The inherent, yet often overlooked, value of ‘Communities of Practice’

Being part of a community of practice is not something many teachers consciously think about. For most of us, the ‘chats’ we have with each other over a coffee are often concerned with something that we are experiencing in our classrooms. We share ideas, propose solutions, offer insights – without being conscious that what we are actually doing is empowering each other through sharing our knowledge.

Through working with a selection of second-level schools, who were part of the inaugural Digital Schools Awards in Ireland, I was given the opportunity to mentor them as part of a community of practice last year. We met once a month via Teams and we shared our practices and our ideas. Although the schools participating were new to this (as was I) we all learnt an awful lot from each other. In fact, one school presented to the other schools on their experiences in digital planning and it was really great to see their team so confident and willing to assist others.

We also had guest speakers from other schools who were not part of the Digital Schools Awards programme at the time, but who I reached out to, as they had received an inspection by the Department on their use of digital technologies for teaching and learning during the periods of remote learning and I felt they could offer valuable insights to the DSA schools.

One idea that many of these DSA schools have taken on board is to have regular, scheduled, brief (5 minute) teach-meets for staff, either at lunchtime or after school. These so called ‘teach-meets’ usually provide one useful (new) tool that a teacher has been trying out in their classroom and they pitch the ideas/possibilities it offers to other interested teachers. This idea of CPD having to be a lengthly, often boring (let’s be honest) and tedious task, has now become a whole lot more ‘do-able’ for staff. A five minute pitch – although brief – can have long-lasting reverberations. Teachers will give something a try if they’ve seen the opportunities it affords for improving the learning experience and enjoyment of the students, plus it makes the teacher’s life that bit more pleasant if you can both teach and enjoy the students’ reactions at the same time!

A few weeks ago I was reminded of the value of communities of practice when I attended (and presented at) the CESI conference. The teachers presenting all gave freely of their time and expertise to empower others when it comes to utilising digital tools in the classroom. It is always interesting to see how many teachers are willing to sacrifice their time of a Saturday to attend such events as the CESI conference.

Yes, events such as the above are nothing new, what is new however, is the fact that more and more teachers have become attuned to the opportunities digital technologies afford us and our learners. When we were all forced to embrace these tools two years ago it was a fraught time, with a rapid learning curve. Now that we can explore them at our leisure, it means we can sift through those that are useful (and those that aren’t) in a less pressurised manner. Hopefully it will mean that our classroom practices as teachers will evolve more and that our learners’ digital literacy and digital skills will likewise improve.

One thing that has stuck with me over the past two years is that we are a community. When it came to the crunch, we reached out to each other for support like never before. We all, in some way, helped each other to adapt. Now that we’ve made this change to use technology more, I think these communities of practice will become even more relevant and I look forward to actively promoting them and being a part of them. There’s an expression in Irish that comes to mind, ‘Ní neart go cur le chéile’ – having others to share the load makes the journey easier, we’ve lucky to have communities of practice to make our digital upskilling in education that bit more pleasurable.

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