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  • Writer's pictureClaire Aston

Learning despite the new distractions - have you figured it out?

Training our Spaniel (pictured) has challenged me to consider how I can continue my own professional learning in this strange new, mostly virtual, working world.

The puppy is excellent at 'sitting' and 'staying' in his home environment. But, understandably, somewhat less impressive when presented with a brand new field - the sights and smells win over whatever treat may be in my pocket. So the trick is to take him to myriad new places, training him in every one, so that his behaviour becomes consistent, despite distractions.

As our wonderful, farming, dog trainer said in the last class (very much outdoors, with cow pats, pheasants and a train line in the distance):

'That's the trouble with village hall dog classes; you can get a gold star for obedience in that room by bringing brilliant every week. But take the dog outside with new smells, and he's off!'

She meant to be reassuring when someone's puppy did not sit beautifully, but she also got me thinking about how we are dealing with new distractions in our working lives just now.

If we were used to learning by bouncing ideas around with colleagues over lunch, how are we doing now that lunch is a lonely sandwich at home? If we were used to team training days but have set up as a freelance sole trader, how are we motivating ourselves to learn?

Learning is 'one of my things'; with a Mum who was a headmistress by the time she was 30, and paternal Grandparents who were both head teachers, I was surrounded by education growing up. It put me off actually training to become a teacher, but the delight at watching others learn, and a desire to discover new gems myself remains.

At Christian Aid, I took the Gallup Strength Finder as part of a leadership training scheme, and 'Learner' was key for me; here's my current, eclectic selection of bed-time reading...

But it's all very well reading at night time; what about putting all those new thoughts into practice? That's where I'm coming back to my dog training thoughts. In theory (and, mostly, practice), the puppy listens to me because I've put the hours in to build a relationship. Early starts when he was tiny, many hours and many steps on walks, regular provision of food - I represent 'good things', and he mostly wants to please me as a result!

Likewise, back in human interaction, it is much easier to engage with people we know well, with whom we had an existing relationship before the world went virtual. Which is why I arm-twisted some former colleagues - the ones I used to bounce ideas around with over lunch - and requested a zoom book club. Only one of us is still at Christian Aid, but with the shared history of our time working together, we can delve right into meaty topics with ease. It's a great way of challenging each other to read things we wouldn't otherwise read, and of pondering together how to use new theories in our current, changing, working worlds.

The challenge of continuing our professional development during COVID-19 is well-documented. The Chartered Institute for Professional Development describes the current climate as 'particularly challenging', and the FT reports that HR chiefs must rethink 'talent management after COVID.

What else, then, can we do, to develop our own learning in a time of great distraction?

Seek out kindred spirits doing the same, which is why I want to finish with a shout out for Charity Comms. The membership network for communications professionals working in UK charities has been creative in moving all its networking and training events online.

I've joined a Brand Breakfast from my kitchen table, heard how charities have pivoted fundraising appeals online whilst all working from home, and met fellow freelancers in zoom break out groups, all carefully facilitated. Together, we have shared tips on finding and securing new work, discussed how to make virtual workshops more engaging, and promised to look out for each other in weeks and months to come.

So, thank you to charity comms, and to everyone on LinkedIn sharing ideas, answering questions, and generally supporting each other in this strange and challenging time.

Now, off for a dog walk...

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