Facilitation: A Reflection on Apprenticeship
Andy Plemmons, Georgia
Many people questioned me when I left my new wife home alone
one week after our wedding while I apprenticed at a CFG Coaches
Institute, but my wife and I knew that beginning the apprenticeship
process toward becoming an NSRF National Facilitator was an
opportunity I could not decline. Now, one year after my apprenticeship
experience began, I realize how much I have grown as a facilitator
by learning from national facilitators who make the process
seem natural and transparent.
CFGs have played a vital role in my growth as an educator over
the past five years. In my first year of teaching third grade,
I joined a CFG consisting of teachers of various experience
levels from schools other than my own. My principal began to
notice the risks that I was taking in my classroom as a result
of my membership in a learning community and became interested
in CFGs. As a result, I attended a Coaches Institute and began
to coach a CFG at my school, with Betty Bisplinghoff as a mentor.
After one year of coaching, Betty Bisplinghoff, Frances Hensley,
and Thomas Van Soelen invited me to become an apprentice at
a Coaches Institute that they were leading. This apprenticeship
was followed one year later by another apprenticeship in a
leadership role with Debbie Bambino.
In my first apprenticeship, I realized that a challenge for
myself would be to make a transition from being a third grade
teacher and CFG coach to becoming a facilitator who could convey
the meaning and understanding behind the work of NSRF to people
who may be unfamiliar with the work. Betty, Frances, and Thomas
invited me to take an observational stance in the beginning
days of the institute. Equipped with my pen and journal, I
began to write down exact words that were used to introduce
NSRF principles and protocols.
When Frances introduced the Consultancy Protocol, she stressed, “We’re
going to help Don untangle his dilemma and perhaps find
a thread that he might follow. We are not here to solve this dilemma.
If Don could have figured this out, he would have.” These
words from an experienced facilitator laid the groundwork for
a successful protocol. Frances made the protocol inviting,
while setting up the true purpose of a consultancy.
It was through my close monitoring of word choice and conversing
with my mentors that I realized how my own word choices might
not be as inviting as a facilitator’s words should be.
I was accustomed to using phrases such as ‘I’m
going to give you 10 minutes to do this activity’ or ‘I
want you to get out your book and turn to page 26’. These
words made me sound like a person in a rigid, controlling role
instead of a facilitative role. I began to change the way that
I presented protocols and instructions as a result of this
study. Now when introducing a time of reflection, my wording
might be ‘You have an opportunity to spend some time
reflecting on what you have experienced today. These 10 minutes
will be a sacred time that we will honor at the end of each
day.’ These words create a more inviting atmosphere for
participants to step up and become a part of a learning community
instead of feeling like they are being told what to do.
Another transition that I had to make was creating an agenda
that met the needs of a larger group. As a coach of a CFG,
I was accustomed to creating a responsive agenda. However,
I never realized the volume of reflective thinking that goes
into creating an agenda for a Coaches Institute. Before an
institute begins, the facilitators create a draft agenda. I
soon learned in both apprenticeships that this draft agenda
changes multiple times before the institute even begins. For
example, the room layout for the institute is not always known
in advance. This can cause a draft agenda that planned for
the large group to be divided into two smaller CFGs to change
to keeping the whole group together. Facilitators have to think
critically about the use of the space to ensure that the participants
have a meaningful experience.
One piece of the agenda that can become stressful at times
is the inclusion of participant work. In my first apprenticeship,
there was an abundance of both student and adult work. While
this is a wonderful problem to have, it becomes complicated
as decisions are made on how to include every participant’s
work. The national facilitators and I sat down with participants
and conferenced with them to see if the work was something
that they had a genuine interest in or if they just brought
it because they were asked to. This process was uncomfortable
at first, so I began conferencing by sitting in with a national
facilitator until I felt confident enough to talk with participants
on my own.
In my second apprenticeship, we began the institute with the
problem of not having much student and adult work. We had to
think about ways to begin protocol experiences without a lot
of participant work. Debbie Bambino encouraged slowing down
the protocol process and looking at pieces of protocols to
build a foundation for the types of conversations that take
place during protocols with the help of these structures. Debbie
keeps a collection of student work that she can let participants
use to practice describing work before going through a full
Looking at Work protocol. By providing examples of student
work for participants during the institute, Debbie provided
introduced two important experiences. She gave participants
an opportunity to practice describing work without judgment
before doing a Collaborative Assessment Conference, and she
showed participants some types of work that they could bring
to the table. This reminded me to keep a collection of student
work available in the event that an institute does not begin
with work from the participants. As the week progressed, participant
work began to come in, and I saw how Debbie’s responsive
agenda conveyed the importance of authentic work to the participants
and helped them to see that the kinds of conversations that
take place within a CFG cannot be achieved without authentic
the real work from of members from within the group.
In addition to thinking about participant work, we also had
to consider the home learning opportunities that we were giving
to participants. Each night we had to decide on readings to
assign that would push the participants’ thinking. These
readings were another aspect of being responsive to the group.
Some readings focused on elements of protocols that would be
used the following day, while others focused on topics that
came up within the group.
In my second apprenticeship, the group was struggling with
the definition of equity. The facilitators had to make a decision
on whether or not to include readings that focused on equity
or to push the idea of equity in the discussions held throughout
the week. In the end, we used a combination of both to be responsive
to this group need. Home learning adds one more piece that
we had to make room for in our agenda. It was crucial that
we provide time to do a text protocol in the agenda if we asked
participants to read at night.
The agenda was the most exhausting part of the institutes for
me. It was always on the facilitators’ minds. Throughout
the day, we had to check-in to make sure that we would be able
to get to all of the agenda. If we felt that we would be pressed
for time, we had to make a quick, reflective decision on what
to take out or shift to another day. To me, this was a big
difference between being a national facilitator and coaching
a CFG. In my own CFG, our agendas rarely change during the
meeting because we are only focusing on a two-hour meeting,
instead of an eight-hour day that left room for many decisions
to be made.
In both apprenticeships, I saw the importance for facilitators
to remain transparent about their facilitation when changes
take place in the agenda throughout the day. Before my apprenticeship,
I occasionally explained my facilitation decisions to the groups
that I coach. To convey what it truly means to facilitate,
it is important to explain why you make the choices that you
do. My first apprenticeship allowed me to have time to begin
thinking about why I make certain choices in protocols or why
I chose certain words to explain a process. I watched as the
national facilitators stopped periodically to tell the group
what they were thinking. I rarely saw the facilitators whispering
to each other to privately make decisions. They would open
up this conversation for the group to hear so that facilitation
didn’t become a secret process.
My second apprenticeship gave me the opportunity to start vocalizing
my facilitative decisions to the group. I frequently stopped
after each section of a protocol or during the debriefs to
reveal to the group some of the decisions that I made. For
me, this was a big step in making my work as a facilitator
public just as I have made my work as a teacher public through
participation in a CFG.
I also found myself needing to be transparent as I moved people
out of their comfort zones and into an area of risk-taking.
Throughout my two apprenticeships, I watched as the national
facilitators chose times where they would specifically call
on individuals to tell how they felt about a topic, give input
during a protocol, or step up and present their work. In a
CFG, we are called to ask questions that challenge our assumptions
and habits as well as hold one another accountable for meeting
the needs of our students and each other. The national facilitators
made it so easy and inviting when they singled out individuals,
but I found that it put me in an uncomfortable role.
In one instance, I pushed someone into a danger zone by asking for feedback.
We were doing the Zones of Safety, Risk, and Danger activity after lunch. I was
randomly calling on people to tell why they chose the zone that they were in.
During one scenario, an individual was having trouble deciding which zone to
move into. I asked this individual, “Tell us what you are thinking”.
This person was caught off guard and was immediately placed in a danger zone.
As a facilitator, I had to be transparent in that moment and explain that a facilitator
has to make quick decisions, and those decisions don’t always turn out
for the best. When you try to push someone’s thinking, sometimes you push
too far, and you have to have norms in place that allow you to move beyond this
uncomfortable experience. That moment was very troubling to me, but it made me
realize that mistakes are going to happen. I will use that experience to continue
to think of ways that I can make nudging people out of their comfort zones more
Another area of my facilitation that needed improvement was my leading of debriefs.
When I first attempted debriefing a protocol, the national facilitators would
often assist me by following up on questions that I had initiated with the group.
I had trouble thinking of questions that would push the group to think deeply
about what worked or felt awkward about the protocols and why the protocols felt
this way. It was easy to start the debrief by saying, “What came up for
you?” or “What was it like to use this process?”, but it was
a challenge to think of questions that would keep the conversation flowing. By
watching the national facilitators, I realized the importance of listening closely
to each participant’s input and building questions off of the existing
conversation. It is also important for a facilitator to listen for the conversations
that aren’t taking place in the debrief. Throughout the protocols, a facilitator
can make notes about norms that were honored or dismissed, assumptions that were
made, protocol elements that worked for the group, and any other observations
about how the protocol functioned within the group. These observations can lead
to questions that take the group into conversations that may not have taken place
if it were not for the facilitator’s close observation.
By my second apprenticeship, I was ready to step up and try to improve my debriefing
skills. I let Debbie know that this was an area that I was working on. She encouraged
me to keep the conversation moving and focused. During each debrief, I found
myself listening more closely to each participant’s comments and asking
follow-up questions as needed along the way. My observations helped me to ask
questions that took the conversation in new directions. The debrief is still
an area of my facilitation that needs improvement, but I know that having many
opportunities to practice debriefing will help me to get to a level where I feel
comfortable leading an effective debrief.
The path to becoming an NSRF national facilitator is one with many forms of support
along the way. The transition from participant to coach to apprentice to apprentice-leader
has been a gradual process. My close work with national facilitators along with
my coaching of two CFGs and attendance at the NSRF Winter Meeting has all worked
together to develop my facilitation skills. I look to the future knowing that
I am ready to lead this work at future institutes, and I will continue to grow
as a facilitator along the way.
Andy Plemmons can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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