Joy in a Cold Climate: Reflections on #APConnect 2020-21

This Real Time blog is written as a contribution to this year’s #APConnect collection of Reflective Accounts. My role in the programme is as ‘digital nurse’, event facilitator and online space designer for Constellation B. I draw on observations and reflections from participating in Advanced Practitioner (AP) conference days, weekly Thinking Environments and Ideas Rooms and as a result of contributing to the Evaluation Circles and Slack dialogues. In particular, I’ll be calling on my ‘January Joy’ Wakelet of curated Tweets from the programme’s recent conference.

I think the word cloud from the January community event Wakelet sums up the meaning and underpinning ethos of #APConnect without the need for further comment from me. I could end the blog here! I won’t, but take a moment to drink in the meaning that APs and the #APConnect team drew from that January day alone:

Key themes are of a connected, engaging, relaxed community which inspires and excites participants. What intrigued me was why so many people called on the words ‘brave’, ‘refreshing’ (or similar) when describing their experiences.

So what sets #APConnect apart as a community, what makes it brave and refreshing? My conclusions are best described as bitter-sweet and draw on the themes of solidarity, trust and an ethics of care. I suspect that the final programme evaluation may be echoing these themes, too.

First, I think that #APConnect provided a vocal, necessary acknowledgement of the shared struggle that educators face in extraordinary times, the exhaustion, uncertainty and isolation. The team and community put acknowledgement of this struggle front and centre when asking participants to commit to conference days, action learning sets, to Thinking Environment participation. Along with solidarity in struggle came an unashamed call for practitioners to invest in themselves and their own development, to give their professional growth dedicated space to breathe. The argument that self-investment is the best one educators can make, even if there ‘just isn’t time right now’, when the commitment will be the final extra task which simply can’t be juggled, was made loud and clear.

There was a also a firm recognition that ‘you are doing amazingly and you are enough’ is not a sentiment that goes without saying. It’s essential that this is said to teachers, to all key workers, sincerely and often. The appreciation and joy that comes when people have affirmation, and when achievements are wholeheartedly celebrated, speaks to how rarely these things might be happening for some outside these constellations. There’s a reaction of genuine surprise which is why I say my conclusions are bitter-sweet. I think that appreciative, emotional groundwork is what’s given the communities a strong foundation, enabled them to assist in the building of practitioner growth and resilience, provided the ability to move forward hopefully.

Affirmation may have been the soil in which the constellations were planted but what grew was warmed and watered by other important environmental conditions – trust, solidarity and the presence of an easeful space. Practitioners sharing difficult truths or challenges in dialogue spaces were met with non-judgemental listening, allowed time to reflect, reframe and formulate their own ways forward specifically due to the supportive spaces provided. They were held and shown trust and so they had trust in those around them. This trust was often described as noteworthy, perhaps as it can be a rare commodity – I did say my reflections were bitter-sweet.

Thinking Environment (TE) protocols were central to trust. A TE key principle ‘don’t give advice unless specifically asked’ stems from the idea that being gifted 10 snappy solutions from others’ well-intentioned yet uncontextualized perspectives isn’t nearly as valuable as being gifted a space to articulate a problem and sit with it. My husband and fellow programming geeks call this technique ‘rubber duck debugging’. When approaching a app coding issue, he’ll tell me about it and its context (often in excruciating detail), then say ‘thank you’ and depart, parking the problem for an hour or 2 whereupon an unexpected solution occurs – most often out of the blue. I can’t advise him what to do, that’s not the point. I hold space and by explaining the code error, he solves it.

This concept is so simple, so effective, yet completely counter-intuitive to how many organisational meeting, planning, development and networking spaces can often operate. #APConnect TE rooms and wellbeing spaces provided participants with more expansive, easeful spaces to articulate feelings and ideas – and new ways of thinking and doing have stemmed from these changed ways of being.

There has, of course, also been much practice development, sharing of practical wisdom, mentoring, coaching and substantial network and community building within and beyond the programme. I’m sure that the many other reflections by the APs themselves will capture this and I don’t want to attempt to speak for them and the impacts on their practice.

I hope I have managed to convey some of the essence of what makes #APConnect so special, so impactful for my professional development as a teacher educator and mentor – and demonstrably for other participating practitioners. Articulating why and how the formula succeeds has not been easy. X does not mark the spot, there’s no kit of parts that can be assembled, no easy ‘how-to-build-it’ cheat sheet to be written. Many of the factors that have helped build this powerful community can be said to be intangible, slippery for us to grasp.

For me, it’s the core essence, the embedded values and ethics of #APConnect that have energised participating practitioners to become more active as change agents in their organisations and across the wider FE sector. I’d invite you to take a look through the Wakelet dialogues and reflect on what resonates for you and join me in attempting to recreate these spaces beyond the programme across the sector.

Published by ltaylerson

I am a former FE Computing and Teacher Education Curriculum Leader and ex-BBC engineer and trainer. Worcestershire-based, I specialise in teacher education and CPD, educator mentoring, digital skills and pedagogy, I am director of Real Time Education, an independent provider and a keen commentator on further education and digital skills on social media @realtimeedu. I completed a PhD in Education investigating teachers' use of informal social media dialogues for professional learning in April 2020.

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