Change. Growth. Learning. Three short but complicated words. These intangibles are important to instill in students, and yet, in the day-to-day reality of work, teachers often neglect a need for continual professional growth. And as the years go by, it gets easier to become stubborn and set in one’s ways. Change is hard. As teachers push students to develop, it becomes difficult to set aside time for personal, professional development.
I could go on about the frustration and stagnant feeling that consumed parts of my teaching career. I’ve been to those dark places. However, I am no longer that tired and frustrated teacher. This year I embraced change, and I have grown more than I have in years, thanks to the cultivation of a professional learning network (PLN).
“This year I embraced change…”
Developing my PLN has been transformational. Entering my third year at my third school, I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I didn’t feel like I fit in, and I wasn’t happy. My frustration was beginning to have a negative impact on my classroom culture. I had been interested in changing my grading practices for a while and had experimented before, but I had gone it alone, and it hadn’t worked. This time I wanted help.
I reached out to my dad’s friend and colleague Megan Moran, a high school math teacher who worked with Standards Based Learning for years. Megan proved to be a rich resource and talked me through SBL and how it might look in my classroom. She also put me in touch with Aric Foster, her partner at Stem and Flower Learning Consultants, and encouraged me to join Twitter and follow #sblchat, a Twitter chat led by Garnett Hillman and Rik Rowe. And so my PLN began to grow.
#slbchat connected me with a network of teachers who are passionate about creating more ethical and transparent grading practices. Their passion helped me create mine. Through #sblchat I connected with Aaron Blackwelder, originally through a side conversation about my experience teaching internationally and then through Teachers Going Gradeless, a group of teachers brought together by Aaron and Arthur Chiaravalli who share a vision. This group has become my main source of support over the last few months. As I have taken baby steps towards making changes in philosophy into changes in pedagogy, I have turned to virtual colleagues like fellow English teacher Adam Lester for advice on what assignments might look like, or borrowed ideas from fellow newbie Mike Szczepanik, one of the many members of my PLN whose openness about starting down this road has helped me to ask questions and share my own experiences.
These communities of educators and innovators have helped me hone my changing pedagogy, encouraged me to take risks, and generously shared their combined knowledge and experience to help me become a stronger educator.
PLNs provide opportunities for professionals to come together, share knowledge, lend support, challenge one another to try new things, and encourage change, growth, and learning. They allow a teacher in Illinois to connect with a teacher in Washington to discuss how different pedagogues can impact student learning. They help a teacher in a rural school in Ohio get off her island and lean on the knowledge of a team of teachers in New York, Michigan, and Colorado to bounce ideas off of them.
They allow a teacher in Illinois to connect with a teacher in Washington to discuss how different pedagogies can impact student learning.
Sometimes the politics of school can get in the way of personal growth. It is easy to avoid experimenting. When outcomes seem uncertain and there is a lack of support, fear of change can be crippling. A strong PLN can help mitigate some of these issues.
When I have a crazy idea at 11pm and send a direct message, post on Facebook, or tweet my thoughts, I know there are people who will help clarify my intentions. I know that Arthur, Aaron, and others will help me refine and fill in the holes, so that when I decide to bring my crazy plans into my school building—they don’t seem so far-fetched anymore. Thanks to colleagues like Gary Chu, who has been open about his own successes and frustrations, I know that, when I try an idea and it bombs, my PLN will help me sort through the carnage to find the positives and challenge me to learn from the experience.
Teaching is hard. The pressure can consume you, making it easier to be satisfied with the status quo. Developing a strong PLN can help fight against that tide. The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to educate one. Build your own personal village—only good things can come from it.
Becky Prebble is a high school English teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. You can join her PLN on Twitter @mrsprebble84