I have been an online educator for almost 10 years and feelings of isolation and complacency were familiar companions on my teaching journey. Many virtual work environments lacked channels for educators like myself to connect and maintain meaningful conversations and I longed to build a sense of community with my colleagues in the field. The constant dripping of policy changes from the top made for limited self-reflection and minimal opportunities for collaboration. Departmental attempts at transformative shifts in work culture were captured in ephemeral professional development methods that operated on low frequency when it came to encouraging personal growth and knowledge creation.
How can virtual work environments offer meaningful professional development opportunities that help their faculty manifest fruitful teaching experiences?
The Make Over
In 2016, I signed up to mentor a group of five career faculty members. The goal was to introduce the concept of learning with and from your peers as a way to leverage new teaching expectations that aligned with the university’s core values. My team was one of eight teams in the department that would be immersed in a group coaching and mentoring framework (Algozzini, Besselo, Gabay, Voyles & Batchelor, 2016). Essentially, I participated in a professional development makeover that introduced a new twist on the application of community of practice. The idea of community of practice is not new; however, the idea that it could be used purposefully in a virtual work setting was surprising. The following quotation lends perspective to this experience. “Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive…” (Wenger-Trayner, 2015, para.1). In this case, the use of communities of practice provided a continuous loop of networking as I learned to “survive” the pitfalls of working in the online setting.
Teams were required to meet weekly throughout the year via a web-based conferencing platform called UberConference. It allowed for screen sharing and file sharing and meetings could be recorded and disseminated, if needed. During meetings, faculty supported each other in the application of new teaching guidelines, bridged gaps in classroom management techniques, shared helpful resources and collaborated on departmental curriculum projects. Being part of a community of practice proved to be a period of profound change and enlightenment. Overtime, throughout the process, the goal changed from simply learning with and from each other to coaching and mentoring, shifting work culture, and creating a collective consciousness among the faculty.
All mentor leads, met weekly with leadership to receive coaching on how to provide their teams with a safe place for self-discovery and a better understanding of the administrative modifications needed to advance the department. The use of community of practice teams built on other foundational links of the model as well. All teams examined the impact of metacognition and self-regulated learning processes on the achievements of adult learners, and we addressed the significance of questioning and its role in developing discussions rooted in critical thinking.
Further, because metacognition promotes self-reflection, a necessity in developing independent thinkers and lifelong learners (Malamed, 2016), the teams incorporated self-reflection into their practice to enhance problem-solving strategies and address major concerns in team building. These dynamics were essential for uncovering challenges to effective teaching performance and stimulating spirited dialogues that would prompt change.
From there, faculty would apply these same processes in their classroom to enhance instructor-to-student and student-to-student engagement. Instructors spent time in their teams learning about the value in thinking about how you think, and its role in creating full-bodied class discussions. It was not long before instructors developed a clear understanding how to better support the needs of a 21st Century learner and prepare them to function in a global society.
Change is not easy to swallow when complacency and isolation are the norm, but what is pure genius is melting small doses of professional development into a teacher’s everyday routine. Professional development will no longer be seen as an afterthought but as an assortment of goodies among teaching responsibilities; it becomes part of the process. It is a steady stream of coaching, mentoring, collaboration, and open, honest discussions.
This year-long professional development revamp created a pathway for myself and many of my colleagues to recharge from the inside out. The group coaching and mentoring model, garnished with community of practice, allowed us to see ourselves as contributors to the legacy of our academic department by becoming leaders and students of change. My deepest revelation was that all I need was to be heard, engaged and fully supported.
Algozzini, L., Gabay,V., Voyles, S., Bessolo, K., & Batchelor, G. (2017). Group coaching and mentoring: A framework for fostering organizational change. Campbell, CA: FastPencil, Inc.
Malamed, C. (2016). Metacognition and learning: Strategies for instructional design. The E-learning Coach. Retrieved from http://theelearningcoach.com/learning/metacognition-and-learning/
Wenger-Trayner, E. & Wenger-Trayner, B. (2015). Introductions to communities of practice: A Brief overview of its concept and its uses. Retrieved from http://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/
Valencia Gabay has a passion for helping others become independent thinkers and lifelong learners. Her 20 years in higher education includes teaching and leadership in online learning environments, expertise in academic advising, and recruitment for professional programs.