Facilitating Communities of Education Professionals

on Dec 08, 2014 in Blog by

CoP Growing
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

–John Donne, No Man is an Island


We are all parts of communities where we engage daily – with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues; face-to-face, online, and on the phone; as parents, volunteers, members, and even dissenters. I could go on and on with this list. For each of these communities we take on different roles; join for different reasons; look for different outcomes; and bring different expectations about what we get, what we give, and how we and other community members interact.

As community facilitators, two concepts should form the foundation for our work:

1) Engaging in communities is sometimes hard work.
2) Members come to communities with a set of expectations, needs, and wants that will change over time.

These two concepts sound simple, but by examining these carefully in light of a specific community membership, these become the center of our community vision and guide important decisions in how we build and sustain community. These support us to articulate a community’s beginning needs and, if we use them as a guide to our formative assessment, lead us to understand how best to grow a community as member needs shift.

Engaging in communities is hard work. The first of these concepts can seem abstract, but it is absolutely essential for us to embrace and understand, especially for those of us working with high-level education professionals. Sometimes we approach communities and their members as though engaging is easy and wonder why members are not posting or why it takes several moments of silence at events before someone feels brave enough to share.

For many of us working with busy people it can be easy to blame these issues on time constraints alone. While time is certainly a major factor for many CoP members, it is important to remember that we all struggle with our role in a community at certain points and must navigate a sustainable and useful path for ourselves. There are times when we share freely and feel comfortable with our role in the community and eager to participate; other times we struggle to articulate our position or fear stating the full complexity of a problem we face. As community facilitators our ability to recognize these situations and provide support, processes, and protocols to fully engage our members and nurture trust are key to garnering the type of full engagement that changes practices and guides healthy working relationships.

State education agency (SEA), regional comprehensive center (RCC), and other technical assistance and education foundation staff often feel reluctant to share works-in-progress, fear political reprisal for a misunderstood comment or one taken out of context, and also sometimes struggle to find time to engage in community discussions. It is our job as CoP organizers to examine patterns of engagement, listen to members, and scrutinize data to uncover what is “hard” for members and what aspects of a given task are “hard.” Once we know what is hard we need to take the time to understand why and then work with our CoP members to develop and use tools to overcome these obstacles.

Just as member needs shift over time, new obstacles to engagement will arise and community facilitators must diligently watch for these and be prepared to support members in overcoming these. A strong community must support members to grow and to face new challenges openly.

Members come to communities with a set of expectations, needs, and wants that will change over time. We join communities for several reasons. We may be looking to share our own expertise, to get positive feedback from peers, to cement ourselves as experts in our field, to network with colleagues outside our region, to solve a problem, to learn what others are working on or how they are solving problems. This is merely the beginning of a list of why we might join communities.

This list of why will change as the community adapts. Members may approach different events or opportunities to engage for different reasons. For example, I might post a question online about a problem of practice I am facing at work, but when I attend an event I may be there to share what I know about that same problem. As community facilitators it is important to understand the big picture of what members want.

Surveying members when they join to find what they hope to get in the community will be helpful, but you are not likely to learn the full reasons why people join. Remember that sharing expertise and cementing a position in the field are usually underlying reasons a person joins a community – even if they don’t say so in a survey. During the life of the community it is important to check in with members. It can be helpful to find out what members want from an event, a webinar, or a newsletter before designing it. It is also useful to take some time once a month (this can vary depending on the size of your community and the way you function) to talk to members in person or on the phone to find out what they want.

Knowing your members’ expectations and goals will help you make sure your community is a place where members engage regularly. It is not necessary to meet every member’s goals. In fact, that would most likely defeat the purpose of community. But if you find that the goals of the community and your goals do not match the overall goals of members it is time to step back and look at how you can align the two and what changes you need to make to ensure that the community functions successfully.

“No man is an island” has become a cliché, but it is powerful because it speaks both to our human need to collaborate and the need for us to be individuals finding our own way and struggling against one another. Community building and engaging with our communities can be hard work, but together our ideas and their reach will be stronger.

For more information about West Wind’s work on Communities of Practice please see our library HERE under the Online Collaboration tab. And if you have any questions you can post those below or contact us directly.

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