How can we prevent CPD burning up on re-entry?

Yvonne Williams was a trainer on the Education and Training Foundation’s (ETF’s) Advanced mentoring skills for experienced mentors programme, which has now completed its second year. Here she reflects on the experience and outcomes of the programme, which demonstrate how this mentoring CPD can be durably embedded into organisational and system learning.

Those of us alive during the Apollo Moon missions will remember the great tension as the spacecraft returned to the Earth’s atmosphere. Get the angle of re-entry too shallow, we were told, and the craft would bounce off the atmosphere; too sharp and friction would burn it up on re-entry.

This became the most evocative metaphor for the rapid loss of learning once a delegate returned from a course to their own organisation. It has bugged me ever since – until I worked as part of the trainer team from AlphaPlus Consultancy on the Education and Training Foundation’s Advanced mentoring skills for experienced mentors programme.

The 13-module course constitutes 40 hours guided learning hours (GLH) in which learners progress through a carefully stepped programme of written resources via an online platform (Future Learn), in combination with interactive trainer-led Zoom sessions to reinforce theoretical concepts and refine mentoring skills.

Alongside this are 40 hours of mentoring within their own organisations. Learners complete a short project to create/modify or improve a mentoring programme within their context.

Commitment and ingenuity

Like fellow trainer, Joanna Stokes, who waltzed her way into the virtual training to the strains of Mariah Carey, I was inspired by the commitment and ingenuity of the mentors themselves in the sessions. Their reading and experience informed discussion. Through deliberate practice they experimented with Action Learning Sets and Triads, took on unfamiliar roles like facilitator and observer, and honed their active listening and open questioning. But such advances can be fleeting memories unless something else happens to transfer them to their own situations.

So how do we ensure that the considerable time and money invested in teacher development are not lost?

The right blend of activities and theoretical content is needed to engage learners initially, coupled with a clearly defined outcome which will extend beyond the course.

Constant iteration between the set programme and the delegates’ professional lives – 40 hours of mentoring during the six months – embeds durable skills development in their own context, thus benefitting future mentees.

The course was stepped. Delegates would first encounter theory – such as models of mentoring – then evaluate and either select the one which would best suit their needs or devise a new one. The next stage was to set the groundwork to enable them to create a mentoring programme that would work in their own organisation.

From the start it’s essential to build in ongoing evaluation and success criteria, a road map for mentors to follow every step along the way. The course takes mentors through the planning stages to create a business case. They are provided with a sequenced model in which helpful prompts enable them to cover the right information, such as a rationale, costs/benefits to their organisation and how the programme will be evaluated. It’s dubbed by one trainer, “the Rolls Royce” model. Mentors can select the most relevant sections; few need everything. Following the rigorous process ensures a greater chance that the mentors’ programmes will be accepted, and embeds within them a business skillset and commercial knowledge to draw on for future enterprises.

The importance of context

Projects like these can flounder when the product is the only focus. To be more sustainable, a mentoring programme has to be contextualised. As Dylan Wiliam famously observed, “Everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere,” so an ongoing strand was group discussion of mentors’ different organisational contexts, their daily and long-term pressures and opportunities – all in a safe space with pre-agreed protocols.

Group members were encouraged to continue exchanges, as happened last year via Future Learn or in their own WhatsApp groups. Some embryonic Communities of Practice have sprung up and could continue to spread ongoing support and experimentation as mentor programmes unfold.

Already we have anecdotal reports of more teachers seeking mentoring to improve their classroom delivery as a result of the mentors’ more finely-tuned practice, particularly active listening and better questioning technique. Success breeds confidence to experiment further.

A bonus product of the course was a mentoring handbook, generously shared by one member and adopted and adapted by others. Participants’ presentation slides indicated how much of the course had been synthesised to form a compelling case and implementation plan. There have been encouraging reports about positive feedback from senior leaders, who wanted some modifications before programmes were implemented – signs of a promising dialogue.

Shifting organisational culture

Perhaps it’s blue sky thinking but, looking at the products of the course, it seems possible that some programmes will not only last beyond the course but could also help shift organisational culture from judgemental to developmental – even transformational. Some could even support organisational change: amalgamation of colleges needs mechanisms to create a new identity and harmony between former independent sections, for example.

And of course, the most significant players in transferring learning from course to educational organisations are the mentors themselves. In the upheaval of pandemic conditions, they have been extraordinarily resilient, focused, positive, and proactive. Far from being empty vessels into which learning must be poured, they are the conduits and the agents of much needed change.

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