On the origins of TeachMeet in Ireland. With a forever loop marquee scroll ‘thank you’ to the three Scottish bloggers – Ewan McIntosh, David Noble, and John Johnson – who sat round the first table and talked to each other about talking to each other.
I remember when I was young being frustrated when I could not divine sayings used by the elders, main example “It’s an ill wind that blows no good”. I eventually figured it what it meant. It came back to me recently when reflecting about bringing TeachMeet to Ireland. It was a very ill wind – the greed fuelled collapse of the Celtic Tiger – that caused us to import and adopt TeachMeet from the Scots in early 2009.
When the country was awash with paper money, I was dispatched by the Teacher Education Section to the Scottish Learning Festival, along with the rest of my colleagues (our remit at the time was to source, design and deliver formal continuing professional development to Irish schools). At the end of a long day of lectures and workshops, a friend of mine, John Heffernan, reminded me of the TeachMeet being organised for that evening by Ewan McIntosh. I’d signed up online out of idle curiosity; but I was tired and hungry; so, it was to be dinner or TeachMeet? I chose the latter. Good move.
The format was relaxed but not chaotic, attendees were also presenters, there was no hierarchy. The tables were round, like a wedding. The order of presentations was randomly picked by a charming online fruit machine thingie which had been made available online by a then unknown Russel Tarr. Speakers had either 2 mins (nano) or 7 mins (micro), with a jovial but firm heave-ho when time was up, and a pointed no-no to slides full of bullet points . Half way through the evening, we had 15 minute breakouts in which one person led a focused conversation, and attendees could wander about to get a flavour of all, or stay put with whomever we were curious to hear. In the background I was vaguely aware of a screen showing some tweets from far and wide, forming a conversation between those in the room and others who were following online via Twitter. And there was a chance to chatter over a food and beverage break. All these elements – the self-selection of the speakers, the encouragnent of tales of practice rather than bullet-ridden slides, the round tables, the random order of calling speakers forward, the inclusion of ‘TeachEat’, and in particular Twitter backchannel and the ‘soap box’ conversations (this was a name I gave them for want of a better one) – became, and still remain for many, the hallmarks of a successful TeachMeet. I loved it all, and I knew that I knew many others who would delight in this experience.
That was September 2008. Then back to work I went, and not much happened until January, when I went to another UK TeachMeet (at BETT in London), and had my gut instinct feeling confirmed – this round table ground-up PD was an positive force. At that time I was volunteering on the committee organising the 2009 annual conference for the Computers in Education Society of Ireland (CESI). Up until this time, it had been a two day conference, with permission for schools to release teachers to attend on the Friday. And then – swoosh – down came the Austerity Guillotine and sliced off the Friday. We had one meeting’s notice to turn our two day affair into one day. So I suggested we try one of these TeachMeets on the Friday night. CESI Chair, Conor Galvin, and Conference Chair, Tom Kendall, both supported the idea, and that was that. In true TeachMeet fashion, the call went out and those who ‘got it’ immediately stepped up. 60 of us packed into a small room in the Maldron Hotel in Tallaght – we had to spill into to corridors and foyer for the Soap Box breakouts – and had a memorable evening. (So memorable that if you believed everyone who said they were there, it’d be closer to 600). A quick check on Twitter would show that many folk joined up to said social medium that same night thanks to John Heffernan’s tour de force expo of using a Twitter back channel – we were joined online by many from across Ireland and the UK, as we learned the power of a hashtag driven timeline and watched as #cesimeet ‘trended’. (In this pre-hipster age, we thought that meant we were trendy. Or cool. Or whatever. But we were smitten and we joined up there and then.)
Myself as Bean a’Ti and Conor Galvin as Fear a’Ti had worked together before at education events, but we knew this was different. The atmosphere was electric and energising. The people in the room were a cross section of Irish education – all levels and sectors of formal and informal education were represented. Everyone who was there that night has become a ‘frequent flier’, and many have in turn organised TeachMeets in other venues. Current recorded count just topped 80 Teachmeet from over 50 volunteer organisers.
And so, when we rant and rave about the ‘Powers That Were’ dropping the country on the floor and smashing it in smithereens way back in the late noughties, let’s be reminded about the ill wind that helped take TeachMeet across the Irish Sea.
Facts, figures and future: Being a truly open movement, TeachMeet online inhabits the untidy worlds of the wiki and the Twitter timeline. There is no central HQ, no foundation, no written constitution. It is still surviving on trust among the tribe. The UK wiki , a giant web of data from the past 10 year, is at teachmeet.pbworks.com and is sporadically curated by volunteers. In Ireland, John Heffernan (a true historian – preserving the past for the future) was prescient in setting up irishteachmeet.wikispaces.com which is on a smaller scale, and consequently slightly more ‘tidy’. A glance at the archive and organisers pages of the Irish wiki will show the and the growing list of those stepping up to volunteer and variety of types of Teachmeet that are evolving – Kidsmeet, MakerMeet, MathsMeet, PrincipalMeet, ResearchMeet, StudentMeet, conference-connected and unconference, North, South, East, and West. It’s delightful to watch the movement grow – the past 1 year has seen more meets here that in the previous 7 years combined. The huge curiosity is about the future, but that is for another, much longer, much deeper, conversation. Join it.