A unique perspective from my very own experience of this years’ Forward… A reflection on what remained unchanged and what has been different, and how I experienced and perceived these developments. Might be an interesting read for those who have been at the Forward before and want to see where it’s heading, or for those who are thinking of doing it in the future and want to get a sneak peak into the event (but no spoilers, I promise)!

When I said my last ever event was the Forward 2018, I was not intending to lie… But I wasn’t honest to myself either. Leaving Eduk8 was the hardest part of my travel around the world. I spent 8 years developing this programme and caring for it more than anything else in my life. Everything I learnt in other organisations and in other training events, I immediately brought back to Eduk8. I cannot count the amount of times I dreamt about the programme, the people, the events. Eduk8 was always on my mind, I constantly thought about what can be the next step and how it could be further improved. It’s been a year since I left, and I must admit, Eduk8 still is often on my mind, but I try my best to just stay on my little bench, observe from the distance and only offer help or assistance when asked. It’s not always easy, but I try to refocus my attention and use the inspirations I gathered from around the world not to improve Eduk8, but build something else. 

I left Eduk8 (and Europe) back in October 2018 and I really missed the programme and the community. In January I filled in my YearCompass, and I realised that one thing that is not yet closed for me was the Forward. The event in 2018 was magical and I referred to it as the best event I’ve ever been part of in the history of Eduk8. Although they say you should always finish on a high, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’ve found the “recipe” for the Forward after all these years, or if it was just the curious and magical alignment of the stars that allowed us to create such a learning and growing environment. There’s been a growing curiosity - I wanted to know if such an event can be recreated again and again, with different teams, different participants, different motivations, goals, backgrounds, experiences. And that dream came through: I was invited to once again coordinate the Eduk8 Forward this summer. Here’s the unfiltered report of my own experience. 

What stayed the same? 

The venue

In 2018, we fell in love with the venue hidden away near the seemingly unpronouncable town of Jindrihuv Hradec in the Czech Republic. The venue is not luxurious at all, it’s originally a Montessori-like school for young kids, but it has a certain charm and allows the group to really form a community. The venue is surrounded by a river, a forest and a large field and is a good 30 min walk away from the town centre, which allows us to stay focused on ourselves and not be disturbed by anything. The venue is owned by a wonderful family who live there and who welcomed us into their home. This makes the entire stay much more special and homely. We had quite some revelations on how we treat our OCs in ESN in general, how much we complain about all the things we can find to complain about. While living at the home of a family, you think twice about what you really need and want to complain about, you just simply learn to appreciate being hosted and cared for. Certainly something we should bring into our practice while dealing with our peers in the network. The venue is absolutely perfect for hosting the Forward and we hope to maintain a long-lasting partnership with the family and continue creating magic there every August. 

The programme skeleton

The first Forward happened in 2013. Since then it went through a lot of changes and the event is almost unrecognisable compared to the original versions. What hasn’t changed is the effect on the participants: I recently talked to some participants from the Forward in 2013 and we recalled memories of tears, facepalms, stormings, WTF moments and other deep sh*t. If anything, this has only intensified since, and got more controlled if I may say so. The current programme and format was co-created by Atanas Genkov, Osiris Hoepel and myself in 2016, and since then Irina Buruiana also left her mark on the further development of the programme, which reached it’s perfect balance last summer. We created a skeleton programme which can be used as the basis of the Forward programme, and can be adapted to each group and the needs of the participants each year, having enough flexibility in it to bring in new ideas and cater for the strengths of the trainers of each event. Some elements however are very fixed and are ensuring that all Forward alumni have a shared experience which creates bonds across generations. 

The training coordinator

Since the beginning of the Forward, I’ve always been the training coordinator. A good thing about such a continuity has been the growth and development this has enabled in the past. We never repeated the same mistakes, we kept good practices, nothing got lost in translation or forgotten. This also made the Forward a really easy event to manage for the Eduk8 team, as a large chunk of responsibilities could be delegated to the training coordinator. Whilst we all know this ought to change and last amongst all Eduk8 events, we also need to create a sustainable future for the Forward without me taking the lead, it’s the most difficult responsibility in all of my former Eduk8 duties to pass. However, this year I paid special attention to transitioning and also finding someone whom I would trust wholeheartedly to pass these responsibilities too, and I am sure the future of the programme will be in good hands. 

What was different?

The team

This year we had a totally new team working on the Forward. We invited Viktoria Csakany, a very experienced personal development trainer and coach to enrich the programme of the Forward with her ideas, methodologies and unique approach. However, she has never worked with ESN or Eduk8 before, which in a way was a gamble, but the right kind of gamble. Her touch made the programme stronger, better, more personal. She brought in a new processes which supported participants in their personal growth and which made the experience so much deeper and more meaningful. 

Besides Viki, we had 3 mentors this year supporting the development of the participants: Ines Cunha, Micka Golinski and Florian Heinrichs. For the first time ever, the trainers were not responsible for the mentoring any of participants - this was solely the role of the mentors. Each mentor brought in their own unique skill-set and approach which made the learning process more diverse and tailor fit to the needs of each participant. It’s quite special to work with mentors who have gone through their own Forward process in the past - they have had a first hand experience of the Forward, they could very easily put themselves in the shoes of participants and therefore they could create a deeper, stronger connection with participants which has been truly beautiful to experience. 

The team was very balanced, diverse and worked together like a machine. We were supported by the one and only Zrinka Trusic, who was our one-person wonderwoman support. She is currently working as an EVS volunteer at the ESN office and she has made the experience incredibly smooth and easy for all of us. I wish everyone had a Zrinka on their teams. Life would be much easier. 

The participants

As in any non-formal educational event, the experience, background, prior knowledge and skills, motivation and learning goals of every participant affects the learning outcomes of the group. Therefore, no matter how many times you repeat the same TSO, your outcomes will always be different thanks to the diversity of your participants. At the Forward, we pay special attention to the group processes, from the moment of selecting the participants. We don’t only look at the applications of the individuals on their own, but also assess how the person fits into the group to ensure the right balance which is necessary for learning and growing together. The Forward is more than just a training for trainers - it’s a personal development journey where vulnerability is necessary in order to grow. This can only be achieved in a safe environment. We put a lot of emphasis on the fact that at the Forward we do not care about what ESN hats one has or had in the past. At the Forward, we only care about the human behind these hats. 

The selection of participants was also done this year differently: by the Advisory Team. This meant several things: in the past, we knew all of the applicants before. Even if someone had a weak application, we would still select them based on their performance at the Starter and the competences we knew they possessed. From this year onwards, however, we need to ensure that participants know that their application matters, as in some cases there can be nobody to vouch for them. It was interesting to notice that the Forward seems to have not been advertised properly this year: Based on the applications, we realised that most people were unaware of what the Forward is really about. A lot of people applied because “it’s the next step” and were expecting an “advanced training for trainers” where they can practice, practice, practice. The Forward has never really been this, but turns out we need to change how and what we share of the Forward, to better attract people who really need and want what the Forward can offer. Not everybody needs such a personal development approach, but this is what the Forward is about. Those who want to practice can do so at RPs, Academies, Community Trainings and other local, national and international events. Eduk8 often struggles to find people to deliver workshops. But this is where practice happens, in a real training environment. 

This year there was something new for me personally: for the first time ever, there was 50% of the group I did not know. This has never happened before at a Forward, since I always met people at the Starter earlier, which allowed me to have a good understanding of each individual, their competences, and help me prepare better with a tailor fit programme. This year we really had to rely on participants applications to better understand them and their needs and we also created some new processes to overcome this new gap. But this also meant that some of the participants did not know anyone in the team and therefore we had to pay special attention to creating a safe environment. It was new for me to discover that some participants are taken aback by my direct feedback stye - which you all know well - and which one way or another everyone has had the chance to discover at the Starter and/or Academy in the previous years. This year I realised I probably should have warned participants in advance. :) 

By letting go of mentoring completely, the trainers also did not have a very personal connection with the participants. This was also a first for me and I must admit, the one thing I struggled with the most. In the previous years, I put a lot of attention in the personal connection with participants, which I found absolutely necessary, because I ended up working a lot with these people in the future: mentoring at seasonal trainings and academies, working alongside in the team, or supporting their work in the feedback pool, for example. This year, having gotten rid of all of my responsibilities in Eduk8, I realised the personal connection is not something I or they need. It’s simply a habit of the past, but a habit I ended up missing. Most of you have heard my embarrassing speech about your kids growing up and having to let go of their hand at some point: by not having this personal connection with participants, I felt like I truly became the momma that is able to let their kids leave the household and be ok with not being needed any longer (but still feeling a bit weird about what this freedom has brought). 

All in all, the Forward 2019 was a very special experience which had the perfect combination of past and future: it kept everything that worked well in the past and it truly erased everything that did not need to be there. It was the healthiest event I’ve ever led as a trainer, not only because of the vegetarian menu being served during the training, but because of the way we approached our own well-being and mental health. The team had at least 7 (but often more) hours of sleep, we kept our meetings short and efficient, we had trust which enabled us to share responsibilities without over controlling and discussing everything. Those who worked with me in the past know that this is not how I used to roll, but I recently discovered that it IS possible and should be encouraged. What is the secret recipe? Trust, preparedness, and knowing what you’re doing. 

I truly hope that there will be many more Forwards to come and new generations of wonderful trainers to be born. Because you can’t separate your human and trainer self. You ought to grow as a human, in order to be a better, more compassionate trainer. I hope all of you can one day experience this journey.