Help - at the touch of a mouse

Avoid 3am panics over lesson planning. Log on to the internet for a host of ideas or someone to share your probems. Pete Roythorne reports

Picture the scene. You're about to teach a new geography topic to Year 9 and you've hit a creative brick wall. What do you do? Bury your head in the sand ? Or sit up till 4am desperately trying to put a plan together? Or go online and visit one of the growing number of chatrooms and forums designed to help teachers share their burdens.

Chatrooms may have had a bad press, but for teachers they open up a world of opportunity. Imagine being able to share resources with your colleagues around the country. Or being able to ask a much wider audience how to handle a tricky situation in class. Or just to chew the fat with others in the same boat. The idea is steadily gaining ground.

"In our case, usage has increased tenfold in three years," says Bill Hicks, editor of The TES website. "We have around 61,000 registered users and about 40,000 per week in The TES forums."

The growing popularity for online support is echoed by regular users.

"Teachers can often feel isolated," says one, "for instance, if they are from remote schools or if they have no time to talk due to the pressures of the job... Forums can provide a safe haven for teachers to chat to others and to ask for advice."

Another regular contributor to The TES site said: "People love to give advice to others. It's a wonderful way to get information quickly, especially if you know that there's someone who might know the answer."

Dedicated chat forums are great if you need detailed information on some curriculum-related matter, teaching advice or just general encouragement.

And they can be particularly useful if you're looking for resources.

Indeed, that's why Anna Grainger set up MFL Resources. "I was sitting at my computer until all hours of the night trying to create high-quality resources, and it just hit me that there must be so many others doing the same thing," she says. "If we could only work together, then we could make all our lives so much easier."

The site has been running for about 18 months and has (at the time of writing) around 271 users, all openly sharing their languages resources and ideas.

The most popular sites tend to be the larger company or government-funded ones. But there are a number of good-quality specific subject and independent sites.

For example, Teachit has relatively low user numbers but is an excellent resource for English specialists. Other good bets include MFL Resources for language teachers and Schoolzone for a general forum.

The most frequent users tend to be newly qualified staff and students because they are often the ones that need the most support and encouragement. Many sites will have busy areas dedicated to these users - The TES online staffroom forum even has expert moderators to offer help and advice to new teachers and graduate trainees. There are also many genuinely helpful people using the forums as well as several self-appointed experts.

And if you're looking for a new job, you'll find plenty of advice on interview techniques and what to expect in a new school.

Unfortunately, unwelcome elements can also creep in, but they are usually recognised quickly and shunned by other users or even banned by site moderators.

One important point of etiquette in any chatroom is that you should never give out personal details or school names - you just never know who might be watching.

You should also try to stick to sites that are moderated. As many regular users will tell you, the best chatrooms are those in which users can feel safe to chat without the threat of abuse from irresponsible users.

And beware the site than isn't used regularly. Even cold porridge is more appealing than a neglected forum to which the last contribution was made more than a week ago.

Finally, be careful out there: on some of the livelier sites, you can run the risk of being misled, harassed, bullied and insulted. Cloaked in the anonymity of the chatroom, people do sometimes say things that they would never dream of saying anywhere else.

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