The Worst of Times, the Best of Times – part 2

In the first installation of this 2 part blog, Steve described the impact the first few weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown had on his work at Thistle and the difficulty he experienced. In this second instalment, he goes on to describe what the challenges have begun to mean for him in his work as a facilitator in Thistle.

This blog was featured in abbreviated form in the SSSC’s ‘Inspiring Care Stories’ series.

I remember describing my/our low point as a leadership team almost a month or so into the lockdown and how one colleague began to emerge out of our collective ‘depression’ (or realisation of the reality of our situation) sooner than most of us. I remembered how I had felt (glum) when they had shared their ideas so enthusiastically - when a few weeks later I began to come up with some ideas of my own. I remember describing it as an epiphany but I suspect, like most ideas it simply resulted from a number of hitherto disconnected thoughts - ideas, discussions, readings - suddenly falling into place in my head.

Anyway, as a learning and development professional I suddenly began to picture an entirely different way of going about our learning. Partly it was situational – I realised we had no choice - partly experiential, as early experiments in the land of Zoom and Teams had been far more fruitful than I had imagined they could be. Either way, I began to talk seriously about ‘blended learning’ and after 30 years of resolute attachment to facilitation in the room, began to imagine and explore other complementary ways to enable people to learn. I had always known the theory but if you had told me 6 months ago that I would take an almost geeky interest in Learning Management Systems I would have laughed out loud. I recall posting an item on the Learning Team Meeting agenda -‘Turning our Learning on its head’. I was so excited about the idea I remember inflicting it on my friends and family during our weekly ‘What’s happening?’ Zoom call. I was now imagining how my work could begin to emerge and adapt to the changed situation all around us.

Our early experiences of the pandemic had pushed us to ‘act in the moment’ often, and the model of innovating, learning and then improving, worked well on numerous occasions. Our emergency induction package for example, was thrown together in a few hours of intense work by me then delivered by 2 colleagues a day or two later. This encouraged my colleagues and I (once I had shared my epiphany) to agree to try to make some of these new ways of delivering learning to happen as soon as we possible. I know before the pandemic we would have had many more weeks of planning and discussion before doing anything. Now we have recently completed our new ‘See Life Differently’ programme with 15 new members of staff on Zoom – and it went remarkably well. At Thistle we talk about bringing your whole self to work - an approach Frederic Laloux refers to as ‘wholeness at work’ in his influential book, ‘Reninventing Organisations’.  Our courses are now bringing that to life as Zoom brings our work to people’s whole lives and you notice cats, dogs, postmen and small children play walk-on roles during the sessions.

I will find myself back in the training room when the vaccine is available to all but I really don’t think learning at Thistle will ever be the same again.

As I was so enthused about all this I tried hard to remember that not everyone is at the same stage of this transition and that for some the passion and enthusiasm, the creativity and innovation, might not ‘land’. One group of colleagues undoubtedly taken aback by me bringing an over-abundance of enthusiasm to a meeting about the possibilities of this new way of working – certainly fed this back to me. I also need to remember that none of these models of transition be they Kubler-Ross’s, Bridges, Adams, Hayes and Hopson are linear or fixed. Not only are all of us in slightly different places, we can go back and forward in our experiences of what is happening and our emotional responses to them. After three weeks of enormous productivity I hit a wee bit of a metaphorical wall a few weeks ago. It was important to acknowledge that just as there is a brand new world to build after this, I’m still stuck in the house, not seeing my family and pals and still frankly working my socks off.

I have found Transition theory has helped me to understand what is happening and that discovering an emerging sense of meaning and purpose makes a big difference personally and organisationally. However, what is helping me to cope goes beyond that. Experiencing a glimpse of what it would be like for empathy and kindness to flourish, as it has in and around our organisation and many others, is inspirational and profoundly encouraging. The Person Centred tradition has always extolled the importance of caring about ourselves and each other, as well as those we seek to serve but this has been far more evident to me in recent weeks and months than it was before. The Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks has shown the potential for wider societal change – there is no doubt that the calamitous effect of Covid on our BME communities has been an underlying factor in encouraging this movement’s self-confidence and assertiveness. Despite the impending wave of economic catastrophe, heaped on the emerging health crisis, I believe we can do a lot better than a ‘new normal’. Call me an old relic from the Radical Social Work days but I think coming out of this we need to plan for a ‘best of times’. Another health and social care system is possible – let’s start testing and learning now.

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Thistle Coach
Portrait of Steve Coulson

Steve leads on learning and development for staff at Thistle and also contributes to external training. He worked in local authority social work including residential child care, community work, supported living and with volunteers for 20 years. Steve was also a Social Work Practice teacher and has presented to university courses at Stirling and Edinburgh.

Steve has practiced and trained in person centred planning since 1999. He worked at Scottish Human Services as a Senior Trainer before joining Edinburgh Development Group in 2002 where he led the Future Plans project using person centred planning with young people in transition. He developed the Big Plan in Scotland with his friend Heather Simmons and they wrote the book ‘The Big Plan – a good life after school’ published by Inclusion Press in 2006. Steve has also contributed to a Jessica Kingsley Publication ‘Co-production and Personalisation in Social Care.’ He has worked throughout the UK, Western Australia, USA and Cyprus.

As well as developing and delivering Induction training and the Person Centred Principles into Practice course at Thistle, Steve regularly facilitates Big Plan sessions with young disabled people and their families as part of Thistle’s Interact project.

More articles by Steve

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