Staying Connected - What's in a hashtag? - Helin Taylor-Greenfield

During this period of lockdown, it is not just children who are feeling anxious and disconnected; early years practitioners are also feeling cut off from peers, colleagues and their usual professional support systems. So, is there anything they can do about it that will support you through the Covid-19 crisis and beyond? The answer to that quite simply is yes. 

Long before the global health crisis we now find ourselves in, a community of practice was growing on Twitter that was supporting early years practitioners at all levels to connect, share, enquire and collaborate. The birth of this professional community of practice and its associated hashtag happened quite organically, and was born from and during conversations between professionals on Twitter, who had begun to converse on a regular basis and had begun to support one another with advice and information. I called us a ‘tagteam’ during one of these conversations last February, because that is exactly what we had become, and the hashtag was born there and then. Twitter has become a tool for meaningful and engaged conversation online. Over 4.2 million tweets each day are reported to be from educators (Hill 2014) sharing their ideas and thoughts and lives through Twitter.

The hashtag and Tagteam is a safe place for all EY professionals to actively engage in dialogue with one another, without hierarchy, regardless of the role you have in the sector. All voices are valued; this is really important to us as a community, as social media can be a difficult place sometimes to get yourself heard – more so during this current global lockdown when everyone is online. 

In the community of professionals using #EYtwittertagteam to stay in touch,  everyone is on a level playing field, is welcome and can contribute. It is about inclusion, support and a mutual interest in all things early years. The community works in two ways; initially it worked solely by the inclusion of the hashtag #EYtwittertagteam in tweets but, to celebrate the official first birthday of the hashtag, an EY Tagteam account was set up in February this year and launched at the BrewEdEYLeeds event, to offer an additional option for centralising tweets that include the hashtag and the new Tagteam twitter handle, @EYTagteam. In this way we can ensure everyone gets heard. The Tagteam is also about ‘paying forward’ support. If someone has helped you, then we’d  like you, in return, to help someone else by paying that act of kindness and support forward if and when you can.  

There are lots of ways that Twitter might be used to support educators, including ‘developing classroom community, collaborative writing and topic discussion, gauging responses and opinion from readers, collaboration, project management, exploring language, and developing a Professional Learning Network (PLN)’ (Grosseck and Holotescu 2008); Social media can also provide ‘support for informal learning and connection with a professional community of practice, as well as the possibility of engaging with students in a timely manner’ (Dunlap and Lowenthal 2009).

So how can using the hashtag and the dedicated Twitter account help you during Covid-19 (and beyond)? Firstly, it will offer you the opportunity to communicate with other EY professionals you would never normally get the chance to meet, all from the comfort of your own home – there are members based across the UK and from further afield. It’s an opportunity to share ideas and concerns and to ask questions, including the ones you don’t want to ask at work. In return you’ll get information shared formally and informally to support practice and teaching spanning the breadth of our members’ experience. We signpost articles, training, webinars, BrewEdEY events, conferences, free online training and anything else that the community feel is relevant and will be of benefit. We now have people in the community from a variety of roles which include teachers in FE, university lecturers, nursery managers, practitioners, childminders/homebased care providers, trainers, researchers, SLT members, assessors, EY and primary teachers and teaching assistants. Most importantly, it’ll give you the opportunity to stay connected during this period of lockdown and isolation and you’ll be able to build professional connections that will endure beyond it.

Not everyone has the confidence to navigate Twitter or join in with conversations and some people have found our community after having experienced another (not so pleasant) side of Twitter.  Given we are all striving to do the best for the children and young people in our care and that we are all undertaking this informal Continuous Professional Development (CPD) and Professional Learning Network (PLN) building in our own time, for those who are not confident, this experience can have a big impact on whether we engage on social media as a CPD tool in the future. It is important that we, as professionals, consider our own on line presence and how this reflects on us, particularly when we are teaching the children and young people we care for and teach about the use of social media and using it both safely and responsibly. 

You may wish to upload a profile picture of some sort and write something about yourself to create a bio; otherwise it’s possible that some of the people you want to engage with  won’t chat back, as people will usually want to know who they are engaging with, especially if their account is work-related. For those who use Twitter extensively, this may feel rather like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, but to the uninitiated, it may not be as obvious as you might think, especially educators setting out on their professional social media learning journeys for the first time. I make it clear to my EYE students and members of my team that there is a significant difference between a professional and personal social media account. If there is anything you would not want your employer to read, then it probably should not be on your social media account if you are using it to network professionally. It is important that everyone understands the potential consequences of their posts could be far reaching and therefore, their tone and use words need to be considered carefully. (Editor's note - There’s some good support with understanding what is and is not a good idea to share online through CACHE Alumni’s e-safety modules, which can be found in our e-learning section from 16th June 2020)

That said, the overriding gain from communities of practice such as the #EYtwittertagteam is one of community and a sense of belonging. There’s a strong emphasis on everyone having a voice, regardless of their role within the sector and that our interactions with one another are respectful. It’s a safe place to discuss, debate, share, collaborate and enquire and given that the people are using the hashtag and participating in the community regularly are from such varied roles demonstrates that this is working. The most important belief we all share is that we are ‘Stronger Together’.  Professional friendships are being forged and collaborations planned. It also supports wellbeing and discussions take place in threads or privately if people need them to. 

What started out as being something for just a small group of about 5 of us (collectively known as the Original Tagteam) has now grown significantly with people from across the UK and outside it using the hashtag to share, enquire and collaborate. What is particularly interesting and exciting is that it gives smaller voices a chance to be heard and feel valued. 

My deep rooted NNEB values are evident in the bespoke community of practice badges I have created and distribute to regular contributors, look out for them, better still, become a wearer of one, and when you spot one at a training event or on a colleague, you’ll know you are part of a very special community of practice, fully engaged in all things early years. Whether we are still in lockdown or beyond the crisis, we will be here as a community supporting one another, sharing skills, ideas, looking at ways to collaborate and forming professional friendships. As part of the #EYtwittertagteam community of practice and CACHE Alumni we really are ‘Stronger Together’.  

Helin is an award winning and experienced teacher/lecturer, course coordinator and former NHS health and wellbeing lead. Her current role in FE involves leading on course delivery and quality assurance of CACHE and BTEC Early Years qualifications at levels 2 and 3 and professional development. Helin is the creator of the hashtag #EYtwittertagteam and the development of its community of practice, which is a professional, supportive network for EY professionals and educators at all levels to discuss, share ideas, collaborate, grow their PLN and access CPD.