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Innovating to Support Teachers in an Unprecedented Year

Lessons on enriching and expanding peer support, even in a pandemic
Multicolored boxes with people

Formal communities of practice are organizations that create spaces for educators with common interests to come together and hone their craft. During this unprecedented year, when teachers have likely never been more desperate to connect and problem-solve together, most of these communities have been unable to gather in person.

Yet in the face of tremendous loss and adversity, these communities have been rising to the challenge — innovating and lending critical support to their membership. Writing as a teacher leader, I would never have guessed I would be logging on to so many Zoom calls with fellow educators across the nation, nor that I would find them so fascinating and inspiring. I have witnessed these spaces being used for everything from venting and processing to perspective-taking and resource-sharing.

To better understand how organizations like these adapted during this difficult year, I will examine the similar trajectories of two communities I have joined in the past year. Their stories serve as exemplars for how leaders can both support their members and innovate responsively during critical moments of change.

The Ohio Writing Project (OWP)

The OWP brings educators together to grow both as writers and teachers of writing. In the spring of 2020, they found themselves canceling their popular in-person summer workshops and watching districts pull out of agreements for professional development. They needed to shift gears quickly to support their teachers.

Providing space to process

In March, they instituted regular Sunday afternoon “OWP Church” sessions for members to process the rapidly unfolding events and brainstorm action steps. Beth Rimer, OWP’s co-chair, described their first session: “We read Maggie Smith’s poem Good Bones and just wrote and wrote and shared. There were some stress tears and real worries, feeling together the unknown and the immense weight of what it means to be a teacher, knowing that students were going through things that we couldn’t be there to help them with.”

Expanding offerings and accessibility online

They moved their summer workshops online and found themselves breaking records for enrollment, reaching new participants from across the state who had always wanted to attend. They launched an additional study group on antiracism. And in the fall, they built online teacher writing groups which attracted new teacher-writers to the fold.

The Conference on English Leadership (CEL)

As a nationwide network of literacy leaders, much of CEL’s community historically revolved around their annual convention — not only for its daytime sessions but also for its popular evening happy hours. For years, their leaders had been wrestling with how to expand their year-round programming. Thus, the cancellation of their in-person convention forced CEL chair Christopher Bronke and other leaders “to be nimble out of necessity.”

Prioritizing social connections

They began by scheduling monthly online social hours for members to connect and process the changes unfolding across the nation. Associate Chair Emily Meixner and her colleagues quickly discovered that the “honest authentic joy” within their community more than survived the transition to Zoom.

Addressing the real concerns of educators

They organized a series of three-part online workshops over the school year tackling topics raised by their members — everything from hybrid learning to critical media literacy. As a result, they ended up with not only stronger continuous programming than ever, but also a growing membership.

While these two organizations differ in terms of scope and purpose, they share two factors that were key to their ability to navigate this challenging year:

  • They cleverly balanced demands for both socializing and programming. Teachers, especially over the past year, have longed to fraternize and problem-solve — something these organizations have figured out how to combine organically. OWP often started sessions with more informal banter and warm-up activities before launching into writing tasks. CEL leadership meanwhile kept its ears pricked during monthly social hours for topics to inform its three-part trainings.
  • They deftly innovated in order to support their members while still keeping their core principles intact. OWP kept teacher-writers at the center of its work while engaging more aggressively with virtual platforms to allow its community to connect and create together in new ways. The loss of CEL’s annual in-person conference sparked long-sought new programming to allow literacy leaders to meet and learn together year-round.

As they conclude this school year, both group’s leaders told me they aspire to keep alive the urgency and agility they brought to the past year even as the worst of COVID hopefully recedes. As Betsy Woods, OWP’s professional coordinator put it, they seek to remain a “force of stability” for teachers while still “remembering to be responsive to the present moment.”

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