Teachers reaching out to each other thanks to 'digital coffee machine'

The Teaching Academy Utrecht University (TAUU) is a meeting point for teachers working at Utrecht University. "It's a community by and for teachers", explains Adrien Melquiond, assistant professor in Bioinformatics. Thanks to TAUU, teachers working at different faculties and departments can exchange experiences. Its website has blogs in which teachers share stories or opinions about what they would like to change in the education system. The website also has a section called Lieve Willemijn (Dear Willemijn, Ed.), which answers questions sent by UU teachers, such as "how to deal with an extremely annoying student?" or "which rules of behaviour do I have to follow when teaching online?"

Lockdown council
TAUU also has a council comprising six teachers who meet biweekly to discuss how to better convey the voice of teachers within the university. They are basically the face of TAUU, picking up what's going on with teachers and what their main critiques are, in order to bring attention to them regardless of whether teachers ask for them to do so or not. Adrien Melquiond is one of the six members of the council, as is Art History lecturer Sanne Frequin. "Our group was formed right before lockdown, which was quite out of the ordinary. We talk to each other almost every single week, but we've never seen each other in person", tells Melquiond.

Temporary teachers
“It's a voluntary position that demands a lot of energy", reveals Frequin. “We, teachers, are often faced with the same questions, so it's good to be able to discuss them together and see how we can improve things".

A recurring topic of discussion is the delicate position temporary teachers find themselves in – something Frequin knows from experience. "I'm on my fifth temporary contract. Always at a different university. There are few prospects for us, not even with the new collective labour agreement. Temporary teachers, have to keep looking, time and again, for places to go after our contracts end. Towards the end of my pregnancy, when I was supposed to be going on maternity leave, I was actually working extremely hard to show my employers that I was doing my best, in the hope of scoring a new contract."

The teachers in the council discuss political and policy matters like these, but they also talk about educational innovations. "We exchange experiences here. What are the best practices? What can we organise better? That's why we're directly in touch with the Centre for Academic Teaching (CAT), which can work on our suggestions", explains Melquiond. "What's remarkable about TAUU is that we really are a bottom-up initiative. The teachers come to us with their own experiences and suggestions".

Informal way
The council has come up with a new initiative to engage more teachers. “We've noticed that there wasn't really a place where teachers from different faculties could meet each other in an informal way. You know, the kind of conversation you'd have by the coffee machine, about matters that teachers have in common", says Melquiond. "That's why we've started TAUU@thecoffeemachine."

Frequin: “Teachers can access this Teams platform at certain times and we'll make sure a council member is always present. But, mostly, we hope that it becomes the place where many teachers can gather and get to know each other. Additionally, participants can start separate discussions on the chat room, to which all other teachers can react."

International teachers
The Teams space for the coffee machine community has different channels, each one featuring its own discussions. Frequin explains it: "One of our most important channels is aimed at international teachers, who often struggle to navigate the Dutch education system. "What to expect from Dutch students?" and "what forms of education are used by UU?" are two examples of questions they may have. Those teachers can benefit greatly from meeting other international teachers and exchanging experiences with them. We hope that new teachers hear about us upon their arrival in Utrecht."

The initiative had its kick-start in the end of June, as part of the Versterk je Onderwijs (Strengthen Your Education, Ed.) week. Frequin: "Back then, we held a brainstorming session titled 'Another paper? Not again' to come up with alternatives. The best thing about it was that students were also welcome to participate and give us their input. But the discussion goes on in our community, through the chat rooms. That's what makes it so interesting." 

For more info and for joining the community, visit TAUU@coffeemachine.