CPD – Mostly sitting with Nellie


I have used the expression ‘sitting with Nellie’ because a great deal of my professional development has been on-the-job and opportunistic. There are some who take a dim view of this approach; I’d argue that judicious choices in formal and informal development have worked quite well for me. The one thing that has run through it is that it is MY development.


When Alison Peacock spoke about learning without limits during my PGCE at the Institute of Education, I raised my hand. “How do I get a job at your school?” This has been my approach to CPD throughout my careers. I use the plural because I’ve had a few. They have been characterised by continual professional development, a state of becoming rather than being. So I can only approach this subject in a rather long-winded way, from the beginning.


In 1992, early on in my working life, Dr David Butcher, director of the General Management programme at Cranfield University, said something that has stuck with me throughout my careers. “If we want it enough, each of us is capable of unlimited development.” Some in the room passed cynical glances; naively, I believed it. At the time, our company was undergoing a programme of corporate and personal change. Besides grading for two belts in karate (a group of us chose a somewhat unorthodox way of illustrating David’s point), I took every opportunity that the company could offer.


But even before that, shortly after my attempt at a PhD in medieval ecclesiastical history had ended in temporary work counting cars on the M5 and M6, I’d embarked on my professional development. The company, a transport planning consultancy, could see that I was capable of more, and they needed someone who could persuade and inform their clients. So I became a marketing assistant. By night, I studied alongside other half-awake men and women for my graduate diploma in marketing and gained my membership of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. After a shaky start to my career, the course and the qualification gave me the credibility I needed amongst consultants who considered ‘non fee-earners’ as superfluous. Of equal importance, then and throughout my career, was the guidance and sponsorship of a senior leader. At first a director, then the Managing Director: they recognised my potential, set me the initial challenge, supported me in my development and demanded more of me than I believed myself capable of delivering.

When the company hit huge difficulties and had to be bailed out by venture capitalists, I managed my second step in my professional development in an equally unorthodox way. The ‘company doctor’ had made me redundant but wanted to know if there was any future for the firm, so he asked me to carry out a competitor analysis. Of course, I said, knowing little or nothing of how to do it. Youth, chutzpah and the need for the daily fee prevailed. In order to fulfil my brief, I turned to my father-in-law, a retired corporate finance director, who taught me how to read between the lines of company accounts, to smell out problems. Hours of conversations with him, pages of scribbled ratios and days at Companies House led to a report that revealed the parlous state of most of my former company’s competitors. Thanks once again to some high expectations of me, and thanks to my father-in-law’s tuition, I’d emerged as a jobbing freelance consultant.


My twenty years in management consultancy began in a marketing capacity, but once again the sponsorship, direction and challenge of senior leaders led to huge changes in my career and capabilities. I’d only intended to work there for a year, to raise enough money to pay for a law conversion course. But it felt dishonest, so I told the chairman and asked for his advice on my career. “Stick with me and I’ll make you very well off,” he replied. Though mistaking my motivation, his offer of support convinced me to stay. The managing director then took me under his wing. He saw the makings of a management consultant in me and explicitly offered me a steep and unorthodox route into the profession, almost an apprenticeship. Looking back on the twenty years there, I pride myself on only having read one book about management, ‘Maverick!’ By Ricardo Semler. Though I could see the benefits of books for others, my preferred ways of learning were on the job.


I was assigned to a very experienced consultant as his assistant in interviews, information collection, analysis, report writing and presentation. I thought I had a decent brain and a way with words: he taught me what not to say, what to say and how to say it. In some pretty bruising conversations, in which I had to learn that I couldn’t simply expect to apply my prior learning to this new role, he shaped me as a consultant.

My managing director wasn’t content with that. We were a firm of practitioners who also preached, project managers who consulted, so he set out a path for me into managing projects. This was by way of training others. One of the best ways of obtaining a pretty deep and rapid understanding of a subject is the terrifying prospect of having to teach people about it. 

There was an explicit logic to the development: I was assigned to a senior consultant, who gave me an overall understanding of what we taught. He then took me through a session and patiently explained each point: what he said, why he said it, what it led to and, importantly, how I should make it my own point. I had to understand my subject, and draw on my own experience, if I was to have any credibility in front of our clients, and if they were to learn from me. Next, I accompanied him to our residential courses in a supporting capacity, watching, listening, learning and then discussing what it all meant over dinner and late on into the night. Only when I was comfortable with what I was to teach did I begin to present individual sessions. After each, there would be a painful “So how did you think that went?” session. My colleagues and I all used to walk around with large lever-arch files full of feedback. Though useful, we eventually had to learn how to filter out what was of most value to us. With his help, however, I became able to present the technical content of our training.


There was a subsequent and, in many ways, far steeper step. I began to work alongside David Butcher and his colleague at Cranfield University, Dr Catherine Bailey. Both occupational psychologists, they worked with us to provide management development for our clients. We taught the technical; they offered deeper development. And once again, I learnt most at dinner and afterwards. Like many of my colleagues, I gave David and Catherine permission to be extremely blunt about what they saw and what would be necessary for me to develop. While my consultant colleagues had worked on my knowledge, understanding and skills, Catherine in particular addressed my values, attitudes and behaviour. I learn best from watching, probing for meaning, practising and then reflecting on what I’ve done, action learning for want of a better name. 

For years, long after my ‘apprenticeship’ and when Catherine and I were working on assignments as equals, she continued to provide this deep and challenging development. It is best characterised by her exasperated comment one night, “Malcolm, this is the point where you shut up and I teach you something.” There was a three-way contract, between Catherine, me and my company. And I cannot overemphasise how important the sponsorship of my managing director was, as during this extended period, the company was making little or no money from me. It was a very informal and very expensive route to further professional development.  


The company was heavily involved in the emergence of a professional body for project managers. While jokingly someone had said, “If we were arrested on a charge of being project managers, would there be enough evidence to convict us?” there was a real determination to assert our still nebulous profession alongside the engineers and other specialists whom we managed and with whom we worked. Though I lacked the confidence and, at that stage, the experience to claim membership for myself, I was interested and involved in the accreditation of my peers in the profession. 

One of the big drivers for professional accreditation in project management was assurance. This ranged to the formal assurance required in safety critical environments such as railways, to giving some comfort to a client who was about to part with large sums of money and hand over the running of a major investment to a stranger. And an important element of that accreditation was the requirement for continuing professional development. Our environment was constantly changing and we had to show we were keeping up with it. I worked extensively on this with Catherine Bailey, as one of her areas of expertise was competence development. Our work culminated in a paper that was runner-up for an award from the Association for Project Management: Catherine provided the brains; I provided the beautiful prose.

I continued to pursue my own development through ever more challenging assignments. One or two of the assignments were flops, and my employers afforded me the luxury of making sense of failure. Successful or otherwise, most of my work taught me through getting my hands on practical activities, and working alongside, questioning and listening to other professionals. Plan, do, discuss, derive meaning and move on, over and over again. I found a professional home while helping a group of internal consultants in the civil service to gain certification as management consultants. The scheme was new, as the Institute of Consulting was attempting a similar effort to assert its credibility. The consultants I was managing were also attempting to assert their professional standing in an organisation that valued more conventional career progression. 

Together, we put together our portfolios and submitted them before our interviews. After ten years in the business, and as a leader, I expected to sail through. My recall for a further scrutiny was salutary. Judged by my peers, I hadn’t adequately demonstrated how my experience and development had made an impact on my work. Though the errors were quickly remedied, this insistence on evidence for the impact of my continuing professional development was important. Similarly, when I was accredited as a leader of reviews for high risk government projects (the Ofsted of public investments), it was a judgement by my peers, subject to a continuing need to demonstrate that I was still up to the job.


In a blog post supposedly dedicated to my continuing professional development as a teacher, it might seem strange to have waded through so many words before it even comes up. In fact, even before this, I qualified as a swimming coach and gained another degree, a first in English. I have, in short, a never-ending thirst for development. But management consultancy wasn’t meeting that need. In the words of a colleague, I’d been coasting for some time.

So I retrained as a primary teacher. Approaching fifty, this was hard. After a career in management, I had little desire to lead a school: my ambition was to be an advanced skills teacher. I chose the Institute of Education because its emphasis on the academic aspects of education, and on reflection as well as practical grounding, appealed to me. I found the guidance of my tutors invaluable, and probably made far heavier demands on them than my younger peers, to explore the meaning of what we were learning. 

Like most PGCE graduates, I recognised that I went into my NQT year only half formed. I was fortunate to work for a local authority that afforded me the time and opportunities to learn and meet up with my fellow NQTs, but I found the collaboration with my NQT mentor, a colleague and former deputy head, most valuable. For me, observation, and evaluation are essential, so I sought out her feedback. I watched her, she watched me, we team taught, we planned together and we talked a lot. She rapidly made practical sense of what I approached in an idiosyncratic and overly theoretical way. Teaching can be a lonely pursuit, and once again I owed a lot to my head, who invested more of the school budget than he might have done in supporting my development.

My experience in the private sector was brief, unusual and illustrative of the value of unorthodox opportunities for professional development. I found myself teaching alongside a colleague who also taught adults. While I had some opportunity to observe her in lessons, I wanted to understand her approach, the way in which she set such high expectations for pupils, filled them with enthusiasm and gently but persistently facilitated their learning. So I enrolled in her evening seminars on James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Over twenty weeks, I watched her apply the same approach with adults, discussed what she did and why, and explored how I could apply it myself. I learnt a lot more than just one summer’s day in Dublin.

Last term, at a school in special measures, I experienced even steeper development. Early on in my career, I learnt about the ‘transition curve’, a graphic way of illustrating the levels confidence and typical attitudes at different stages of development. With a significant number of new teachers in the team, we couldn’t afford to take time to settle in. So I very quickly went through the stage of assuming that all I had to do was apply my prior experience, into the slough of despond associated with lessons that just weren’t working for the students and up towards lessons that offer the opportunities that these pupils demand. I did this through the calm direction and trust of my head, through some well-timed and practical interventions from the senior leadership team at a neighbouring school and through close collaboration with our assistant head. Once again, we observed each other, we planned together, and we reflected. Though younger than me, she is far more experienced: I have a lot to learn. But she is also hungry to learn, and our development felt mutually satisfying. We’ll be staying in touch.


Making sense of this, I have come to the following conclusions:

1. CPD comes in varied and often unorthodox forms: we must recognise that and sometimes look for it in the strangest places.

2. In professional development, impact matters: we learn, we practise, we make sense of it, we are transformed, we produce better results from our lessons.

3. We have to believe in our unlimited capacity for development, seek out opportunities for it and be open to others’ well-intentioned, well-framed and well-timed interventions.

4. Colleagues are vital. We are at our best together, learning with and from each other; at our worst and loneliest if we think we are on our own.

5. The sponsorship of senior leaders is also vital, be it direction, belief, trust, resources or opportunities. But most of all, we need time from our leaders: time in the week to pursue development and time over the terms to make sense of and properly assimilate learning.

I am looking to the College of Teaching, as a classroom teacher, to help in advancing these five enablers for my continuing professional development.


What next? Teaching will take me through to retirement, as I have so much to learn. Beyond that, I’m eyeing up a place at Oxford to read PPE, perhaps to pursue my doctorate. But only when I’m ready. So much to find out, and only one life.

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