Welcome to the Trainer’s Spotlight series.
If you are new to this series, here I ask you, the trainers, about your background and experiences as trainers, and to share your expert tips, thoughts and ideas on training. Want to be in the series?
In the second of our interview series, we introduce the founder of Symonds Training & Research below.
Valeria has taught at several UK universities, in addition to being a researcher at the University of Exeter. She now runs her own training company.
Interview with Dr Valeria Lo Iacono, founder of Symonds Training
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself Valeria
I am from Sicily, Italy, but I have been living in the UK since 2004. I moved to the UK with my husband, who is English. I also lived in other countries between leaving Italy and moving to the UK, including Ireland, South Korea and Spain.
I love to travel and especially getting to know about different cultures and ways of living. This is why I decided to live in Seoul, South Korea, for two years with the guy who would then become my husband, as I wanted to live somewhere in Asia before settling down.
Asia is a continent that has always fascinated me. South Korea is really an amazing place and culturally very interesting.
I like anything that has to do with history, the arts and culture. For example, I love cooking and experimenting with new recipes. These days I mainly cook Italian but my cooking style is influenced by the traditions of all the places I have lived in.
My other big passion is dance. I have been dancing all my life and I like all types of dance but belly dance is my favourite one to practise.
I am talking so much about my passions because I believe that passions are very important in life. Passions energise us and give us something to always look forward to.
Also, my passions really shaped my life both my private and my professional life. For instance, I met my husband because of my passion for travel, when I was living in Ireland, and together we kept travelling to new places and we lived in different countries.
In terms of my career, I studied the preservation of cultural heritage and art history in Italy for my undergraduate degree and then I did a master in tourism in Venice. So, my love for the arts and travel shaped my choices in terms of studies.
Then, later in my life, after I turned 40, I had a so-called ‘midlife crisis’ and I decided that I needed a new challenge and mental stimulation, so I did a PhD in dance as a form of cultural heritage.
I really enjoyed doing a PhD although it is not always easy to stay motivated!
2. How did you get involved with freelance/corporate training
This is a long story but I have to say that it was my passions that actually gave me the confidence to start teaching and getting involved in this field.
When I was in school, I was an extremely shy child. I was very quiet and I found it very difficult to talk to people I did not know very well.
As late as in my 20s, if someone had told me that in the future I would be standing up and talking in front of a room full of people and teach them something, I would have never believed it.
I first started teaching out of necessity when I was living in Seoul. As I could only work as a language teacher there, I started teaching Italian. At first, I taught in private schools and, eventually, I got a job teaching Italian at the Korean University of Foreign Studies.
Teaching, for a shy person like me, meant really getting out of my comfort zone. Realising that I could stand up in front of people and teach for me was a huge confidence boost.
Another thing that gave me confidence was belly dancing, which I also first took up when I lived in South Korea (Seoul is a quite cosmopolitan place).
As I discovered this dance and as I improved over the years, I started performing on my own and also teaching other people and this also made me realise that I could teach.
When I moved to the UK, I started working in offices. I worked for Nortel in Newcastle first, then Ofsted in Bristol and then Cardiff University. During my corporate career, I was always fascinated by corporate training.
In every company I worked for, I always tried to attend as many corporate training sessions as I could and I loved attending training sessions. It was not only because I enjoyed learning about different topics, but also because I loved observing how trainers worked.
I was very interested in how they organised the training, how they delivered it, and how they organised it. So, over the years, I observed and learnt.
When I was working for Ofsted and Cardiff University, I was also line managing employees and managing teams. I really enjoyed writing training manuals for people at work and also coaching the people I line-managed and giving them advice and support regarding their learning and development opportunities.
Eventually, after I started my PhD, I started teaching university students and then I got a job as a lecturer at the University of Bath, UK. During that time, I received training on teaching and I also learnt a lot about teaching o the job, as I was teaching my students.
3. You mentioned that you are Italian, so Italian must be your first language. How did you find teaching in English, your second language?
By the time I was teaching at the University of Bath, I had been living in the UK for a long time already, so I felt confident in speaking English.
If you are teaching in your second language though, I think the trick is to try and speak as clearly as you can and also practise a bit before you deliver your lessons, so that you get used to saying things aloud.
When you teach or present in another language, practising beforehand can give you a lot of confidence, I think.
This is true though, also if you are presenting or teaching in your own language. I would still practise if I had to teach in Italian.
4. What subjects do you provide training on?
I provide corporate training and academic training on a variety of subjects. I provide training in soft skills, including Personal Development, such as time management, and interpersonal skills (for example, conflict management and communication).
Two other areas that I really like to develop teaching for are equality and diversity (for example, on topics such as unconscious bias) and wellbeing (for example, I am very interested in mindfulness).
In terms of more specialised training, I teach research methods (both for business and academia) and online marketing. The most niche topics I teach are in the areas of dance and intangible cultural heritage, which is the topic of my PhD.
I also teach training skills for trainers and I have developed an e-learning train the trainer course.
5. What are the biggest challenges as a trainer?
One of the biggest challenges for me is to not get carried away and try to teach too much. Particularly in an area, you are an expert on, or an area that you are really interested in, it is easy to become over-enthusiastic and wanting to cover too much.
However, you always need to remember the training needs of your learners. So, you need to assess what they are interested in, what they want to learn the most, what their level of knowledge of the topic is so that you can cater to their needs.
Also, if you try and teach too much it becomes difficult to keep to time limits and timing is very important for training.
Another challenge is keeping a pace for the teaching that is just right. What I mean is that, if you go too fast your students will not be able to follow you. If you go too slowly they will get bored. So, you need to find the right pace for your audience.
The thing is, the right pace to use depends on their level of knowledge, their ability to concentrate and other individual differences. If you are teaching a group of people, they often have different preferences and so it is not always easy to please everybody.
6. What is your favorite part of Being a Trainer?
For me, it is the opportunity to give people new ideas so they can develop their knowledge and skills and hopefully improve their lives.
Also, as a trainer, you need to keep learning all the time. You need to learn new topics and keep developing your teaching skills. So, I really like the fact that the training profession always gives you the opportunity to learn and develop.
One of the problems I had in the job I was doing before I decided to do a PhD was that I had stopped learning in that job. Every day seemed the same and there was nothing new I could learn as part of that job.
As a trainer instead, every day is different because you always deal with different people and learning is part of the job. So, as a trainer, being open to learning new things is essential.
7. How do you identify the training needs of the employees or people you train?
I do so by gathering feedback from them. First of all, you gather feedback before the training takes place.
So, you can go and talk to them, observe what they do at work or ask them to fill a questionnaire. This is particularly useful for corporate training.
If you are teaching at a university, you follow a curriculum and you know, roughly, what level the students are at depending on their year of studies.
During the training itself, I get feedback by observing people in the class, looking at their reactions (to see if they understood) and paying attention to the kind of questions they ask. I also ask questions to them, to check their level of understanding.
After the training, or towards the end of the session, I ask for feedback using forms for participants to fill. This type of feedback will help me learn what my participants need for future training sessions.
8. Your one tip on how to be a good trainer?
Listening and observing behaviour is a very important skill for a trainer.
By listening to your learners and observing them you will be able to gather feedback immediately from their reactions. This is very important if you want to deliver training that is engaging and effective.
Some trainers I saw in the past were only concerned with listing facts about a topic and did not really care if the participants learnt or not.
Their only aim was to cover all the content they had to cover within a specific time frame and that was it. They did not care if people were bored or overwhelmed.
So, listening skills and observations skills are essential to be a good trainer.
9. Your second tip on advice for new trainers
For new trainers, I think it is important to start teaching topics that you like and are naturally enthusiastic about.
Conveying enthusiasm as you teach is one of the best ways to motivate your students. On the other hand, if you are not enthusiastic, they will feel it and they will wonder if the topic is worth learning at all.
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to only teach topics you like.
However, for a new trainer, it is worth starting to teach things you like and, especially if you are a freelance trainer, you should be able to do this as you should have more control over what you teach.
As you become more experienced, you should then be able to work yourself up to show enthusiasm even for topics that you are not particularly keen on.
You can touch base with Valeria via:
Dr Paul Symonds
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