Embracing the extraordinary

Continuing Professional Development (or CPD) is one of those terms capable of striking fear into one’s heart. Whilst the concept of developing and enhancing one’s professional abilities is something that most of us are more than willing to subscribe to, the quality of a training course can vary dramatically from provider to provider, and it is true to say that there have been times (throughout my career) when I have been left seething at the hours that have been lost to a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course that has failed to deliver on any level.

As you might imagine, most of the courses that I have attended have been child-centred and the arrival of my own children certainly brought about a distinct change in my outlook. Almost immediately, my focus switched from judging a course purely on the quality of its biscuits(!) to determining whether I could use any of the skills acquired to make my homelife just that little bit easier…

And I suspect that the data management courses designed to track pupil progress (and inform future planning) would probably work equally well for tracking the mood swings of a tweenager or evaluating the volatility of a child’s palate – if you were so inclined!

One training course that I recently found utterly inspiring though was ‘Working with Autism’. What made it unusual was the fact that a sizeable portion of the information imparted was by teenagers or young adults who themselves were learning to live with autism, and the integrity of their testimonies was incredibly powerful. Listening to the many ways in which they found ‘everyday’ scenarios stressful provided a valuable insight into the challenges faced by those who are neurodivergent. And with between 30 and 40% of the population falling into this category I began to realise just how vital it is that education professionals develop a deeper understanding of the subject. Otherwise, how else can we ensure that we provide a positive learning environment for everyone?

It is generally understood that certain qualities tend to be prevalent in those who display autistic tendencies and even those with limited experience will know that taking things literally is a common trait (meaning that it’s best to avoid using confusing idioms) and that by keeping instructions to a minimum we are being sensitive to the additional processing time that will probably be needed too. However, one thing that I had totally underestimated was the extent to which most of us use visual clues in our routine interactions with others – one activity bringing me up short.

Working in pairs, we were asked to hold a short conversation – but with our eyes closed. Almost immediately, it became clear that not being able to see when our opposite number had something to say meant that the conversation became incredibly stilted, and we found ourselves either talking across each other or leaving lengthy gaps in between exchanges. In short, the whole experience felt unnatural (and more than a little awkward) and this was despite being in the fortunate position of working with a close friend with whom I usually have a good rapport. How much harder must it be for those who struggle to interpret the visual clues so readily accessible to the neurotypical?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a ‘glass half empty’ sort of person and, as such, prior to attending this course I was inclined to focus on the negative aspects surrounding ASD. In my defence though, the very fact that being on the Autistic Spectrum is classed as a Disorder seems to invite this type of response. However, I came away from the course with a renewed sense of optimism and a deep-seated respect for the remarkable individuals that make up almost two fifths of our society.

Perhaps by celebrating their talents (such as attention to detail, drive for perfection, extraordinary memory, exceptional honesty and alternate problem-solving skills, for example) rather than focusing upon their struggles, we might begin to eradicate the stigma associated with this condition, once and for all.  

Ploughing one’s own furrow

As one’s life gallops inexorably towards the next significant milestone, it’s funny how certain phrases resonate more emphatically than others – and I wish that I could say that I had done this particular one even a modicum of justice! However, being naturally rather cautious in nature, I have repeatedly demonstrated a propensity for choosing the ‘safest option’ and this is possibly why I am so admiring of those who’ve bravely refused to wear the cloak of self-doubt, choosing instead to adorn their outer garments with that boldest of emblems – individuality.

Having witnessed the enormous amount of sibling rivalry that pervades our household (on an almost hourly basis!) I am constantly trying to encourage my boys to ‘be themselves’. The very idea that they should simply be carbon copies of one another is something that I work tirelessly to refute because (for two males born of the same parents) they couldn’t be less alike! From their outward appearance, right down to their inner persona, they are very much the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’ and yet I would willingly adopt a range of traits from each, in order to set about achieving that much-coveted ‘happy medium’.

In my professional life too, I have gained something of a reputation for ‘championing the unusual ’ and I’ll admit that I am prone to developing a ‘soft spot’ for those pupils who evidently struggle to conform but possess a unique ‘spark’ of one kind or another. After all, these are the very ‘individuals’ who are most likely to end up igniting our future with their genius.

Of course, I can see how a class full of 35 ‘individuals’ might not be to everyone’s taste – something akin to the ‘Krypton Factor of the teaching profession’! Nevertheless, the temptation to quash individuality (simply to achieve compliance) is one that we should all try desperately to resist. Because whilst uniformity within the classroom undoubtedly makes things ‘easier to manage’, it is likely that it will also be responsible for choking those first fragile tendrils of brilliance too.

So, by all means equip each child with the best ‘tools’ for the job, but don’t worry if those initial ‘furrows’ resemble rather elaborate crop circles instead; there is more than enough time for some gentle refinement.