When I was asked to attend a ‘strengths’ course as part of my participation in the Skills and Education Group’s emerging leaders programme, I have to admit I was more than a little sceptical. At the age of 32, I felt sure I knew my strengths and weaknesses and that no amount of additional probing or analysis was necessary. How wrong I was.
The course was devised and run by Hannah Miller from coaching company, Sidekick. Using the world-renowned CliftonStrengths assessment, it was focused on personality and preferences. We were taught how to really get to know ourselves: what we do best, and how and why we contribute and show up in the way we do. The theory is that the more we understand these aspects of ourselves, the better equipped we are to make the right professional decisions and to build a career that really works for us.
It made me realise that I’m at my best when I’m working directly with students; listening, engaging, and helping them to navigate their way through college life – and, ultimately, their next steps. As Nottingham College’s Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire collaborative outreach partnership (DANCOP) project manager I was already working to raise the aspirations of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and to help them realise their potential, but I wanted to get back to that one-to-one, direct support.
As a result of the course, I switched to becoming a pastoral tutor in our A Level department. Just a few weeks into my new role, I already know I made the right move. And the experience has got me thinking: imagine if I’d understood myself this well when I was younger.
Every day I work with learners who don’t fully understand their strengths and don’t know how to navigate or overcome their weaknesses. So I contacted Hannah and discovered that she already had a version of the course for young people. We collaborated to devise a bespoke, face-to-face version that we could run over two days at Nottingham College. We called it Purpose Pursuit, Young Adult Edition.
We wanted the programme to develop attendees’ confidence and focus on their strengths. We also wanted to address the notion that career and next-step support can sometimes be quite generic or leave young people ill-equipped.
By liaising with the college’s pastoral staff and the DANCOP programme, we approached 25 learners to take part in the first of our courses. We focused on students who were either progressing onto their second year of A Levels, needed help in considering their next steps, or were at risk of not completing their course due to issues around confidence.
For two days, we worked with those learners to focus on their moments of brilliance and to view them as clues to their real purpose. We looked at talking confidently about who you are and what you bring to a situation, and we worked on identifying transferable skills, experiences and behaviours.
We also worked to identify weaknesses and figure out how to navigate what might be holding these learners back in order to remove barriers to change. Doing all of this enabled us to tease out realistic five- and ten-year goals for every person in the room – along with a plan on how to achieve them.
The course was a huge success, but one moment really stood out for me. One particular learner, who hadn’t lived in the UK for long, was struggling with their identity and with what they saw as an uncertain future. This manifested in a fear of talking to other people. By the end of the two days they were joining in a group discussion. This was a big win.
So we are now planning to run the course again at the end of this month for another 25 learners. I cannot wait to see what impact this will have on the next cohort of learners. And meanwhile, we will also be catching up with our last cohort to monitor and support the longer-term impact of taking part in the programme.
One thing is certain: it has already been transformative for me.