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UKFEchat proves the power of being part of a community

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I used to feel isolated in my job. I was teaching in a department that had serious morale issues. I wanted to be the best teacher I possibly could, but my curiosity and hunger for self-improvement often met with a patronising “She’ll learn”.

I’d only been teaching for a few years and wasn’t getting the stimulation or support I needed, so I went to education conferences. I was often the only the FE person there, but I didn’t care. I barely understood what was going on but I liked the atmosphere; people who knew far more than me were sharing expertise and opinions. They cared deeply about their work and they didn’t need permission to get better at it.

The same fervent discussion was happening on social media, but only between educators from schools. I was frustrated that no one was talking about FE, even though there were thousands of us out there.

One afternoon, in November 2012, I ranted about FE’s lack of positive proactivity on Twitter. A couple of other FE professionals tweeted that they felt the same, and that was it: the UKFEchat community was accidentally founded. There was nothing altruistic about it on my part; I just wanted to chat with like-minded people.

Our community has rapidly grown to include thousands of motivated FE types all over the country, working at every level. We meet online, where supportive, professional relationships grow and friendships follow. Many people cite it as the best – and cheapest – CPD they’ve seen. Yet only a fraction of the FE community engages with Twitter.

The word “community” implies friendship, similar interests and joint values. I often wonder why more FE communities aren’t springing up, especially now cash for CPD is waning and greater levels of expertise are required to fulfil ever-expanding roles.

As more colleges become whopping edu-villages, some with sites all over their region, surely creating professional communities makes sense. I’ve often heard how the most useful CPD was in the days when staffrooms were huge and housed teachers from multiple departments. People with specific expertise were identified through word of mouth and casual communities of good practice were established, regardless of vocational area or hierarchical level.

Making CPD happen
It’s rare to find dedicated cross-departmental spaces for staff in modern colleges, so opportunities for collaboration must be manufactured. It doesn’t have to be on college time or college property. Plonk two teachers in a classroom and CPD will happen. Make it the local pub, a picnic in the park or a day out in the countryside and CPD will take on a life of its own.

Anyone can instigate this. It’s as easy as suggesting a monthly night out or a pre-work coffee. Given time and a little support, these informal communities can offer a huge return to individuals and colleges. It’s telling that a number of staff at the same colleges have met and begun collaborating in a #UKFEchat on Twitter. They might never otherwise have known that a colleague shared similar interests.

Every week I learn from my colleagues in the UKFEchat community. As well as our weekly Twitter meets on Thursdays, we get together in cities around the country. We’ve published three guide books to disseminate collective expertise and met many sector leaders to exchange perspectives. Our next project – the UKFEchat National Conference – is our biggest yet. It’s a mixture of discussion, the sharing of practical teaching ideas and debates on wider FE themes. Just the sort of thing that used to go on in those vast staffrooms.

The first UKFEchat National Conference will take place on Saturday 24 October in London. Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons

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