One May evening in 2006, half a dozen teacher-bloggers gathered in the Jolly Judge pub in Edinburgh to talk about what worked in the classroom.
Last week, exactly 10 years later, they did it again: the same teachers in the same pub talking about teaching practice.
But in the intervening decade since that first-ever TeachMeet, much has changed. That simple idea has become a global phenomenon.
It has grown from a casual gathering of Scottish bloggers to an international movement for all teachers – South America, Eastern Europe, Dubai, Scandinavia, Serbia, and Australia have all hosted TeachMeets.
“When we began, blogging was a minority sport,” says Ewan McIntosh, then a high-school teacher and one of the instigators of that original meeting. “We said it would be fun to meet up, because we had this thing in common.”
The aim was to have an informal conversation. No one person would dominate: they wanted to hear what each other had to say. “You go off at tangents,” Mr McIntosh, now an education consultant, explains. “But everything gives context to what you’re talking about.”
At the time, “blogger” suggested middle-aged men. So instead of using that word, they opted for the “does what it says on the tin” title of TeachMeet.
As the idea caught on, teachers around the country began organising their own events. Most keep to the basic format of that original evening in the Jolly Judge. Some are held in pubs, others in coffee shops.
“You could term it do-it-yourself professional development,” says Vivienne Porritt, director for school partnerships at the UCL Institute of Education. “Teachers are turning their backs on professional learning and development opportunities offered to them by the school and saying, ‘I’m going to learn better when I’m choosing what I’m going to learn and when.’
“There’s a healthy cynicism in the profession about so-called experts coming in and telling the profession what to do.”
TeachMeets have evolved significantly over the years. Some remain what Ms Porritt describes as “retro”: a handful of teachers gathered together. Participants are given a slot of a few minutes – typically seven – in which to talk about their own ideas, and no one speaker dominates. Afterwards, they can continue the discussion over drinks.
By contrast, Drew Buddie, head of computing at the Royal Masonic School for Girls in Hertfordshire, organises TeachMeets at the annual Bett technology show. These are attended by between 350 and 500 teachers.
“A lot of people are uncomfortable with it being so big,” he says. “TeachMeet started out as six people around a table, and now it’s the opposite of that. But it’s still friends meeting up once a year.”
In fact, Ms Porritt says, some TeachMeets are now indistinguishable from the events they were designed to replace. “Some have become corporate,” she says. “They’re sponsored; they’re very large. You have the usual names giving keynote speeches. You get a much more professional feel.”
But a common feature to all TeachMeets is that they are free to attend. “Financially, times are really tough in education at the moment,” says Moira Duffy, teacher in charge of professional learning at Bay House School in Hampshire. “There’s not the money there used to be for professional development.
“Years ago, you’d ask to go to a course in London costing about £300. You’d get one or two good takeaway [messages], but for the money, it wasn’t really good value. Now, it’s really motivating to get together with other teachers who say, ‘This is really, truly working in my classroom.’ ”
Ms Duffy organised her first TeachMeet in a submarine museum in Gosport; her second will be at a diving museum.
TeachMeets have been held in venues ranging from a rural beach in Western Ireland – “The first thing they had to do was to construct solar-powered wi-fi, in order to be able to share what they were doing,” says Mr McIntosh – to Sydney Opera House. “These settings say to the people who go, ‘You’re really quite special.’ ”
Within the next decade, Mr McIntosh would like to establish a website that enables teachers who have expressed an interest in TeachMeets to be contacted by local organisers.
“It’s unarguably the best way for teachers to learn,” he says. “It reminds me of how people used to do business, way back when – two or three people in a coffee house. Sometimes smaller is the right way to do things. It’s not always about supersizing.”
How to organise a TeachMeet
Keep it simple – you just need a space where people can meet and have a cup of tea or a pint.
Keep it random – select speakers at random on the night.
Keep it human – no PowerPoint allowed. Tell a story or use physical props. And don’t talk for too long.
Keep it social – if you are having seven-minute talks, don’t forget to give people time to talk among themselves.
Source: Ewan McIntosh, TeachMeet founder
‘Friendly, laid-back setting’
Lynne Jobling, senior teacher at Mortimer Community College, is organising a TeachMeet for newly qualified teachers in South Shields.
“Sometimes, when you go on a training course, you don’t know how you can then transfer ideas across to your own practice,” she says. “Or you come away without anything that you can use in the classroom, and it’s a huge disappointment.
“But at this TeachMeet, all the resources will be useful. It allows NQTs to network with each other – maybe meet another NQT teaching the same subject and bounce ideas off each other.
“Obviously, these are after school, so they don’t impinge on the curriculum. But you’re encouraging people to attend after they’ve done a whole day at school, so you have to give them a friendly, laid-back, non-threatening setting. There will be tea and coffee.
“Everyone definitely feels a part of it, because you’re meeting teachers at the chalkface. You’re actually getting it from the horse’s mouth: ‘Yes, this really works. I’ve tried it. Try it yourself and see.’ ”
Find out about your local TeachMeet at teachmeet.pbworks.com