Wither the Water Cooler?

Many of us in academia, especially us social-constructivists, are familiar with Wenger’s notion of the community of practice as a site of teaching and learning (1998). If you are new to the term, chances are you are not new to the concept: as Wenger (2011) said, these communities are “so informal and so pervasive” that we are almost inevitably members of more than one, perhaps without any conscious effort or awareness. By nature, we are social creatures, and within our defined collectives, we find ‘our people’: the colleagues with whom we have a mutually beneficial rapport, or, more informally, our water-cooler crew.

But what happens when there’s no water cooler?

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the world. In higher education, there was an almost universal shift to remote emergency teaching that lasted until the end of the winter term; most Canadian universities and colleges continued online for the Fall 2020, and then the Winter 2021 semesters.

Perhaps inevitably, we turned to social media. After all, teachers at all levels were active online, through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, among other platforms, long before the pandemic. TeachThought (2022) identified over 200 education-related hashtags on Twitter alone, covering topics from #educationalvideos to #collegeaffordability.

As we became resigned to being online for the summer and fall of 2020, and perhaps longer, some college and university teachers here in Montreal formed a Facebook group, and created our very own community of practice.

The primary goal of the group, at least initially, was to make space to provide peer support. In the first few weeks, we shared our experiences, but also shared resources and tools we were discovering as we learned, under pressure, how to move our teaching practice online. We hosted a few workshops, in which a member proficient in a relevant skill or tool demonstrated best practices, as well as live discussions to brainstorm (and, inevitably, to commiserate).

As one of the founding members of the group, I was keen to explore how the fact of the group itself affected its members – beyond the workshops, discussions, and shared resources, did members get something out of being part of the group? A few months after the creation of the group, I asked members to respond anonymously to a series of questions in an online form; questions were vetted by two colleagues before I made the form available.

Responses to the questions revealed many shared challenges, physically, emotionally, and mentally. The physical health challenges experienced by teachers during the pandemic were startling in their similarities. Multiple participants commented on the physical strain working on a computer all day had on their bodies. The most frequent impacts felt were on the lower back, neck, wrists, and eyes. For example, one teacher had persistent pain in their neck and shoulders, and even “issues with carpal tunnel, hand strength, and issues from sitting all day and using a computer.” For some who agreed that the sudden shift to teaching online caused back pain, spending time (and money) on creating an ergonomic set-up, such as a standing desk, helped alleviate the physical challenges to some degree. These responses are a powerful reminder of the importance of ensuring those who teach online are supported to prioritize taking care of their physical health while working.

Another frequent observation was that the blurred boundaries between work and home meant that “it wasn’t easy to stop thinking about work because it’s following you wherever you go,” contributing to the emotional exhaustion.  As well, technology presented a significant stumbling point, if not a roadblock. Some teachers struggled to learn how to use the tools themselves, experiencing distress at having to learn multiple tech tools and platforms quickly. Members experienced “exhaustion from the extra effort to do everything at once – technical set-up and continuous clicking and texting and sharing, teaching concepts and clarifying in different ways online, managing tech issues (for students, too!), managing administrative tasks that needed to be done for our classes to happen (and nobody else was doing).” For some teachers who had previously relied on in-person teaching tools, such as whiteboards, or those who were used to teaching with physical handouts, it was difficult to replicate their teaching style online.

While the challenges were many, the overwhelming consensus was the informal peer support, through organic communities of practice such as the Facebook group, was invaluable. More than one teacher reported that online peer groups were the source of their “most useful resources,” and that these groups were “an important part of whatever success [they’ve] achieved,” and were “much more informative” than institutional resources. Some teachers were impressed with the level of mutual support and engagement, and the willingness of other group members to share material and expertise. Above all, members of the group expressed their appreciation for the community as a community, and said that they felt “less alone” as participants in the group: “This has been the one area of support that is constant, unwavering and uplifting!  I am so grateful to have this informal peer support.  Without it, I would feel much more isolated.”

The other common thread in the survey responses was a newfound appreciation of student resilience. Teaching remotely gave us unprecedented insight–literally–of where our students are coming from. For some of us, that new perspective affected how we interact with our students, and what we expect from them. One teacher put it this way:

I used to worry that I was too soft with students. I mean, I have high expectations for their work and I think I’m a pretty rigorous grader, but so much other stuff–doctor’s notes, eating in class, late assignments–never bothered me.

When this is over (promise?!) I’m going to stop beating myself up for “believing students” when they say they’re having a tough time or giving extensions or just basically trying to be understanding.

I’m not soft. Or who cares if I’m soft.

Most of us are now back to in-person teaching, with a brief return to remote learning for some in January 2022. While campus conditions are not what they were prior to the pandemic, and some of us are understandably nervous about being in person, there is a sense of relief, and renewed appreciation for the in-person learning experience.

Initially, our Facebook group was called “Teachers who Have to Teach Online This Fall” [2020], but as the situation has evolved, so too has our group. While we wanted to maintain the community, we recognized that the group needed to reflect the needs of its members (Donaldson, 2020). The group continues to be active under the name “Quebec Teachers’ Lounge.”

Special thanks to Erin Reid, PhD., for her contributions

References

Donaldson, J.P. (2020), “Building a digitally enhanced community of practice”, Information and Learning Sciences, Vol. 121 No. 5/6, pp. 241-250.  doi 10.1108/ILS-04-2020-0066

TeachThought. (2022, January 26). “The Complete Guide to Twitter Hashtags for Education.” https://www.teachthought.com/twitter-hashtags-for-teacher/

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511803932

Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction.

 

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