InspirationTeacher Tips

Why every teacher needs a teaching community

Jenna Swano

In many ways, teaching can feel quite isolating. ‘It’s just me and my kids, taking on the monster of curriculum outcomes and hoping that we win.’ And that was before we started living in this seemingly post-apocalyptic world that is notoriously lacking human connection.

The virus-that-shall-not-be-named has forced us to use technology to connect with each other.  Zoom, Meet, Teams, and Hangouts have become part of our vocabulary, along with the vast array of social media platforms. If you weren’t using these before, I’m sure you are now! I may not be able to be in close proximity to others, but in many ways, I feel more plugged in than ever before.

In the first major lockdown of March 2020, a group of teachers I know started an edtech leader support WhatsApp group. Seeing that technology had become central to remote content-delivery, we thought those leading their schools may want a community where they could get some support, ideas, and best practices. Just over a year later, we now have a group of 177 (and growing!) passionate teachers who share thoughts, articles, and resources freely and willingly. It’s become my go-to platform for all things edtech and has been a great source of professional development for me.

Why aren’t we doing more of this?

We may all be teaching in vastly different situations but at our core, teachers are all looking for the best ways to reach our learners. And while there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to any problem, we can certainly learn from one other, share our ideas, and adapt others’ ideas to suit our context.

Connecting with other teachers is easier than you think

How many of us are truly collaborating with and learning from our colleagues? 

For many years, I was lucky enough to work in a school where everything was shared. We worked in collaborative Google Team Drives that everybody in the grade, and most of the other teachers in the school, had access to. Each teacher in a grade would be responsible for one or two subjects, and they would do all of the required planning, resource creation, and assessment development and then share it with the grade. It was all done using the Google suite, so that it could be easily shared and we could all work collaboratively on it. Lesson plans, for example, were done in a shared Google Sheet that others could edit and comment on, where necessary. Planning and integration was also done once a term, in preparation for the following term, on a shared Google Sheet. You can pick up a free copy of this template here.

As a result, we were constantly learning from each other. If we were tackling a topic that we were unsure of, our colleagues were able to give feedback and ideas on our planning and resources. We were encouraged to become masters of our subjects by  learning from those planning other subjects and sharing best practice on our own subjects. 

We tried to schedule planning or admin periods in such a way that a subject or a grade of teachers would be on admin together at the same time, at least once a week. This made planning together and brainstorming ideas for upcoming topics or skills a lot easier. We found this to be a fantastic way to learn from one another and to leverage ideas in the interest of our learners (and our sanity!).

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there

There may be a couple of things running through your mind right now. If it’s ‘Cool, that sounds great. I want some of that!’, then you can skip to the ‘Next steps’ section below. 

If, on the other hand, you’re thinking: ‘My school doesn’t work like that,’ or: ‘That sounds terrible. All those people are going to judge me,’ or: ‘I don’t have anything valuable to add,’ let’s just pause here for a second.

Sharing can mean needing to be vulnerable. I know. Ugh, no thanks! 

In my situation, I didn’t have a choice. It was how things were done. So, I ripped off the plaster and here I am, six years later, a better teacher for having done it. What made it easier for me (apart from the fact that it was a requirement, so it definitely couldn’t be interpreted as me ‘showing off’) is that everybody was putting themselves out there, flaws and all. 

It can be hard, though. When we share and collaborate with others, feelings of inadequacy can come up. We tend to think that some of the people we work with are ‘all-knowing super-humans’, so we don’t think we can add anything new and we fear that we may be judged. The other challenge is that the colleagues may be unwilling to share with us, so we feel like it’s a very one-sided relationship. Both are valid responses. 

As one of my favourite authors, Brené Brown says, ‘Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we are all in this together.’ And so that is really the best place to start – with a group of other teachers committed to doing this with you.

Next steps

To connect with other teachers, you don’t need access to the same tools that I used at my school. There are so many options out there and you’ll find what works for you and your colleagues. Here are some tips to help you get going:

  1. In your school

Start by gathering a group of teachers who would like to collaborate. This could be a subject or grade group, as a start. I would keep it open to anyone who wanted to join, though. The last thing you need when developing a culture of collaboration is an exclusive clique of teachers, where you need to know somebody who knows somebody in order to join. 

Whether you’re an ISP or an FP teacher, a Maths or an Art teacher, a newly qualified or super-experienced teacher – we can all learn from each other. Don’t be exclusive. Broader is better. Don’t get me started on echo chambers!

  1. Outside of your school

Be on the lookout for groups, chats, hashtags, or accounts to follow and engage with. The world of social media can be incredibly daunting, but the nice thing is that it’s easy to get going because you can start as an observer. What I will say, though, is that the more you put in, the more you will get out. So, be active.

Some great places to start are:

Life is busy and if we are not intentional about connecting with others, it won’t happen. We all know that when we make a list of things to do, it’s often the urgent stuff that gets tackled first. The problem is that what’s urgent isn’t always what’s most important.

So, here’s my challenge to you: Connect with at least one other teacher this week and share one idea. Get the ball rolling. You may be amazed at what transpires.

About the Author
Jenna Swano was a high school English teacher in Cape Town before making the jump to primary school, as a Grade 5 teacher and Head of Department. She left teaching in 2021 to co-found SupportEd, a company focused on meaningful professional development for teachers.

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