You are standing in front of colleagues presenting important content in an interactive format. It’s going well for most of the participants, although you’ve noticed one woman scowling. You wonder if that’s a reflective look or one of dissatisfaction. Soon you find out. During the whole-group time she zings you. She delivers that put-you-on-the-spot question or comment that can cause your mind to go blank and wonder: what do I do now?
The question is not: will someone put me on the spot? If you work with adult learners–it will happen. The question is: how will you respond?
The first thing to consider is, did you set yourself up for success? From the beginning of a workshop, be clear about how and when questions and feedback will be facilitated. Is there a parking lot provided to post questions that will be answered after a break? Is there an interactive time planned into the agenda? Should participants be encouraged to catch you and talk during a break? If so, say so. Be upfront if you aren’t planning to answer questions in the very beginning. I’ve seen masterful presenters who have been interrupted early in a presentation who have said, “Thank you. Your question will be addressed when we talk about logistics. Let us know if for some reason it doesn’t get answered then.”
Here are some additional questions that I ask of myself:
Did the asker get the opportunity to answer his/her own question?
Just last week someone asked me if fidelity to our writing resource meant not teaching students to write in complete sentences. I smiled and took a deep breath. “Based on what we’ve been reading about meeting students’ individual needs, do you think so?” She shook her head, “No, I guess I just need to know how and when to teach those lessons too.” In the past I might’ve jumped in to reassure the teacher that’s not what was meant, but now I’ve learned that if I offer the question back I’ll often get a different, more specific question in return. You could say, “What do you think?” or “Let me reflect that question back to you.”
Is the question/comment yours to answer or facilitate?
Working as a district coach I often get questions that aren’t mine to answer. “Isn’t my principal going to get mad if I make all these copies?” or “Why do the administrators want us to collect the information this way?” or “Is this going to affect my evaluation?” These questions are always my opportunity to remind colleagues of my role. Often I’ll say, “That’s a good question. The person to ask directly would be so-n-so.” If the answer to the question is an obstacle for many folks I will often say, “I’ll see if I can get you an answer.” During a break I might send a text, make a phone call or send an email to someone in-the-know. If the query can’t be answered quickly, I’ll often send out the information via email to follow up with the participants.
Is the question/comment worth everyone’s time?
I agree that there is no such thing as a stupid question if the asker is taking a learning stance. However, not every question is designed for an audience. For example, if a teacher asks me, “Why aren’t we grading this first on-demand writing piece?” after I’ve already explained why we aren’t grading the piece, I may choose to say, “Let’s talk, the two of us, on break.” Or if a teacher says, “I have a student who has a specific handwriting disorder and has a paraeducator who works in my room for thirty minutes a day during reading/writing workshop, what should I be having the para do?” I’ll say, “How about we use the independent work time to talk more about that?” Questions that are facilitated in a large group should appeal to a majority of the participants. Other questions that are focused on individual and smaller groups’ needs should be addressed that way. Your audience will greatly appreciate you attending to this issue.
Is there information that needs to be corrected?
If a teacher says, “I know we aren’t supposed to have the kids do sustained silent reading anymore, but how are we supposed to get these informal assessments done?” I may say, “Before we talk about the assessments, let’s be sure we are on the same page. Students will be doing sustained independent reading and sometimes it will be silent. I think what you are referring to is that fact that your school dropped the 15 minutes obligatory SSR in the morning after announcements, but it’s important to discuss that they will be reading for sustained periods of time, often silently within the context of reading workshop.” I have learned the hard way that if I don’t take the time to correct misinformation, the effects are exponential. Someone could walk away from that presentation saying, “Heather agreed that our kids aren’t reading independently anymore. It’s all whole group.” Yikes.
Is being put on the spot an opportunity?
My colleague Sean and I were leading a workshop a few weeks ago when a very distraught teacher shared how frustrated she was with how her lessons had become mega-lessons with the new standards. We both nodded and shared how we were experiencing the same thing and also that a large portion of the workshop was devoted to planning and prioritizing to address that need. It gave us the opportunity to hear her as well as articulate how our time was structured around the very obstacle that was frustrating her.
In another workshop across the district, one of our fellow coaches was zinged with the comment, “Teachers shouldn’t be expected to meet standards when kids are entering with such a deficit of skills.” The coach took the opportunity to say, “It’s really hard work and we can’t control what a student has or hasn’t experienced before they come into our classrooms, but we certainly can control what happens once they are with us. Having the expectation that students will reach the standard is an important mindset for the challenges in front of us.” After, another teacher thanked her for speaking up. At the time the coach felt shaky about basically saying, “It’s not OK to have low expectations for kids who start with less,” but she realized it was an opportunity for her to speak her truth.
In another situation I was leading a workshop with coaches and I described a scenario of a teacher who was using popcorn reading as her main way of instructing students in literacy. “BUT WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN SHE DOESN’T KNOW THAT IT’S NOT EFFECTIVE INSTRUCTION?!” cried out an exasperated coach. I grinned and said, “OK, let’s go there.” We took a 10-minute detour and roleplayed a scenario that I’d never planned. It was an opportunity to address something that was real and alive in the moment. I was so thankful for being put on the spot in a good way. Spontaneity is a gift.
How can co-facilitators share spotty Q & A work?
Being a co-facilitator is the best position for dealing with on the spotness. More and more we strive to present to groups in pairs or triads as coaches. When I know my co-facilitators well, I’m able to step back and say, “I think Samantha could answer your question best” or “Amanda had a recent experience that addresses this issue.” It also allows the facilitator who’s not on the spot to listen to what’s being said and take time to think about a response. Sean will often take a step in my direction in a way that says, “I’ve got your back” and after I respond he’ll say, “And just to follow-up on what Heather is saying…” It’s a gift to have more than one voice to acknowledge concerns and express ideas in different ways.
What about if the participant’s goal is really just to put you on the spot?
I’m going to suggest that 95% of the time when people put you on the spot they just want their questions answered and their angst reduced. But 5% of the time there may be something else going on. It’s unusual, but I’ve had participants ask questions like, “Who was the brainiac who came up with this idea?” or “And why do you think that every child is exactly the same and every teacher needs to be a robot?” One way to respond is, “I’m going to take some time to think about your question because I can tell it’s really important to you, check in with me after the workshop.” After the workshop and without an audience, sometimes the participant has had a chance to step back and think about communicating differently.
Another way to respond is to acknowledge that the question is an indicator of a much more complex issue, “Wow. There’s a lot going on with that question. I have a feeling it’s connected to a bigger issue with (the administration) or (a change in standards).” If I guess right, I’ll get a nod. It’s important for me to state what I can and can’t do in these situations. I can’t change the standards. I can’t change the administration. But I can partner with someone to problem-solve what’s best for kids. In extreme situations I’ve contacted the teacher the next day or the next week to check-in. Often they’ll say, “I was really upset that day, it wasn’t even about you or the class, I was just at my limit.” While I understand I’ll say, “I’m always happy to process with you in person, but in front of our peers that’s tough to be put on the spot like that.” Having others consider your perspective as a teacher leader is freeing. Whether they choose to or not is their business.
Did you adequately answer the on-the-spot question?
If the question is an important one to answer in the moment, I’ll often transition with, “What I know right now is…” or “The best answer I can give at this point is…” which helps me to say, I’m giving the best I’ve got. When I’m finished I’ll check-in and say, “Does that answer your question?” Most of the time I’ll get a “yes,” but sometimes I’ll get a “no” and the asker will restate their question in a way that helps me respond. I can also be honest and say, “I don’t feel like I’m articulating myself very well, so let me think more about this.” As an introvert I feel I’m much more articulate once I’ve had a chance to quietly consider my response. Often an additional ten minutes is all I need to compose my thoughts.
The most important thing is to have a person or a process to deal with the shaky feelings that may come after being put on the spot. Going for a walk or run or dancing to Def Lepard are all good options for me. Talking to another colleague who listens well is a huge relief too. It’s helpful to recognize that it does get easier with time and experience, but it’s still hard and I have much to learn.
How do you deal with being put on the spot when you are presenting?