Four Laws of Professional Development


“Whoever is present are the right people. Whenever it begins is the right time. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. And when it’s over, it’s over.”-Anne Lamott from Some Assembly Required articulating the Four Immutable Laws of the Spirit

Just like teaching, what you’ve planned for professional development is often different from what actually transpires. I’ve found these four laws center me on a healthy perspective.

Whoever is present are the right people

Twelve people signed up for your class and thirty show up. Twenty people were scheduled to attend your course during a busy week; three arrive and look at you expectantly. Instead of spending my time with, “But I thought…” or “I’ve only prepared for…” I’ve started repeating “whoever is present are the right people” and modifying the presentation in the moment.

I work with my share of unique participants. One dominates conversations, two bring the newspaper to read and three burst into laughter at pictures of their dressed-up dogs (true stories all). By sticking to the mantra “these are the right people,” I continue to build relationships with my participants while holding clear boundaries. A timed structure helps the conversation dominator, getting up and moving encourages the newspaper aficionados to set the paper down and smiling at the dog viewers redirects their attention.

Whenever it begins is the right time

Of the four mantras, I’m least flexible about starting “whenever.” If I posted the class as starting at 3:45, I start at 3:45. In unusual circumstances due to location confusion or parking, I’ll give a buffer, but I believe in honoring the participants who show up on time. I think about “whenever it begins is the right time” more in regard to pacing. If I planned fifteen minutes for a discussion on assessment, but participants are proactively tackling some big ideas in their practice, I make room in my pacing. That may mean we start the independent reading ten minutes later, but I trust that must’ve been the right time.

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened

Recently at a workshop with about forty educators, my co-facilitator and I gave specific directions for a pause-paraphrase-probe activity that rotated at three- and seven-minute intervals for thirty minutes. Three triads chose to move off to a quieter space and didn’t return until long after the activity had stopped. One of the participants apologized to me during the break, “We got into our coaching conversations and completely lost track of time.” I said, “Then that must’ve been exactly what you needed” and I meant it.

And when it’s over, it’s over

My friend Arthur reminds me that when you really live, success and failure come and go. Sometimes I think a presentation hasn’t gone well because the audience was so reserved, but then I read the thoughtful exit slips and realize they were processing deeply. Other times I recognize where we got off track or how one activity didn’t work. I make notes on my pacing guide immediately so I’ll remember for next time. “This took 20 minutes not 10” and “Be sure to count off for this activity” are helpful tips for the next time. It’s good to reflect after, but ultimately when I’ve cleaned up my space and turned off the lights, I remind myself I did my best and “when it’s over, it’s over.”

4 thoughts on “Four Laws of Professional Development

  1. Thanks Heather (and Anne Lamott, who book, “Operating Instructions” helped me after my son was born) for your wisdom! Transferrable to many areas of life.

  2. “When it’s over, it’s over.” Fifteen years into consulting, I still find myself perseverating on the few low scores in a pile of highly rated evaluations. I have to remind myself that I did my best, the majority of people agreed in their evaluations, and then take note of any constructive criticism I received.

    All three mantras are powerful.

    • Having been in your audience I have a hard time believing there are any low scores, but it’s a good reminder that every learner is there with different expectations. A fellow coach and I just got feedback that our shoes were too loud. Everyone has different criteria for what makes or breaks successful professional development.

  3. Sent out a reminder about the 1st Cohort Mtg. of the year to all the identified interested parties. Start time came and 2 out of the 12 were present and seated. Thanking those seated I begged for a ‘few minutes to accomodate teachers traveling from the other buildings’ (even though we were all fully aware school had ended more than an hour prior).
    Ten minutes after the designated start time I began and still a couple more trickled in. I made starting on time an issue of respect and a pledge to begin without ‘restarts’ next month. Thanks for the validation and confirmation around the issue with additional wisdom bonuses!!

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