for professional development.

Screen shot of Sue and Elena

​Elena and Lori ground their work on transformative professional learning in these six principles. Which principle resonates most with you? Which is most relevant to your specific context this school year?

Principles of Transformative Professional Development

  1. Humans are bursting with untapped resilience, strength, and abilities. We have an unfathomable capacity to change and transform, to grow and learn, to love and connect with others. Given the right conditions, we can unlock our potential.

  2. Teachers create the conditions in which transformative learning happens; we embrace this opportunity as our responsibility.

  3. Learning is a basic human need. Human beings want to develop and grow and fulfill our potential, and then we want to grow some more.

  4. Learning is a social process. Human beings are social creatures – we need each other to learn; we learn exponentially more when we’re in healthy community than when we learn alone.

  5. Learning is the pathway to justice, healing, and liberation. For justice, healing and liberation to exist, there’s a tremendous amount that needs to change. The only way for us to change is by learning. The only way for us to heal and repair our beautiful, broken world is by learning. If we can figure out how to learn and how to create spaces for others to learn, we can be free.

  6. Learning is transformative when the whole range of human emotions are experienced, including joy and love. (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 18)


In the introduction to The PD Book, you and Lori said, “What makes this book different from many others about PD is our commitment to equity.” You promise readers, “We’ll show you how you can make decisions when you design and deliver PD that create equitable spaces” (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 22). The just-revised Standards for Professional Learning from Learning Forward also spotlight equity as both a goal and a characteristic of high-quality professional learning. Why is it important that we think about and act for equity as part of our professional learning processes?


Equity is woven into all of my work because everyone everywhere needs to cultivate awareness of all the ways power dynamics play out, of equity and inequities and racism and misogyny. Given the current state of inequities, there’s a lot of suffering for everyone. Everyone has ways in which they don’t feel safe. I really believe that educators of all identity markers want to learn more strategies to close equity gaps in their adult communities as well as for children.

Learning is the pathway to justice, healing, and liberation…. The only way for us to change is by learning. The only way for us to heal and repair our beautiful, broken world is by learning.

~ Elena Aguilar & Lori Cohen, The PD Book

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​Learning Forward recognizes that educator learning is key to building education systems that allow every student to thrive. For this reason, “an explicit emphasis on equity in, for, and through professional learning is woven throughout Standards for Professional Learning” (Learning Forward, 2022, p. 8). Read Sue’s blog post Standards Matter: Taking Action Toward Equity Through Professional Learning to learn more about this important focus on equity in Learning Forward’s newly revised Standards for Professional Learning.


You devote an entire chapter of the book to the topic of navigating power in professional learning settings. In this chapter, you offer specific suggestions for dealing with imposter syndrome, establishing credibility, and dissolving resistance. Tell us more about why the topic of power is important for professional learning providers to think about.


Every space in which we exist, including professional development spaces, is shaped by power dynamics. In the United States and many countries, those power dynamics have been profoundly impacted by race, gender, and class. These dynamics have been and sometimes still are invisible and therefore unquestioned, but they are now coming more and more to the surface. There’s more awareness of who does and doesn’t hold power and the unfortunate consequences of unhealthy power dynamics. It’s important for educators who design and facilitate professional development to understand power dynamics and to choose to leverage their own power in ways that align with their intentions and commitments.

From Chapter 3, Navigate Power, in The PD Book:

You can do a lot of things with fire: cook dinner, warm your toes, roast marshmallows, or burn down a house. Power is like fire. You’ve got a lot of options for what you do with it. (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 99)

Sociologists have identified three ways that people use power: power-over, power-with, and power-to. As you read the descriptions of these three types of power below, consider the following questions:

  • How have you seen these ways of using power demonstrated in professional learning contexts?

  • Which ways of using power will best support the goals of your professional learning initiatives this year?


Power-over relies on concealed or overt force, coercion, or threats. An individual or group typically makes decisions for others, and compliance results from fear of consequences. Power-over rests on the beliefs that power is finite and must be protected and that one individual or group is superior to another. Those who source from coercive power often establish systems and institutions and/or have high levels of social capital. This kind of power is often met with resistance.


Power-with leads to collective action and the ability to work together. It is built on respect, mutuality, and collaborative decision-making. Leaders focus on strengths and assets rather than deficits. Using power-with can build bridges within groups and across differences. The underlying belief about using power-with is that power is infinite when shared, leadership is about being in service to others, and collaboration and collective efforts enable a group to accomplish a mission or fulfill a vision.


Power-to is the power to make a difference, achieve goals, and create something new, and is often combined with power-with. Power-to is generative. It is also part of what constitutes agency (the capability to make choices and act on your will). When you use power-to, you act on a belief that creativity and self-realization is a basic human right. (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 100-101)


As we work to interrupt inequitable power dynamics, to move away from our habitual and conditioned tendency to use coercive power and power-over, we create the schools we want to work in, the classrooms we want children to learn in, and the world that we want to live in. (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 117-118)


You and Lori also talk extensively in The PD Book about attending to emotions in the design and facilitation of professional learning, participants’ emotions as well as our own. You say, “When adults engage in professional development, we should expect strong emotions: For true learning to occur, we have to take risks, which will feel a little uncomfortable” (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 55). You tell us that we are responsible for creating “spaces that are psychologically safe, and full of joy, so that people are primed for learning” (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 80). Why is this so important?


When we introduce something new, a curriculum or an initiative, there’s going to be fear. That’s a natural human being thing. As PD facilitators, we need a handful of skills to guide adults through emotions like discomfort or fear or anger or shame or resentment that sometimes surface when learning is new and challenging. We also need skills to cultivate the kinds of emotions that help people to thrive: satisfaction, joy, connection, fulfillment. We need to know how to stoke the fires by tapping into these powerful emotions.

Emotions are contagious. Our brains contain mirror neurons, and we literally catch what others are feeling. When you facilitate PD, you hold power, so learners look to you for cues about how you feel – and they mirror your emotions. If judgment oozes from your pores, the folks you are trying to teach will shut down. If instead you communicate openness and acceptance – if you feel that learners are likely skilled, capable, smart, caring people – it is much more likely that your participants will be open and receptive. What you think and feel is everything. (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 67)

As PD facilitators, we need skills to guide adults through emotions like fear or anger or shame that sometimes surface when learning is challenging and to cultivate emotions that help people thrive: satisfaction, joy, connection, fulfillment.

~ Elena Aguilar

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Like all of your books, The PD Book is a treasure chest of stories, practical ideas and advice, explanations and research that support the ideas and advice offered, as well as ready-to-use tools. If I’m a busy education leader at the start of a new school year, what’s one section of your book I might turn to right away where I can find ideas to use immediately?


You might skim the table of contents and read the chapter that calls to you. Follow the energy and go where you feel “That’s what I need!” Or you might start with the chapter called Engage Emotions. There are a lot of concrete strategies in this chapter. It’s a chapter that helps people reflect on things within their sphere of control. On pages 62-63 in that chapter, there’s a section called 10 Strategies to Shift a Mood. If you have just 10 minutes, you might read those pages. Or you could listen to my podcast on this same topic.

Listen to Elena’s podcast 10 Strategies to Shift a Mood.

Enjoy all of Elena’s podcasts here. Note that episodes 122-126 are related to The PD Book.

Advice for the New School Year

Click here to listen to Elena’s advice about slowing down and being intentional about what we do.

The PD Book is a thought-provoking read and an easy-to-use resource for strategies and tools that can be put to immediate use. It offers a hope-filled vision of the future of our education system. Elena and Lori write “Humans are bursting with untapped resilience, strength, and abilities. We have an unfathomable capacity to change and transform, to grow and learn, to love and connect with others. Given the right conditions, we can unlock our potential” (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 18). They invite us all to join the party of professional learning that strives to empower educators in service of students. Elena and Lori remind us of what we already know: “PD can change the world” (Aguilar & Cohen, 2022, p. 23).


Sue Chapman is a professional learning consultant and author of MathVentures: 33 Teacher-Coach Investigations to Grow Students as Mathematicians. Learn more about her at and connect with her on Twitter at @SueChapmanLearn.

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