SESSION CHAIR RESPONSIBILITIES
Arrive early and connect with all panelists:
- Confirm speaker order.
- Double-check pronunciation of names and introduction information.
- Review how the session will run, especially reviewing time limits for speakers and how time signals will be given and enforced.
Introduce the session:
- Provide the overall session title and, if needed, a brief overview of the session (e.g., the presentation order or the common topic or theme connecting all presentations).
- Name all presenters at the beginning of the session; wait until it’s the presenter’s turn to speak before giving a full individual introduction.
- Remind audience members to hold their questions until the end to ensure that all presenters get the full speaking time they were allotted and prepared for.
Introduce each speaker:
- Share affiliation/title and the title of the individual presentation/talk.
- Assist with distribution of presenters’ print materials during the session as needed/practical.
Moderate the discussion:
- Repeat information if there’s an issue with the whole room hearing.
- Keep the discussion flowing.
- Make an effort to balance participation among presenters and audience members (see information about Q&A provisions).
Provide summary remarks or invite the formal respondent for the session to do so if this role is listed on the program:
- If relevant, pose summary or closing remarks to help initiate discussion during the Q & A period.
- Ideally, be prepared with a question or observation about each presenter’s work to ensure that all presenters have a chance to participate in the post-presentation discussion.
Close the session:
- Call for the session’s conclusion.
- Thank the presenters.
- Encourage the audience members to continue conversation outside the session room.
- Clear the room in time for the next session, providing ample time for the next group to set up.
MANAGING A PROFESSIONAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
As session chair, you own the responsibility of managing a learning environment. This role ensures that panel discussions are rich, thought-provoking, valuable, and in compliance with NCTE’s Mutual Respect & Anti-Harassment Policy. The full policy is posted at the end of this document. It expressly prohibits the following behaviors: harassment or intimidation related to gender, gender identity and/or expression, sexual orientation, disability, race, age, religion; deliberate intimidation, stalking, or following; harassing photography or recording; sustained disruption of talks or events; inappropriate contact and unwelcome sexual attention.
Should comments and conversation in your session challenge the mutual respect in the room more generally than the behaviors described above, it is important that you assert your leadership in the session to protect the learning environment. The following tips and techniques are provided to aid you in such situations.
Exercise your right to redirect
If a panelist veers off topic, pause the conversation and remind them of the focus. Consider a statement like, “I’m going to stop us at this point. The focus of our conversation today is _______. Can another panelist bring us back on topic?”
Stay in the neutral zone
The session chair’s role is not to dominate or even shape the conversation. If someone makes a comment that could be considered problematic, open up the response to the rest of the panel or the audience. Consider framing it as, “That’s a challenging idea you’ve just shared. Would another panelist / someone in the audience care to respond?”
Honor multiple voices
If one person is dominating the conversation, keep track of time and feel free to stop them so other voices can be heard. Consider something like, “Let’s pause on that thought and hear from someone else on the panel.”
Allow for healthy debate, but be empowered to stop hurtful comments
As stated in NCTE’s Anti-Harassment Policy, your panel should be a place where everyone may learn, network, and socialize in an environment of mutual respect. That doesn’t mean we always agree, and as in any classroom, room for a diversity of opinions is what fosters critical thinking and makes us grow. Gauging the fine line between different opinions and hurtful comments can be difficult, but as a moderator you have two good barometers to help you evaluate the situation:
Is the audience engaged in the conversation, watching intently, and eager to participate?
Your conversation is likely proceeding as a healthy debate. To keep things flowing but not too hot, consider introducing pauses to let the panelists or audience reflect on what they’re hearing. Try prompts like, “This is getting very interesting. Let’s pause for a moment to see what we’re hearing. Will someone from the audience share the key points of this discussion so far?” Or, “Let’s take a moment to summarize; can someone from the panel recap where we are right now?”
Is the audience looking agitated, or are people getting up and leaving angrily?
The debate may have veered beyond a diversity of opinions and into hurtful territory. Again, consider pausing the conversation and inviting some of the audience perspective into the debate. Try, “Let’s pause for a moment. I can see that this discussion is prompting some feelings from the audience. Would someone like to share what you’re hearing right now?” Or, “Let’s pause for a moment. This conversation is getting intense, and I want to make sure the audience has a chance to inform the discussion. Are there some clarifying questions we can ask the panelists right now?”
If an audience member is routinely asking questions or speaking out in response to the panelists, address them directly.
Consider something like, “While we value your thoughts in this discussion, I need to ensure that the panelists have an opportunity to give the presentation they’re here to share.” Or, “If this panel goes as planned, we’ll have 15 minutes at the end for your questions. I’m asking the audience to please respect the time we have with the panelists and let their voices be heard.”
Try to position yourself in a place where you can read the faces of both your panelists and the audience. If you are sitting in a row with the panelists, you may not be able to see how everyone is reacting and they may signal when a conversation is getting painful before the audience does.
A healthy debate will give voice to everyone on the panel.
It will offer opposing viewpoints in respectful phrasing like, “I hear what you’re saying, but I disagree because . . .” or “That’s an interesting point, but let me challenge you on . . .” People will not be talking over each other, but everyone will be eager to jump in. You’ll feel the tension in the room, but it will feel like anticipation rather than conflict.
A debate that’s veering into a space that could be hurtful doesn’t have the same electricity.
The comments will likely be sharper, and often you’ll see that individuals are not listening to each other; rather, they are racing to make their own points. You can potentially sense if things are going in this direction when you notice a panelist being very quiet or looking upset. Try to bring them into the conversation. Try something like, “Let’s hold that thought for a moment and open the space for other panelists to respond, particularly those we haven’t heard as much from recently.”
If you are clearly reading frustration or concern on the faces of panelists in response to a debate that has been sparked and sense they need a break, YOU can offer the synthesis without taking over the conversation, and that can sometimes give everyone enough breathing room to figure out how to get the discussion flowing productively again. Try something like, “I can tell this discussion is touching on a lot of important issues for the panel. Let me try to summarize what I’ve heard so far and then___ (here are options: I’m going to ask the panelists to share some questions for the audience to keep the conversation going. / We’ll start the discussion again. / I’m going to ask a new question to push us forward. / I’m going to invite questions from the audience.)”
When to call it quits
If a discussion devolves into hurtful comments or shouting, you are well within your role as session chair to halt it in its tracks. If you think you can regroup and move forward, try, “I’m going to stop us right now and ask everyone to take three minutes to cool down. As literacy teachers, difficult discussions are central to our work, but hurtful conversations are not. If you need to leave now, you are welcome to do so, but if you would like to see if we can come back into the conversation in a moment, feel free to stick around. Let’s take three minutes to write down what we’re feeling right now and any questions you may have.” (After three minutes you can read the room and decide if you need to ask the first question or can invite someone from the panel to start it up again.) A session that requires this kind of break is unusual for NCTE, so we ask that once it is over you report it directly to NCTE staff with a full accounting of what transpired.
If you sense a session needs to end immediately and cannot be brought back into control, try, “Unfortunately this discussion is no longer respectful, and we are going to need to end it here.” Communicate immediately with NCTE staff if you should have to do this and provide all details of what transpired.