As schools work to continue K-12 instruction while students are at home, it’s critical that school and school system leaders also continue their learning, that they have a safe space to share and learn from one another on a regular basis. To continue providing support to leaders across the country during this critical time, we have converted dozens of professional learning sessions we typically deliver in person to virtual. Along the way, ware continuing to learn at an accelerated pace and on a larger scale what does and does not work for remote learning and are continuously tweaking our practice. Different kinds of learning lend themselves to different formatand we are taking advantage of synchronous and asynchronous modalities 

In this piece we focus on a few moves we have found are essential for facilitating continuous professional learning for leaders in a virtual world.   

We use our live virtual sessions to help leaders and their teams accomplish a few key things:  

  • Team building is so important, particularly in times like these when we can’t be together in personLive sessions allow participants to react and process in real time as a group and offer a safe space for team members to share stories and communicate. To help spark conversation, for example, we have used quotes and poems about grief and resiliency to help participants reflect on their feelings and experiences right now. 
  • Practicing skills with the support of a facilitator and your team. We work on skills like coaching, communicating, sifting through information, and quick decision-making. We have given participants a chance to practice remote coaching, too.   
  • Collaborationplanning, and decision makingA live learning session and working in a collaborative document lends itself to brainstorming ideas and devising solutions as a team. We have been talking with teams about how they can plan for re-entry.  
  • Communicating and sharing your story, particularly your racial autobiography and why you do equity-focused work. 
  • Learning to facilitate learning for the rest of your teamWe ask participants to reflect on what aspects of our sessions they can turnkey to use with their own staff.  
  • Sharing and grappling with problems of practice. We have used breakout rooms for small groups to use a consultancy protocol to share current challenges around supporting and transitioning to remote learning. 

Collaborate closely with clients on session content, design and scheduling

We begin the process of planning a session by working closely with our clients to design and schedule session. As the details of schools’ remote learning and student and staff needs are continuously shifting, it is critical to have up to date information about district context to ensure professional learning sessions are relevant and immediately applicable. Our own work of supporting leaders in identifying and addressing inequities in schools now focuses on how Covid-19 has exacerbated academic and social-emotional disparities and created new challengesWe try to get final updates from the district the morning of our sessions whenever possible.   

Scheduling learning sessions right now can also be a challenge. Since schools shifted to remote learning, Des Moines Public Schools has smartly dedicated two hours a week for professional learning for their assistant principals, whom we have been supporting all yearso that they have a ready-made forum to receive support. 

Get session timing right 

We have found it effective to hold extended time – at least four hours every other week — to connect and provide support. We usually find that 90- to 120-minute sessions are the “sweet spot” for virtual meetings, and some longer sessions have felt too long to participants. However, a recent session with Influence100 in MA lasted four hours, with hourly 5-minute “stretch breaks” (with Miles Davis playing on Spotify). Our facilitators attribute the success of the meeting to the group’s high level of commitment and trust – they had been working together as a group for several months — as well as the rigorous and interactive session. They also have a norm that participants in the ~30-person cohort can step away as needed.  

Some of the best learning happens in small groups 

As people are exhausted from being online all day, it makes sense to spend a lot of time in breakouts where people can talk more easily and naturally. We are now spending more time in small groups than we would in an in-person session and developing leaders’ skills to facilitate their own small group sessions. For example, in Wisconsin, we gave participants an opportunity to share challenges and successes in the transition to remote learning, as well as to talk about their hopes and fears related to remote learning.  

Restorative circles 

This is something we typically do during an in-person session, and we have found it has gone well virtually as well. circle can be used to develop relationships and build community or to respond to conflicts and problems. For example, we open each of our sessions with the Influence100 program in MA with a circle as a way to surface issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion that participants are experiencing in their day-to-day practice. The facilitator poses a powerful question to the group and creates a space for each person to share his or her perspective and reflection. The process creates a space for clearing and healing as we prepare to learn together.    

Get creative with technology 

We’re trying to take advantage of all that a virtual platform has to offer to maximize the learning experience. That includes using the chat, polling, and collaborative documents. Lately we’ve been trying to use the camera feature beyond just seeing participant faces. At the end of a recent session with leaders in Denver, we had participants write down and hold up to their cameras a word that captured how they were feeling — a powerful moment.   

Keep up with rapid shifts in the virtual landscape  

Proactively check to make sure clients have access to the platform you decide to use. For example, some districts have blocked Zoom because of security concerns. You can ask participants to check for Zoom access ahead of time using this link. 

We are all learning together about the most effective ways to facilitate professional learning virtually. We would love to learn from you. Please share additional ideas and tips with us at 


Abbie Groff-Blaszak


Abbie Groff-Blaszak currently serves as a coach for The Leadership Academy. Abbie joined the organization in 2017 as the Director of the West Michigan Leadership Academy in Grand Rapids, a role in which she directed a program of support for five districts in Greater Grand Rapids that focuses on professional learning networks and individualized coaching for principals, personalized district leadership support, and the collaborative development of local capacity to support and sustain a strong principal pipeline. Abbie is passionate about building and supporting a healthy and diverse educator workforce as the foundation for achieving equitable student outcomes. She has a rich background and expertise in programs and policy to support the development, retention, and growth of strong educators at the local, state, and national levels. Prior to joining The Leadership Academy, Abbie served in various roles at the Michigan Department of Education, including Manager of Curriculum and Instruction, Senior Policy Advisor, and most recently, Director of the Office of Educator Talent. In her time at the MDE, Abbie led a number of major initiatives, including Michigan’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards, the development and implementation of Michigan’s ESEA Flexibility and State Equity Plans, implementation of Michigan’s educator evaluation law, and development of Michigan’s ESSA plan focusing on educator effectiveness. Abbie began her career in education as a Teach for America corps member, teaching third and fourth grades in the Greenville Public Schools in Greenville, Mississippi. Following her two-year commitment, Abbie remained in Greenville for several more years, serving as a teacher leader, curriculum coach, and assistant principal before heading back to the Midwest as founding principal of a start-up public charter school in Indianapolis, IN. Abbie holds a BA in History and Political Science from Indiana University and a Ed.M. from Harvard University in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy.