Silos bypassed as teachers meet online

Silos bypassed as teachers meet online

by Steven Kolber

The difficulties of being a human in the current state of the word are hard to ignore. Yet even within calamity, comes growth and renewal

Teachers have taken an existing concept and structure, a ‘Teach Meet’ and adapted this informal professional learning network rapidly into a new and more open online medium. Instead of small, geographically discrete meetings, these new kinds of events are limited only by the number and willingness of volunteer speakers. Across subject areas, curriculums, states and even countries, this new and emerging type of event is an exciting and positive development in online teacher’s lifelong learning.

A great deal of rhetoric around K-12 education is focused on the negative elements of what is misrepresented as an industrial model of schooling. As Neil Selwyn recently said, the COVID-19 Pandemic will likely show just how useful and important this model is for minimising inequity and providing a safe and productive space for the most at-risk of youths. Yet the image of teachers and students moving in lockstep, within siloed learning areas, is still a pervasive one. The move to quarantined, locked-down and in-turn working from home has broken many of the routines of the day-to-day teacher. The issue of teacher expertise existing within discrete areas is especially challenging, but a new movement to online learning by tech-savvy and open-minded teachers have challenged the above assumptions. Teachers moving online to share experiences, common concerns and their active and innovative responses.

The idea of a ‘Teach Meet’ begun in 2006 in Edinburgh, eventually coming to Australia in 2011. By 2014, each major city had its own group running meetings of this type. The principles of a teach meet are as follows:

  • Short presentations (3,5,7,8 minutes, depending on the event)
  • Open to all participants
  • Free from commercial interests
  • All participants have an equal voice
  • Run by a democratic and collective form of distributed leadership

These lofty and high-minded ideals are admirable, but often hard to achieve in all but the most-populist of cities. Existing networks and geographic factors have always hamstrung the intended openness of these events. But the mass shift to online teaching and in fact many social outlets during this time has done much to invigorate and extend the reach of these types of teacher professional learning events.

The online event format, though certainly done elsewhere, was inspired heavily by the earlier ‘AussieED School Help’ initiative, organised by a group of passionate educators in response to the bushfire crisis of January 2020. This incredible event was a two-hour education conference live streamed to YouTube that brought together some of the best-known names in education. Inspired by the telethons of old, it was also a fundraiser, with money going directly to Corey Tutt, the newly crowned NSW young Australian of the Year, Deadly Science program. The event brought together international guests including Dylan Wiliams, Tara Martin, Eva Hartnell, Jon Bergmann with well-known Australian teachers such as Eddie Woo and Yasodai Selvakumaran. It was streamed live to YouTube and has since been viewed 300 times and resulted in raising $1,410 used to resource and supply the burnt down Broome Primary School.

With this amazing and uplifting event as a proof-of-principle, the COVID-19, just like the bushfire crisis before it, necessitated a rapid shift to online learning. The need to bring teachers together in an open, inclusive and meaningful way seemed more important than ever. As all major professional learning conferences have been cancelled, and with few yet to solve the way to run online conferences in a monetizable format. Many schools have likely shelved their ideas for professional learning meetings similarly due to the challenges that these new platforms raise. These factors mean that learning is limited, in the spaces that have genuine practicing teacher voices, though most large educational technology companies have quickly prepared professional learning offerings, these are not always what is required by teachers and leaders within schools. The benefit of a Teach Meet format and large education conference also, is the way that they bring expert practicing teachers into a space to share proven best practice.

The online shift began with ‘Teach Meet: One Thing’ (#TM1), on Wednesday the first of April, short, punchy presentations of three minutes duration were shared by Michael Ha, Simon Harper, Megan Townes, Steven Kolber and Matt Esterman. Organised and promoted by the NSW Teach Meet group, it combined NSW and Melbourne based speakers and reached 150 viewers.

Building on this success, ‘Teach Meet: New Futures’ (#TM2) followed, building on the idea of breaking down silos and geographical areas, took place the following week. Ideas were shared around new possible futures for education came from Peter Hutton, Yasodai Selvakumaran, Lauren Sayer, Kelli McGraw, Josh Velez, Emma Enticott, Nicolaus Gaube, Matthew Harrison, Anthea Naylor, Michael Ha, Pete Whiting and Keith Heggart. This collection of teachers managed to represent Primary, Secondary, Special Ed, and Higher Education settings, from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and France. At the time of writing the stream has been viewed 490 times.

As the development of these ideas and forms show, these trying times have again proved the dynamism and flexibility of teachers and educators to be shown. It has further allowed teachers to go beyond their borders and boundaries and seek out genuine cross-sectoral engagement and to share innovation more broadly. Collaboration is the core feature of education and this has been illustrated on a massive scale. Matt Esterman, the organiser of ‘Teach Meet One Thing’ (#TM1) noted that, “this is a reawakening of something deeply held by all teachers; that when you just focus on sharing stories, including failures, in a safe and supportive environment, great learning happens.”

This movement of online Teach Meets and widespread cross-sectoral collaboration is an exciting and new development brought about by the challenging times we are living in.

If people are interested in attending or presenting at the two forthcoming events can access relevant information by searching for the twitter hashtag #TM3 and joining the NSW Teach Meet Facebook group.

Two events are already slated for the coming weeks, ‘Get Tech’d Up’ on the 18th of May at 8pm   and ‘Challenging Teacher Bashing: Democracy in Australian schools’ with dates to be advised, all are welcome to contribute, join or share in this work.

Steven Kolber is a teacher at Brunswick Secondary College and Executive Secretary at Teachers Across Borders (TAB) Australia.