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A teachers’ show and tell: professional learning unplugged

Teachers are taking their own steps to learn more about their profession through social media networks. Flickr/Corey Leopold

It’s been a long time since I have been in a pub at 10.30am but that’s where you would have found me last Saturday at the Great Northern Hotel in Chatswood, Sydney.

I wasn’t there to get on the punt or have a middy of black to settle the hippy shakes but to be part of a teacher professional learning phenomena called TeachMeet. Twenty teachers turned up on a cold, wet Saturday morning to learn from each other in a convivial atmosphere in the back room of a pub in front of the fire.

TeachMeet is a great example of the professional learning networks that teachers are establishing for themselves using online social media applications such as Twitter. These networks are unfunded and a parallel universe away from the mandatory professional development on pupil-free days that most people associate with teacher professional learning.

So what did we talk about in front of that cozy fire? We heard practical and very precise seven minute or two minute nano presentations from teachers on teacher coaching, new technological tools liks Rubistar and cargo bot, as well as the work of Harvard academic Marshall Ganz. Then TeachMeet segued into TeachEat and we shared a meal and talked about teaching.

We had teachers from government and non-government primary and secondary schools. My presence as an academic was tolerated so long as I listened more than I spoke (quite a novelty for me).

You cannot buy professional learning that is as practical and credible as the kind where interested professionals come to share information voluntarily. The first TeachMeet was organised in Scotland in 2005 and it has migrated through the professional learning networks enabled by Twitter and Facebook.

It is part of a larger movement called “unconferences” formed in reaction to audiences bored by the traditional keynote and presentation format of conferences.

So TeachMeet constitutes an effort by the profession to take control over their education conferences rather than be dictated to by the corporate big events that are often priced well above the limits of modest teacher salaries.

TeachMeet is also an antidote to the professional development that is often delivered by education systems on pupil free days. To be fair, some of this PD is provided to meet important compliance requirements such as learning Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or Child Protection training. However, sometimes these mandatory professional development sessions resemble one shot professional learning inoculations that have no follow-up and subsequently little impact on student outcomes.

It is my contention that the voluntary nature of TeachMeet appeals to a profession that is heavily regulated by the audit regimes of the bureaucracy. TeachMeet is a relatively chilled oasis in a working environment where you are very publicly called to account by the results of external exams published on the MySchool website and worn down by the ridiculous number of interpersonal exchanges that happen everyday.

TeachMeet is professional learning for teachers, by teachers in convivial surroundings with colleagues who are making a difference in students’ lives. At a TeachMeet event and, unlike a keynote presentation at a conference, it is possible to interact with these great teachers and find out exactly what strategies they use to achieve their success.

More pertinently for teachers, TeachMeet talks resonate with credibility as these successes have been achieved in real classrooms with real students. In contrast, teachers often come away from keynote presentations wondering how the wonderful idea they just heard would translate into classroom practice.

TeachMeet is part of the small scale incremental change that builds hope and empowers teachers. This incrementalism is effective but not as politically sexy as the “education revolutions” foisted upon the sector by well-intentioned but educationally misguided governments.

I will certainly be there at the next TeachMeet at the pub to find out what some of Sydney’s leading teachers are doing in their classrooms.

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