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Building Well Being And Community In Online Schools.

So, now we are entering a world of hybrid schools and blended learning, how do school owners, groups and leaders build community in a virtual world?

Getting To Know You Online

In the real world we get to know each other as teachers and school staff through the staffroom, lunch hall, pub, cafe, social events, assemblies and the informal conversations that build human understanding and connections between us, but how does this happen in the virtual world?

A recent study by Ernst and Young found that although virtual teams are more productive than in-person teams, their levels of engagement are lower and therefore maintaining a sense of common purpose and community is more challenging.

Taking time to get to know members of virtual staff teams is important, and planning in time for informal conversation before and around meetings helps. The same is true for building community in classes with students, by ensuring there is time to share something about themselves at the start of each lesson, and their lives with the rest of the class can really support community building.

Avoiding the online temptation to jump straight into meetings or lessons, and instead making time for "getting to know you" times, creates a sense of belonging and a feeling that your teachers, leaders and fellow students are interested in you and will make time to get to know you. A sense of belonging and community fosters a sense of well being, and the understanding that you are supported and that you matter.

Building Strong Online Teams

With more teachers expressing a desire to work online it is important to choose your people carefully. Make sure there is a motivation is to deliver high quality learning through innovative edtech and assessment, and that there is a clear understanding of how to use data to progress learning, and a desire to really get to know the students online.

It is crucial to discover the strengths and weaknesses of each online team member and consider the impact this could have on a virtual team. In their study of high performing teams, Ernst and Young found that shared commitment, and building and sustaining a genuine desire to achieve a collective goal was even more important for teams that are geographically distributed than for others.

According to Harvard Business Review, in addition to encouraging team members to share their backgrounds and talk about their lives, leaders should ask people to share - with all team members - how they work best and what they hope to bring to them team. This helps support the isolation online teachers may feel and helps build mutual understanding and trust.

In a virtual team it can be more difficult to build trust if time isn't taken to get to know each other well enough. It is crucial that a team culture is established where individuals feel able to speak up if they disagree or feel something is amiss, without fear of punishment or rejection.

Building Trust Online

Given that professional interaction online has less social content than working in a real school, it can be difficult to really get to know those in our teams as well, even if we do make time for social chats in and around meetings. At Full Circle Educational Consultancy, we have successfully supported one online school in building trust, and high performance teams through the Belbin Team Roles; identifying strengths and allowable weaknesses, facilitating open conversations amongst its teams and leaders, facilitating real understanding, and the desire to support each other. There was a feeling of trust and understanding, and a new found and tangible level of respect and commitment to each other.

Being able to meet one to one with leaders and team members, we were able to discuss strengths and allowable weaknesses in a safe space, which then led to 360 feedbacks of the Belbin reports, laying everything on the table. There was a tangible sense of relief when team members received their reports, that their allowable weaknesses were merely the flip side of their strengths. It created an incredible sense of openness amongst all team members and leaders; everyone was confident to share their Belbin team role profiles and openly discussed how they could empower each other to achieve more, and be happier in their roles.

This level of mutual trust and understanding from teams who had previously had challenges pulling together was incredible; it will ensure this online school will thrive in a new and innovative space which requires constant change, and teachers and staff who feel supported and understood.

Angela Fairs FRSA, is Founder of Full Circle Educational Consultancy Ltd. She and her team are committed to innovation, inclusion, international mindedness and inspirational projects in both UK and British International schools. Through co creating innovative strategic change, she and her team support school leaders to make their innovative vision a reality.

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