Building global education communities through twitter: Forging links with teacher coaches in Australia

I seem to be one of the lucky ones.  So far, and with fingers crossed for the future, my engagement with educational professionals and academics on twitter has been a positive experience.  I know that some fear social media as a relatively unregulated space, and one in which ‘followers’ and onlookers can create threads in which contributors can become unwittingly entangled. Despite the odd provocation (it’s amazing how deeply and spuriously the twitter-sphere seems to divide educators into so called ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’ and how vocal each side can become in its attacks on the other) I have engaged unscathed so far.  Putting the few that like to rant to one side, I would agree with Professor Chris Husbands in his recent BERA blog post when he states what now might be seen as really quite obvious ‘social media has been transformative for professional communities’.  What matters here is that this transformation rests on many individual stories. Teachers find like-minded others who bring subject passions alive, others write honestly and wisely about the challenges they face as parents and how this alters their perspectives on schools and professionalism and social networking groups like @WomenEd who act to advocate and support others. Perhaps the largest group is of teachers who browse and pick up new ideas, which the sometimes take into practice and then pass on through the twittersphere.

One of the very special features of twitter is the ease with which it ignores geographical and political boundaries.  It allows educators to forge professional links with others from around the globe, and for those who like tracking data there are ways of mapping the spread of followers and geographic reach of tweets.  I haven’t done this, but even so I am I have become aware of distant hotspots where my interests have specific resonance.  So, forgive the twitter references in what follows – but this narrative only makes sense with them.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself a recipient of the following tweet from @ryangill; “This is surreal! I move to Australia and find my uni course leader from 13 years ago pops up”.  So, while I may vainly wish that I wasn’t 13 years older than when I taught Ryan on the PGCE, it was great to connect again.  I had ‘popped up’ in a #coachmeet organised by @stringer_andrea at her school in Sydney, Australia. It was an early morning spot for me, using Skype to talk to about 40 teachers and coaches in their after school event. I had seven minutes to share my knowledge of teacher coaching in England, and offer some insights from case study schools.  I put my glasses on to hide my morning eyes and to add a look of owl-like wisdom, and I sat in my office and talked to teachers on the other side of the world. Some might call me a ‘skype-granny’ but honestly that would seem a little cruel.  When I opened the ‘storify’ that Andrea had curated I was surprised that the first picture was from the original CfLaT research on coaching in secondary schools, suggesting how coaching and mentoring can be distinguished from each other. The rest of the ‘storify’ illustrates the dynamic nature of the contributions to the #coachmeet. This was the first one that Andrea had organised – I am sure there will be more.  Now, much as we academics might like to think we have global reach, I have no doubt that without twitter I would not have been invited to speak at this event.

You see, I have noted that Australia seems to be a teacher coaching hotspot. I realised that my work in this area was being referenced in practitioner blogs, leading to frequent retweets of links to my blogs, research outputs and guides on coaching and invitations to be part of twitter coaching themed chats, and being generously. The end of this brief narrative is not yet written, because recently I have been invited to speak at the 5th National Conference on Coaching in Education in Melbourne in 2017.  While I am there I will also work in at least two schools and a university drawing on my research and practice in the field of coaching for teacher development. Many of the people who I link with via twitter will become real during my visit, and thus the global community of educators sharing common interests will continue to be built. And yes, @ryangill is one of them. Thirteen years may have passed, but this time I expect to learn as much from him and his colleagues in his school context as I hope he did from me on the PGCE.

Written by Dr Rachel LofthouseHead of Education, Newcastle University.

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