Growing a global community of educators through virtual events
by Jane Violette, on 8/21/20 8:30 AM
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, educators were challenged to find new ways to engage their students, provide quality remote instruction and support the social and emotional well-being of their students — a daunting task to say the least.
To help educators around the world, Participate Learning, a global education organization that supports thousands of cultural exchange teachers and global education school programs, saw a need to create an online community.
This is where the United We Teach community was born.
We knew that no one knows better than teachers about what an enormously difficult job it is to teach remotely, and we wanted to ensure that we created a space where teachers could support each other during the pandemic," said Anamaria Knight, Manager of Online Learning at Participate Learning. "Teachers needed more than ever to hear from other teachers — and that is what this community is all about.”
For more than 30 years, Participate Learning has supported global education programs in K-8 schools across the country. To scale the reach of their professional learning offerings and to connect their global educators in a collaborative environment, Participate Learning has several online learning Communities of Practice, one of which is the United We Teach community.
A global gathering space
Participate Learning wanted to create a space that took learning beyond just resource sharing and lesson plan creation. It wanted to encourage educators to share stories and create new knowledge together. The community aimed to find solutions to remote teaching and learning through live chats, discussion threads, virtual events and resource curation. The community has grown to almost 1,000 members in less than two months and today serves educators across 47 countries.
Introduction discussion within the United We Teach Community
Creating inner and outer loops of teacher-led learning
Participate Learning knew from the beginning that it wanted to create flexible, teacher-led experiences and did so by building strong inner and outer loops of learning. By building a community structure that encourages the transition from cooperating in learning opportunities to collaborating and taking action in shared learning experiences, Participate Learning encouraged educators to take ownership of their learning and lead experiences both inside and outside of the community.
To build these loops of learning, Participate Learning did two important things: connected the power of social media with their community and provided opportunities for educators to lead the community together.
We made an effort to connect with members in the other places where they spend time and where we knew they could access valuable resources," said Michelle Macumber, Manager of Teacher Engagement at Participate Learning. "We tweeted about wonderful ideas shared, directed teachers to other people and ideas that would meet their needs and watched as the members started connecting with each other in these spaces as well.”
Participate Learning used various hashtags, such as #unitedweteach and #unitingourworld, to connect community learning with a larger audience on social media. By sharing out what was happening in community live chats, cultural presentations and more, Participate Learning invited more people back into the community to actively participate. Community members have essentially made these hashtags go viral, increasing the number of members and the community’s impact.
The strong inner and outer loops of learning developed so quickly and, as a result, teachers were growing their PLNs, organizing small group Zoom sessions, providing tech training for new friends and even creating fun video challenges for other members," said Macumber. "In doing all of this, they keep the inner and outer loops moving, strong and so incredibly effective!”
Each week, through member spotlights, live chats and discussions, Participate Learning is providing a space for teachers to share their stories and create knowledge together. Teachers are selected to lead live chats to share their cultures, teaching strategies and more. These teachers are also highlighted and interviewed about their favorite parts of the United We Teach community and how they're approaching remote teaching.
A virtual summit hosted alongside the community
In addition to weekly activities, teacher challenges and learning opportunities, Participate Learning wanted to grow the community’s impact and reach even more teachers. To do so, the organization hosted the United We Teach Virtual Summit, a virtual conference led by teachers, for teachers. Participate Learning was determined to make the event equitable and focused on unity, so it was free for all to attend. Topics for the summit were based on the themes of:
- Implementing robust instruction within the COVID-19 educational landscape.
- Navigating the transition between remote and blended learning environments.
- Digital tech tools for connection and learning.
- Developing global citizens that are excited to learn about the world.
The summit was a way to amplify [educator] voices and reach beyond the current footprint of the community and spread the word about these teachers," said Knight. "We wanted to let the world know [the community] existed as a resource.”
Participate Learning made sure that from the beginning, teachers knew that the United We Teach community was not a one-time event. Instead, it was designed as a strong, global Community of Practice where teachers could access resources and participate in teacher-led conversations that would support them during a school year like no other. To this end, Participate Learning constantly pushed teachers to the community in all of its promotional materials — the event page, zoom registration confirmation email and at the beginning and end of every session.
The virtual summit demonstrated how organizations can connect online community structures with virtual learning events, providing a connected learning ecosystem as members develop new skills and competencies together. Teacher leaders submitted session proposals, were selected then organized across a week-long schedule. Participate Learning intentionally designed the virtual summit to rely on educators as experts and encouraged communication both outside of the community on social media and inside the community through discussion forums.
The summit had 900 registered attendees and grew the community by 375 members. The feedback from teachers who attended and collective impact shared was overwhelmingly positive.
Like many of you, I am desperate to find resources, and most of all advice, from colleagues," said Carmen Rudin, Multicultural Liaison at St. Louis Public Schools. "This is what our school districts should be providing for our teachers and school staff!”
As a parent, I appreciate hearing the various perspectives of other educators as the shared teaching and learning experiences assist my own efforts in thinking and supporting my own children in at-home learning," said Vera Woolard, Program Manager at Participate Learning.
What’s next for the community
As the new school year starts, Participate Learning will continue to provide learning and leading experiences for educators within the community. The community will stay free and open to educators so that they can access the support and community they need for remote teaching.
When asked what advice they would provide to those looking to build similar communities, Macumber and Knight were quick to highlight the importance of relationships and listening.
We listened to teachers very carefully. We were learning from them about what they need...and our community strategy adjusted to these changing needs. Our community strategy always, always honored the voice of the teachers,” said Knight.
Intentionally think about and provide space for building connections and relationships with and between community members,” said Macumber. "If members care about each other, they care about the community and if they feel valued and supported in your space, they will continue to engage. As you build these relationships with each other, make it a priority to listen to what teachers need and let that shape the discussions you have, the resources you share and the events you plan. Find ways to build [members] up, amplify their voices and cheer them on every step of the way!”