How communities of practice can help improve your teaching

Teachers coming together to share learning strategies and mentor each other can prevent burnout and jump-start professional growth, says Valencia Gabay

January 6, 2019
Source: istock

It is hard to remember that educators need support in upgrading their instructional practice to meet the needs of the population that they serve. It was not until I participated in my first community of practice meeting as an online instructor that I learned to courageously embrace change in an effort to evolve personally and professionally. 

At the time, my academic department could no longer deny the fact that the higher education landscape was changing. Preparing students to function in a global economy became an immediate priority. My university becoming responsive and adaptive challenged instructors to bridge gaps in student engagement and create a learning environment that prepared them to be global thinkers. As instructors, we always strive for a balance between social and cognitive presence, but it is difficult to maintain a supportive learning environment and predict educational trends. In this case, we would need to adopt a more agile teaching philosophy that would include room for metacognitively-based conversations between our students.

University management delivered these new expectations largely through emails and quarterly meetings. But this resulted in a negative impression of how change was managed. Leadership soon discovered that we needed support in this endeavour, and communities of practice were the ideal solution.

A community of practice enables people to come together over a shared interest to learn with and from each other. They share resources, tools, and stories of success and failures. Research shows that communities of practice are instrumental in fostering change at the organisational level. Communities of practice used in businesses, corporations, and other industries influence knowledge management and build professional relationships. But, in education, the community of practice approach improves the application of learning paradigms, strengthens teacher training initiatives, and enhances critical consciousness.

Since we were teaching online courses, we cultivated virtual communities of practice. Intuitive web-based conferencing tools like Zoom and Uberconference were utilised to conduct weekly meetings. Each community of practice was facilitated by a hand-picked faculty lead who provided group coaching and mentoring coupled with metacognitive and self-regulated learning strategies to nurture a culture of critical thinking and accountability. This model evolved into the group coaching and mentoring framework but the communities of practice ultimately drove the its success. And, as one of the leads, here is what I learned:

Communities of practice help you see yourself as a learner. When you have worked in academia for nearly 20 years, as I have, it’s easy to assume you know all there is to know about teaching. But communities of practice became spaces to reflect and break through barriers. Instructors were asked questions such as: if you are resistant to change, how do you become more responsive? And, if you are a proponent of change, how do you use change to achieve your personal and professional goals? This line of questioning prompted us to evaluate the success of our current teaching practices and see change as an avenue for growth.  From there we took action and held ourselves accountable for meeting new professional outcomes. I realised that, like my students, I was an adult learner and the avenues to reshape my capacity to learn still existed.

Communities of practice are restorative spaces. Educators struggle to minimise burnout and manage time amid an avalanche of change. The need for professional replenishment became a common theme among the communities of practice. Meeting after meeting, instructors supported each other in adapting to the changes. They rooted for one another in exceeding new classroom engagement expectations and comforted one another when they fell short. Communities of practice became the nexus of healing and restoration and we became advocates for our professional and intellectual well-being. 

The following year brought significant departmental change. Faculty to student engagement and student to student engagement increased in the online classroom and instructors were more willing to learn with and from each other to better support those they served. For academic leaders looking for a way to effectively shift culture, and give employees a voice in the change process, the gifts of communities of practice are far-reaching. They are safe spaces for employees to reflect on and evaluate their work performance.  Communities of practice provide a channel for problem-solving, critical thinking and innovation to flourish. And, most importantly, communities of practice enable individuals to see themselves as lifelong learners and to grow through change. 

Valencia Gabay is an educator and author based in Florida. 

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