Several teacher development projects I have worked on recently have adopted a communities of practice (CoP) model. In the context of education, this places great emphasis on creating a network of teachers who learn together and from another, over time, with a common focus on improving their competence as practitioners. The British Council uses the term ‘Teacher Activity Groups’ (TAGs) to describe groups of teachers who engage in this form of collaborative professional development. One recent example of a TAG project is ‘English for the Community’, which was delivered in Romania by the British Council in partnership with the Romanian-American Foundation.
Over two years, some 150 primary and secondary teachers of English formed nine TAGs that met monthly. Each TAG was supported by two facilitators. Participation was voluntary and during their meetings the teachers engaged in various kinds of activities, such as sharing experiences from their classrooms, reading and discussing texts about aspects of language teaching and watching and reflecting on videos of teachers conducting classroom activities. At the end of each meeting teachers also did some action planning, thinking ahead to what new ideas they could try out in their own classrooms. In between the monthly meetings the teachers and facilitators kept in touch through WhatsApp and Facebook groups.
The evaluation of the project indicated that it was effectively delivered, highly appreciated by participants, and, above all, transformative in its effect on teachers’ understandings, confidence, attitudes and classroom practices. One aspect of TAGs that teachers consistently valued was the manner in which they reduced the feelings of isolation that teachers often experience. As one of the facilitators put it
“The TAGs were informal meetings, we all had the opportunity to talk, to share our ideas, just to share experiences and I think it was very important for us as teachers to see that other teachers struggle with the same issues that we do, we are not alone”.
The sense of belonging provided by TAGs also had positive consequences for how participants felt as teachers. One teacher explained that
“Another change was the boost in my confidence and motivation. I realized that I wasn’t alone in my struggles with the difficulties every teacher has to go through”.
Increased confidence and motivation also meant that teachers were more willing to innovate in their classrooms – in the words of another teacher, “I became not so afraid of trying out new things”.
Effective CoPs can bring about a transformation in teacher identity; in this project, teachers who initially saw themselves as isolated, uncertain, unable to effect change and often helpless in the face of pedagogical challenges developed new identities as valued members of supportive groups and who were willing and confident in their ability to make their lessons more enjoyable, motivating, interactive and productive for their learners.
Several factors (such as its extended nature, competent facilitators, teachers’ motivation to develop and practical and relevant content) contributed to the effectiveness of this project and these are pertinent to the design and implementation of teacher development initiatives more generally. Of utmost importance too was the positive, open, supportive and non-judgemental professional learning environment that TAGs created. The relatively modest scale and voluntary nature of this project may have also contributed to its success; CoPs through TAGs, though, are also being applied on a much larger scale elsewhere, for example in India and Egypt and there is evidence from such contexts too that teachers see much value in being part of sustained professional development networks.