Emma Pratt, co-founder of ELTCampus, discusses the issues involved in building successful teacher training communities.


Do you know your community?

When developing a community of teachers (either face-to-face or online) where the focus is on training and on-going professional development, the best investment of your time is to find out all you can about that community and its needs. I’m not just talking about classroom observations and assessing classroom teaching practice; I’m talking about getting a holistic picture of this group. What defines them as a group? What is the cultural context? The school context? Attitudes? Do people feel secure? Are they paid for professional development? How can you describe their motivations? Will they be participating because they want to, or are they being made to attend? It’s all about individuals, and it all affects the community you are trying to build and what you end up doing together successfully.

A while ago I went in to deliver a teacher development session based on some classroom observations. It was in a local private language school, with an English department that had never formalised teaching-development time. Any reflective practice or development took place informally, over the photocopier or during chats about materials in the staffroom. I had offered to kick start something a little more ‘concrete’ that I hoped they would pick up and work with. I was met with a room of wary teachers, an air of resistance and an ‘us versus you’ tension.

The session went down less than well. On reflection, I realised that I had jumped in with the idea that I had to do all the work, and that I thought I knew what they needed and I was the one with the answers, because, well, I was the leader of the session, right? I spent an hour and a half working very hard, trying to please a group of people I hadn’t invested the time in getting to know.

When I was asked to guide another group of local teachers in their teaching development, I took a lot more time to get to know them and prepared for it to take time too. Timetables and time itself had been a problem with the previous group of teachers, so they’d failed to get together regularly. This new group had similar problems. For this reason, I set up an online community, with the idea that we could communicate more freely when teachers found a spare moment. We could develop our sense of identity too, as a community of teachers exploring teaching practice through a formal space that we could all access at a time of our choosing.

Failure to connect

My failure to connect with the first group I mentioned caused me to reflect hard about the next group. I was an outsider again. I was going to be coming into their established community, which had dynamics and issues specific to their organisation.

We all like to feel connected and identified. It plays a big part in how we work and communicate – what we listen and respond to, and what we don’t. I spoke to Yvonne Dalorto, a teacher and teacher trainer based in Spain and a writer of CLIL material and infant coursebooks for the MELP (Macmillan Early Learning Path) project. Yvonne has observed that teachers respond to seeing someone they can relate to: ‘They don’t want to see me, the “trainer”. They want to see Mari-Carmen from the neighbourhood. How is Mari-Carmen getting her kids to do that?’

She told me how, on seeing a video during a training session, a teacher had exclaimed, ‘Look! She’s got the same posters that I have in my classroom!’ They were posters that the teacher had lovingly picked out to decorate her classroom wall, and seeing them on another teacher’s wall in a training video created in her a deeper connection to the learning. She saw herself reflected in what she was being shown.

The teacher’s voice

Many teachers feel their voice isn’t important. They are led in training sessions and given top down directives. In many cases, like the very first group I mentioned in this article, no formal community of practice is established because the organisation doesn’t consider it ‘worth it’. Teachers will come and go. Why invest?

I was in a gathering of teacher trainers at a conference earlier in the year. A teacher who was attending a talk about training gave her point of view, then added, with an apology, ‘But I’m only a teacher.’ She was quickly admonished by a trainer for thinking she wasn’t important. She wasn’t ever to say ‘ONLY a teacher’. Teachers are the ones in touch with the realities of teaching and the changing landscape of education. They have a full-scale view of the problems that face them and their learners and other stakeholders. I’m talking about cultural, political and infrastructural issues. Not just pedagogical.

Organisations routinely fail to consult with teachers. A teacher of very young learners recently described to me how her school had rebuilt her department over the summer. The architect claimed to have experience with education, but the teachers who were to use the space were never once consulted in the design process. The result, from an aesthetic point of view, was a triumph, while from a functionality point of view it failed.

The influence of ‘the Organisation’ on creating communities of practice

The attitude of the Organisation within which the teachers teach, whether proactive, benignly inactive, disorganised, threatening or negligent, forms part of the wider cultural context when developing a community to support professional development. Who are the stakeholders? What accreditation does or doesn’t come with training? What would motivate? What are the barriers? This knowledge informs ways to connect effectively and differentiate, be it face-to-face, via social media, or through more formal online platforms. Your community will work if it’s relevant, and relevance relies on knowing what the problems really are.

Teachers teach teachers!

Many teachers work in schools that provide little or no training at all. Finding informal training via social media, such as twitter and some fantastically insightful blogs, is an alternative for enthusiastic teachers keen to connect with like-minded souls and improve their performance.

The benefits of peer-driven training communities are many. Hierarchies are removed, experts are community-appointed as they prove themselves, and if the community is online, as I’ve mentioned before, it frees teachers from a rigid time and place.

However, there is something to be wary of. Peer-led learning communities can fall for what I consider a typical human weakness. We’re human, and we tend to pick up on the latest trends very quickly without much critical reflection. We’re often in search of tricks, activities and techniques to use the next day in class. It can become very reactive. We grab the latest app of the moment, throw in a bit of phonics, a bit of Reggio, or DOGME, but often we don’t delve deeper or critically look at what is happening with the learning or the learner, apart from being entertained. Teacher trainer Jamie King is famous for challenging his teachers to always be able to answer these questions: Why? Says who? Who cares?

If acknowledged experts aren’t present in a newly-formed community of teachers, then it is important to find people who will act as that reference point of wisdom, and who will moderate and ask questions in order to guide and develop reflective practice.

I was brought up in a culture of reflection and with the idea that learning is a lifelong exercise. I’ve benefited from a few mentors who helped guide me in my early years of Museum Community Education, and I’ve developed the practice of reflection as an artist. Not all of us have had this privilege or come from this type of learning culture. The discipline of reflecting on one’s practice needs to be established early in a teaching career, if possible, right at pre-service training. In many cases, it’s not established and you may find that you have teachers in your community who have not ever reflected deeply on what they do or why. They may even see professional development as a threat. For this reason, a guide is important.

The quiet talent, the lurker and the pollinator

In a community of teachers, as with all communities, there will be different people taking up different roles. Some will be the listeners, some will be the talkers, some will be the agitators, others conversation starters and idea sparkers, while others will be peacemakers. Opinions will be rife. As the community develops, different skills and knowledge will make itself apparent, and experts will come forward. The benefit of online communities is that those who suffer anxiety or dislike participating in a face-to-face group have a chance to contribute in a less threatening way. Immediacy of people is removed by social media, and people have time to think about what they say or write if a conversation if asynchronous.

In social media, the term ‘lurker’ is given to those of us (about 90%!) who scan through information on our media channels, but make no comments and don’t tend to share. Some get frustrated with the lurkers, thinking them selfish miners of information who give nothing back. In a learning context, though, and as teachers of teachers, lurkers are learners too. They just aren’t your participative or communicative learners. Remember: we have to differentiate and allow for different types of learning, right? If development and learning is happening through lurking, that’s OK.

Community is a slow build

If we are beginning with a group that is fossilised in their approach for whatever set of reasons, constructing a community will be slow and we have to be prepared to invest over a period of time. There is a progressive set of stages for any community that comes together to learn or do something.

The early period of a group forming is rocky. New cultures of thinking have to be accepted and tested. There is a lot of change that has to happen to the new group members before anything great can happen – for some more, for others less. The rocky period of doubt, resistance and power play gives way to a period of people settling and adjusting. The period where actual productive stuff happens can take time to arrive. In my case, it’s taken a year. Six months after starting a forum for my teachers, one of them posted for the first time. Like I said, community takes time to build, and you need to nurture those first enthusiastic participators and be patient as each person grapples with change, their own sense of place in the community and the intricacies of motivation.

The importance of good design

When a community for teacher development fails to launch, we need to ask ourselves: do we know what the problems really are? Is what we’ve built actually relevant or answering the right question? Good design is about identifying what the real problems are, not what we think they are. If we see what we’ve set up is irrelevant, we need to have the willingness to throw our preconceived plans out the window and try something else.

Investing time, opening our minds, our ears, observing and asking questions is the start. Knowing the community we are serving well is the first step. It comes down to you as a person, connecting to other people, one at a time.

Emma Pratt