Head of learning

Cathy Silmon

Cathy is the former head of learning at the Chiltern Open Air Museum where she works with a team delivering quality learning programming.

What are your main work activities?

Supporting the team to ensure that the quality of the learning programming is excellent. Steering the strategy and vision for this area of the museum. Staying informed and up to date with current pedagogy within this sector. Fundraising.

Tell us about your typical working day.

No day is ever the same! A typical day can involve: liaising with the team to ensure that all is well and stepping in to support as required. Meeting with internal management colleagues and colleagues outside our organisation to facilitate aspects of current projects and to plan future projects. Spending time with school staff and groups who wish to visit us and helping them understand who we are and why we do what we do. Corresponding with people exploring a career in heritage or those wishing to volunteer, keeping many different plates spinning – generally with much goodwill, kind words (and cake) which appears to solve a multitude of problems.

What do you enjoy about your job?

The variety and consistent challenge within an atmosphere of goodwill and generosity. I love mentoring and supporting a team and watching people develop new skills, recognise existing skills and grow into leaders of their own portfolios. I believe that learning within heritage and culture should be of the highest possible quality and am distressed by tokenistic, tired programming. I work to ensure that all aspects of our programming (formal, informal and visitor experience related) is underpinned by a defined stategy and that the learning experience reflects the best practice of other sectors.

What are the challenges?

Challenges are the usual high workload, intense peaks due to funding deadlines, multiple project deadlines and staff/personality issues: these challenges make the role varied and solving/managing them adds great value to my overall job satisfaction. For the smaller independent museums (of which we are one) all income has to be internally generated and seeking funding for new projects can take a great deal of time. I personally find this distracting and do sometimes wish for more consistent and regular support from external funders.

Briefly describe your career leading up to today.

I trained as a primary school teacher and spent 22 years working in this sector. I began to lose heart as the joy of learning appeared to be a low priority for those setting the government education agenda. Rather than become critical of a profession I loved, I moved sideways into heritage learning. I found the desire to inspire the next generation (and current generation) of learners to be alive and well in this sector and stayed. I began as a school session leader, then became a learning officer and am now head of learning. The team has grown from five to 25 over the past three years and so I have become a logistics manager as much as a head of learning.

What key skills do you need to do your job?

I have to be able to absorb all manner of “stuff” that can come from any corner at any time with goodwill and grace and ensure that none of the “stuff” touches my team unless it is in their best interest. I have to be inspirational – I have to know where we are going as a team and why we are going there, I need to be able to communicate this creatively to the different people facilitating our programmes: staff, session/activity leaders, volunteers and management colleagues. I need to be able to identify excellence and highlight where development is needed both on an individual level and on a team/department level: once a development need is identified I need to find appropriate training (internal or external) and raise the funding required to cover this training need.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to work in this area?

Follow you passion but don’t go into this sector unless you are committed as it can wear you down. Expect to be challenged and inspired – build up a resilient network of support around you: find mentors and stay in regular touch with them.

You can read more on the Chiltern Open Air Museum website and you can contact the learning team by email education@coam.org.uk

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