Joshua Curnett

Joshua Curnett is a National Board Certified Teacher of English Language Arts and currently teaches high school English at Singapore American School in Singapore. The former NCTE High School Teacher of Excellence for the State of Colorado (2008), Joshua has led staff development courses in both American (local, state, and national) and international settings.

The Toughest Audience of All: Your Colleagues

I have led professional development for school faculties and at educational conferences in the United States and now in Singapore. It’s a slightly heady feeling—walking into a ballroom with a name tag on, the highlights from my CV preceding my entrance. Some of the presentations over the years have been one-offs, and for me, these are the most thrilling. It’s as close to being a rock star—a rock star in a button-down collar, khakis, and sensible shoes, that is—as I’ll ever feel.

Two- and three-day institutes can be more challenging, perhaps a little more “real” than the one-offs. I can see the attendees sizing me up; they’re stuck with me for more than a little while. Thought bubbles float above their heads as clearly as if Charles Schulz drew them: “Is this guy going to be boring?” “He’s kinda hard to understand because of his scratchy voice” “Is he all shtick or does he have substance, too?” And above mine: “I think that approximately 56 percent of the audience is on their personal devices at this moment. This is not a good sign.” “Is that the dude I used to teach with back in 1998?” “My underwear is way too tight. Gotta get to the gym.” And we settle in. We hunker down. We make it through the two or three days just fine, and we are all better for it. We’ll exchange emails as we conclude, give each other handshakes and hugs, even take a photo or two. It means something to me. Thank-you cards or even gifts will sometimes emerge, and I keep them and appreciate them.

The longer institutes—the longest I’ve done are two weeks—are marathons. Marathons. I morph into something other than myself during these stretches of time; I transform. I’ll live in a hotel room. After dinner, I’ll prepare my materials until 10 or 11 p.m. In the mornings, I’ll wake up early and get out my old meditation books I’ve brought along in the hope that I’ll have enough time to become meditative in the mornings again. I’ll start eating more healthily. By the end, I’ve really come to know all of the teachers well enough to even love a few of them. I cherish the cards and gifts, and I keep them near my teacher desk at school. I’ll look at them from time to time; they remain important to me to this day.

The most difficult of all of the kinds of presentations I’ve given, however—and this has been true for me for the last 15 years, from the time I, at 29 years old, first stepped in front of my peers to give a presentation about how to teach grammar and mechanics during creative writing lessons and one of the oldest, most veteran participants took my handout, graded it in red pen, and smugly handed it back to me at the end of the presentation—is the one given to my own colleagues, the teachers I work alongside each day. There is nothing I have done as a professional developer that is as nerve-wracking, cottonmouth-inducing, and/or terrifying. Making a PD presentation to my colleagues in my own school during our own planning time when we could be doing a zillion other things sometimes feels like being asked to balance a shiny apple on my head while everyone else gets to play William Tell. I become hypersensitive during the presentation, too. I consider every one of them who is grading a paper or who has a laptop open (and mentally note them, I must admit. They must have been poor students, I arrogantly think to myself).

I think the challenge when presenting to one’s own faculty is not unlike the challenge or stress we feel, perhaps, when we sit around the table at a holiday family gathering: everybody knows everybody else’s business, and pass the mashed potatoes, please. There are no charades here, no airs to be put on. The emperor most definitely has no clothes, and Elvis has most definitely left the building. When I am in front of my own colleagues, it is clear to me that I will be sharing the copier with them in a couple of hours, will be pushing past them near the teacher mailboxes after the talk, will be asking them for help with a particular problem later in the day. They’ve seen me at my best and at my worst, not unlike my family at the aforementioned holiday table.

I’m reminded of a scene from one of my favorite films, Edward Scissorhands.  In it, neighborhood Avon Lady Peg Boggs (played by Dianne Wiest) calls on her neighbor Helen (Conchata Ferrell), who answers the door in a nightgown and curlers. Peg, dressed for the part and wearing a pillbox hat, stands at the door and gives the neighbor her best Avon spiel, complete with practiced hand gestures:

Peg: Avon calling.

Helen: Weren’t you just here?

Peg: No, not since last season. Today I've come to show you our exquisite new line in softer colors in shadows, blushes, and lipstick. Everything you need to accent and highlight your changing looks. 

Helen:  My changing looks? That’s good! (Helen chuckles.)

Peg: [undeterred] Well, it goes without saying that I also have a complete selection of your old favorites. Those tried-and-true products we’ve all come to depend on, year in and year out.

Helen: Come on, Peg. I never buy anything from you. You know that?

Peg: I know. Bye, Helen.

Though comedic, the seed of truth in the Peg Boggs example is relevant for me when I’m presenting at my school. So why then is it important for me to continue to throw myself upon the torture rack of presenting to my own colleagues? Why knock on Helen’s door? Why is it necessary to practice this most challenging kind of PD delivery instead of, say, only making presentations at conferences or giving talks to faculties far afield where I can try to be that nerdy rock star?

The short answer is this: I must make regular PD presentations to my own colleagues because it makes me a better professional developer in a way that nothing else can. It is fundamental to my growth; it makes me work very, very hard to create presentations that have style, substance, and meaning; I want the information and approaches to work because these are the teachers and colleagues I care about the most. What I present must matter; every second with my colleagues is one which I know—deeply understand—could be used for a different purpose. And if I haven’t brought my “A” game, well, I will be the one to pay the immediate price for my laziness or inaccuracy: I will lose my colleagues’ respect.

For me, those are the highest stakes of all as a professional developer.  

And so, after I’ve worked for weeks or even months on a presentation for my own faculty, have had the requisite sleepless night(s), and have given it my best shot, a respected colleague says, “Hey, thanks for that. I got a lot out of it. I appreciate how heartfelt you were and the risks you took in front of us,” it means everything to me.

It means I’m ready for the world.


Thompson, C. Edward Scissorhands. Film script. 1990. IMSDb. Web. 8 August, 2015.


Jill Thorndyke

I read this article a week ago and allowed it to sink in a bit before commenting. I reflected back on my past work experiences. Before entering the field of education, I've presented many times to my colleagues for various reasons. Now that I'm in education, there's the same need to present upcoming/exciting/new information frequently. In both entities, I have felt the same anxieties. Denis Smith writes it well in her comment, about making the information valuable for your audience. This article hit it on the head! I could be over the moon excited about a new technology, or curriculum coming my way, but I have to remember who I'm speaking to. I have to be prepared for the frustration and/or challenging questions. I want my colleagues to value my input and gain some new knowledge from my presentations. This article reminds me how important it is to ensure the new knowledge is presented in a manner that is authentic and valuable.

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Kelley Taylor

This article reminded me of a friend of mine who is a gifted and very effective teacher. But she is young and cool and so therefore her colleagues roll their eyes when she's asked to show them the new strategy she's learned about teaching kindergartners to read. They don't want to hear from her because she's 25 and they've been around awhile. It doesn't help that her classes fill first in the summer, as parents request that their new kinder be placed in her class. She dreads going in front of her teacher friends. She tries to avoid it if at all possible. She's not arrogant or unkind or even a show off. She just knows what she's talking about and has the results to back up her assertions.
As I reflect on what makes a professional learning community so effective, humility would have to be toward the top. How can we mutually benefit if we think we know everything there is to know about our practice? At the same time, how can the appointed speaker, in this case my friend, allow the nerves and apprehensions about going in front of her friends and colleagues overwhelm her? Humility is the key. Both the learner and the teacher must be humble.

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Magali Flores

I've served in different roles at my district in which I have had to present or provide professional development. Just as Mr. Curnett, I prepared weeks before, paying attention to every detail. I analyzed my presentations for any discrepancies over and over. Foremost, I developed the presentations to be engaging and worthwhile. Even if teachers never commented, I made sure that my pd was structured in a way in which teachers got "something" from it. Overall, my experiences were pleasant and teacher response had been positive.
This year has been quite different. I'm a former science teacher in a leadership position at the district. I walked into my first meeting thinking that the respect I had earned as a teacher would simply transfer over to my new role. Was I wrong!
I'm having to present and provide pd to the teachers I worked with and collaborated with for 10 years, some my senior. The resistance and "rudeness" (as stated in a comment above) is something I'm not familiar with...

-Maggie Flores

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Jon Zabriskie


Thanks so much for the insight into how the other half prepares for and feels about the PD presentations we teachers see on a semiregular basis.

I have a question for you as well as fellow commentators: in your opinion, how effective are common assessments, namely in the Humanities disciplines? I ask because (1) I have attended PDs over the years praising common assessments while the general public increasingly pushes back against such testing, and (2) in my experience proctoring standardized tests (WASL, MSP, and now the SBAC), I have seen/heard my colleagues distressing over the flaws of evaluating student progress using state- and nationwide measures.

I myself can see flaws in trying to use one test as an effective measure, namely that students use a variety of skills and assignments/assessments to display their understanding of concepts and skills. A student who is a somewhat poor writer may be unfairly evaluated in history based on a poorly written essay, when that same student may show her best content understanding through a presentation, or through a visual medium.

In addition, knowing that students in my state (WA) have taken to the practice of walking out of non-graded standardized tests, I can see things only becoming worse if we stay on this trajectory. Is there hope for large scale testing? Is there something down the road that will better paint the student as a three-dimensional learner?

Jon Z.

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Janelle Emard

I found this post very relatable and interesting. I work in a small school where everyone knows everything about everyone. At the same time there is a lot of staff turnover since it is a difficult, rural school. This is my third year and yet I am considered one of the school "veteran" teachers now and put in a place of leadership. I am often presenting new information to the staff but feel young and inexperienced. Presenting things to the staff and working in PLCs can be hard, but I have also noticed that a staff that learns to work together and respect each other can turn the atmosphere of the school into a wonderful work environment.

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Abby Bonds

As a grade manager, I have felt this pressure so many times. It seems that there is a unique pressure that comes with leading your peers, especially if many of them have more years of teaching experience. I have found that sometimes I must separate my feelings from my professional practice. Like you mentioned above, it is difficult to not notice when they are checking e-mails or whispering when I am facilitating a meeting. One thing that has helped my grade level as well as others at my school is writing and maintaining planning norms. If there is an issue during our collaborative planning sessions, we can easily refer to the norms we wrote at the beginning of the school year.

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Gregory Pacific

I can completely relate! I have presented in front of a large room of strangers from around the country with no problem. When I have to present in front of my colleagues, I am always extremely nervous. I value their opinion and I am afraid that they may see me in a different light if I mess up or give a boring or bad PD.

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Peaches Hash

I found this article interesting and am glad that Curnett has had luck with presenting. I do think a key aspect that was left out, however, is that professional respect must be established within the community in order for presentations to go well. Last year, a colleague and I were selected to serve as Common CORE teacher leaders, meaning we went to trainings and were asked to relay the information to our department. Yes, the information was, at times, useless and uninteresting, but my colleague and I really tried to deliver it with enthusiasm and succinct points.
We were "rewarded," in turn, with our 20+ member of the department talking over us, playing on their phones, and making comments under their breath. My natural instinct was to bring their rude behavior to light, but I decided not to for fear of my department being even ruder. Later, I spoke with my administrator, but she did not offer any suggestions. She admitted that she often feels the same way speaking to our department. Someone needs to promote change instead of being the "nice" person constantly before our department will learn anything from presentations.

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Kara Bowcutt

I have been involved with our district's prioritizing Common Core State Standards in Wyoming and now am involved in a master's program that is requiring lots of valuable reading. Hence, the reason I am on this blog. I desire to share my information, but feel the same hesitance, as my colleagues have so many other things to do besides listen to me share my new learning and excitement of an article that may help us proceed more successfully this school year. I am not a natural leader, but have this internal craving to become a stronger educator. I believe, learning is contagious and if others see someone excited about their new learning's, it just might make our team stronger and possibly closer so that our PLC may make even more gains.

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Denise Smith

Hi Cindy Rosefield!
I remember Ginny Bateman and that was 20 years ago! It doesn't seem that this much time has gone by, but we must be having fun with our teaching overall. I appreciate that fact that you like to share your ideas. It is nice to share and talk about what we do in our classrooms. Finding the time is the hard part. My hope is that the staff at your school will welcome your ideas and hard work as the reading person at your site.Stay humble-that's an excellent quality to have!

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Cindy Rosefield

I haven't presented to my colleagues since I was a reading coach with Ginny Bateman over 13 years ago!! I agree that they are the toughest audience. I've never felt "rock star" status, but I do like the professional rapport I have with teachers that share ideas with me and vice versa.

I have always been humble about sharing what I've learned, and respecting that teachers will apply what works best for their students. I'm hoping that works this time around. I will say that being at a school that rarely has staff meetings, is going to present a challenge. I don't want to be viewed as the person responsible for "making" them meet after school, when they would otherwise not have to be there; especially being new to the school...


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Denise Smith

The part that caught my attention the most was the information towards the end of the reading. What I present/share matters because another teacher might want to use that idea for their purpose. I think teachers really care about the people that they work with and that makes it worth preparing a presentation with "substance and meaning" even though it may make me nervous and anxious. It becomes rewarding in the end!
D. Smith-WR

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