The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Catherine O'Farrell

From fear to opportunity and growth: levering the power of the collective

Catherine O’Farrell explains how a need for Covid-19 solutions has given rise to an international community of practice around inclusion.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

So, we all know the narrative that has been espoused again and again over the past months. It’s flooding our televisions, swamping our radios and drowning our discussions – Covid-19.

This is NOT another coronavirus story, but it wouldn’t be a story without coronavirus; like Schrödinger's cat, this story only started because Covid-19 made it so!

Back in February (can you believe that is only eight months ago?) when the pandemic struck, the education industry was catapulted from its sleepy hollow of 18th century architecture into a brave new world where practitioners were hurled into the reeling stratosphere of rapid modernization.

Release and rapid evolution

Released from the shackles of tradition, teachers and leaders around the globe had the curtains peeled back and we were thrust into the world of online delivery and blended learning like Daniel into the lions’ den.

Those first weeks were brimful of fear and anxiety.

  • Fear of failing students.
  • Fear of the regulators.
  • Fear of the disease.
  • Fear of the unknown.
  • Fear of being on camera!

We fumbled around in the dark for new methodologies, listening to Adele’s Rolling in the Deep (deep what though?!), trialling new platforms and strategies. What emerged in that early stage of rapid evolution was a need for communication – which is how the Inclusion & Wellbeing Forum came about.

The forum functioned as the chocolate on a digestive – helping us to keep it together

Seeking guidance and reaching out

Based in Dubai, managing a group of 11 schools, as group head of inclusion I was somewhat lost when we were advised to shift completely to online learning. With little guidance from the regulators I looked to international practitioners. With no precedence or research the usual rays of light were dim.

There was no play book as to best practice to support our more vulnerable students in this kind of setting, so I decided to reach out to other inclusion practitioners in the region. I needed help!

I stared emailing anyone I knew working in the field asking if they would join me on a Zoom to talk about what everyone is doing and how they are all providing for high needs students. Every message was met with a resounding YES – I need help too!

The power of the collective support offered by peers and like-minded professionals was astounding

I set up a Zoom (the modern day seance…hello, Helen, can you hear me, are you there???) and invited anyone working in inclusion or wellbeing across schools, clinics, hospitals and providers.

Our first session had more than 100 participants, with everyone sharing concerns and celebrations and was a resounding success!

Building momentum

We began hosting the session weekly maintaining and growing participation week on week. The power of the collective support offered by peers and like-minded professionals was astounding. Like ships at sea, the forum was our shore.

It all started with a simple email!

We accumulated practitioners from the UK to Singapore and across the Gulf. Each member had their own story and each experiencing a unique landscape of practice.

We began to identify unintended consequences in practice, negative feedback loops and how to avoid them across settings. Most importantly we shared success stories so that strategies could be celebrated and emulated.

A source of information and support

All the while schools were in turmoil as Covid-19 raged and governments fought through the fog. The forum provided reassurance for inclusion practitioners, useful information about practical methodologies, and a platform to discuss practice with peers.

My colleague set up a Dropbox to share resources and I began a weekly email with tips and reviews of the sessions for anyone who missed them. With more than 300 members in the group we have a huge bank of expertise and experience to share.

The response was great. If anyone had questions or queries, they were being answered on the forum; people were supporting each other in a real and meaningful way.
There’s been a great impact in terms of support. People came to see that:

  • it was OK not to know what to do
  • it was OK not to be sure
  • it was OK to be anxious.

The forum functioned as the chocolate on a digestive – helping us to keep it together.

Establishing growth

We organically grew a community of practice that was having real impact.

Following the summer break practitioners, teachers and leaders were a little less anxious about their return so we shifted the forum to every fortnight.

We take a focus topic each session, looking at a particular area such as supporting more able learners in a blended model, or exploring how bullying might be expressed in a blended model. Any topic of interest to the group can be covered with members from within the group presenting and all members contributing with their own ideas and expertise.

If you would like to come and join our little community of practice please do – it is all free and flexible –the only thing we ask is that you share your story!

Individually we are one drop – together we are an ocean!

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