- Effective CPD should make us better at our jobs.
- With online training, it should be easier to accommodate the needs of the trainee.
- CPD should provide a balance between offering new solutions and stimulating helpful discussions.
An established SEND consultant and trainer, I have spent a lifetime working in school halls, classrooms and more recently training suites up and down the country. Online learning has been turbocharged by lockdown, with companies offering education and training producing a blizzard of webinars to replace face-to-face experiences. This time has therefore provided me with one of the steepest learning curves of my life. It’s clear that as a result of the remote revolution we are all likely to experience a new and different journey through continuing professional development (CPD), compared to previous generations of teachers.
What does any professional want from CPD? The feedback I have gathered, over a number of years, points to one thing; that it should make us better at our jobs. It should help us become better teachers and better leaders. Effective CPD may sometimes lead to letters after our names but, while educating and informing, it also has to inspire and equip. The challenges of the day have to be eased by the time we invest in learning.
If, post-crisis, the majority of external CPD providers were to remain predominantly online, what should we expect from a good training experience, what would be lost and what might be gained?
We would undoubtedly lose ‘the expert’, primed and ready at the school lectern on a wet Wednesday afternoon, attempting to exude the casual gravitas of a TED Talker, unconsciously trying to identify that day’s lunch from the faint aroma still hanging in the air. We’d lose those stolen minutes for a chat at the start of the session, afforded by school technology, parts of which may work but rarely simultaneously. A prompt start upstaged by everything from the treachery of folding tables to a surfeit of light through broken window blinds.
Irrespective of whether the session takes place in a real or virtual room, there are other key barriers to overcome if participants are to leave CPD sessions refreshed, energised and illuminated.
Signs of good CPD
In the case of Best Practice Network’s NASENCO programme, the course seeks to balance both academic enquiry and professional reflection. In this way, it must make a tangible connection between the material presented and the professional experience. That said, any session has to do what it says on the can, it has to be properly titled and clearly described, including a description of the expected audience.
The term ‘professional development’ suggests that the knowledge gained in the session should be applicable to working life. There have to be take-aways. Concrete and helpful modifications, alternatives and enhancements to current practice or perspective, effective immediately. As trainers, we have to ask our audience about their experience and its value.
There are two things to consider here. A setting and a provider require a degree of flexibility. If you just got 'the call’ or if something of significance has just happened to the school, or a member of the team requires urgent attention, it has to come first. Whilst I consider knowledge about SEND important, I don’t need an edict from the government to tell me I’m not essential. Staff on the ground, in schools, are essential, not me. It should be possible to postpone or cancel a session in light of certain circumstances. It’s clear that the online offer can do much to address this; after all, school leaders are managing a rapidly changing situation. Hopefully, the proliferation of good quality online training opportunities can more easily accommodate the needs of the trainee. It is often provided at a lower cost, accessed from anywhere with wi-fi and is recorded should something prevent participation. It is good news for teachers, bringing them greater choice in terms of how and when they participate in CPD.
This speaks to content. The trainer should be qualified to offer new knowledge and perspectives but it’s important to recognise that no single individual can close all gaps or fix complex problems. CPD does not act like a software patch. There has to be a balance between offering new solutions and stimulating helpful discussions. For example, I support Best Practice Network as a SEND specialist but on the team, for each course, there are also specialists in academic writing, course structure and materials, those that support the virtual learning environment, and marking, etc. While I am well qualified and experienced in my field, at 52, I am acutely aware of all the things don’t know and am happy to share this space and learn from those around me.
Everyone has to have access to the session. The medium (or media) of communication has to be clear. That means the trainer uses clear and consistent language, that the multi-media experience is of good quality and that supplementary materials are readily available in a useful and accessible format.
On a personal level, if I could add one or two wants to my list of needs for a successful approach, as well as a bigger monitor, I would want to maintain a genuine sense of connection to and amongst a group. I like that this summer I’ve got to know some of the individuals in my groups. I like that their toddlers have been running in an out. I like that it there is more than one way to ask a question; in person, via comment, chat or email. I like that people can have their coffee with them and turn off the video or audio if they need to take a minute. In this way, technology has the power to make CPD a bit more human. I have also found that it’s still possible to create a good vibe in a virtual room.
Professionals need each other, at this moment, perhaps more than ever and while I am not yet experienced enough to know how best to offer, or to measure, the warmth and appeal of a virtual learning space, you can bet that I’m working on it.
Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
About the author
Abigail Gray is a SEND consultant and course tutor on the National Award for SEN Coordination (NASENCO), run by Best Practice Network. Abigail has over 25 years’ SEND teaching experience. She is the author of Effective Differentiation and The Effective Teaching Assistant, written in collaboration with Melanie Wright, is available to pre-order at https://bit.ly/3cDpIoU.