It’s strange looking back now at when I first started teaching ten years ago. I moved a long distance to take up my first post, and so the only teachers I knew in my new area were the ones who worked in my new school. When I left three years later, this was still the case. In those three years, the only teachers I discussed teaching with were those who happened to occupy the same staff room as me. Even CPD events weren’t that great an opportunity to network as the population of teachers in the South of England, where I was working at the time, is so vast that I never a encountered the same teacher more than once at any course.
This form of professional isolation isn’t a big problem if you work in a large and vibrant school where the staff and the leadership team are innovating and have open minds to change. However, not all schools are like this. Too often teachers have found themselves in schools were innovation is a dirty word. Where to speak up and share your practice risks ostracisation from your peers. Where any attempt to change your practice is met with resistance, and even ridicule. In this environment, it’s not surprising that some teachers can eventually lose some of their motivation and willingness. I’ve heard many teachers, including myself at one point in my career, describing themselves as having got “stuck in a rut”.
This first began to change for me when I encountered blogging. Although I was sceptical at first, the geek in me was intrigued and so I was easily persuaded to give it a go. I soon discovered a whole new world of professional dialogue. Through blogging, I began to have stimulating and challenging conversations with teachers from around the world, but mainly in Scotland. These were like-minded individuals who I’d never met, and yet they provided me with huge amounts of professional support. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many of us, but in some ways that was nice as we were slowly developing into a sort of community.
And then twitter arrived. To begin with, twitter for me was just a sort of RSS reader. It allowed me to easily see when the blogs I already followed had published a new post. But gradually, it began to grow. Suddenly teachers were joining twitter who didn’t have a blog, and then the growth became exponential. Thousands of teachers took to twitter and my professional learning network exploded. Now, instead of interacting with a dozen bloggers, twitter was allowing me to share and discuss with hundreds, even thousands, of teachers all over the world – a far cry from those isolated initial years.
But after a while, I began to feel something had been lost with the growth of the network – we’d lost the community. I didn’t actually know many of my network very well. Teachers weren’t able to communicate the nuances of the development of their practice in 140 characters, so they didn’t. It’s hard to challenge someone you don’t actually know very well in 140 characters without offending them, so I stopped trying. And although there were thousands of like-minded individuals now networking, we weren’t able to ever speak with one voice. Our potential influence wasn’t being realised. We needed a community which could cope with the new scale of the network.
At the time of this realisation there didn’t appear to be many majorly successful online teacher communities which provided the sort of positive environment I was looking for. There were some noble attempts to achieve this in Scotland’s national education intranet, Glow, but there weren’t the sufficient numbers of teachers operating successfully within Glow for this to really work. Of course, there have always been websites aimed at teachers which provide discussion forums, but whilst these do attract a large number of teachers, they tend to be quite negative places. It is for these reasons that a group of fellow teachers in Scotland and I introduced this now blossoming community Pedagoo.org.
It is these sorts of positively orientated online communities of practice which now provide the genuine potential to affect real and meaningful change in our classrooms. In order to learn from each other, we need to have the opportunity to go into depth. We can’t just share the end product and hope other teachers can apply it in their classrooms also. We need to share why we did it, how we did it and what went wrong along the way. And we need to feel comfortable enough not only to open up completely, but be prepared to be positively questioned and challenged by others in the community. It’s through this rich form of interaction that successfully innovative real-world staff rooms are achieved, and whilst our online networks can provide us with the opportunity to interact with a broader group professionals, we will only realise their full potential if we can convert our networks into communities.