A Sustainable Start : Develop a PLN

Tonight I will share a beverage with my best friend Javi (I'm not sure if I'm too old to use "best friend" but at least it's not BFF). The meeting will be entirely synchronous and low-tech. No Twitter or Blogger or Google Docs. It's not that those things are bad. They just make the beer taste funny (for the record, I always drink responsibly).

We won't share data as we sit around a crammed table beneath the flickering fluorescent glow of a school library whose books are too new to smell like reading. We won’t view Power Point presentations tells us how bad our school is doing in reaching AYP. We won’t fill out worksheets or write with Mr. Sketch markers (which are essentially the gateway drugs to huffing) on chart paper.

We'll collaborate horizontally. I'll ask him about specific strategies and he'll ask me about professional development. We'll discuss teaching strategies and project ideas and at some point one of us will be vulnerable enough to share how tired we are and how teaching is bringing up unexpected insecurity or anger. Interspersed in these conversations will be talks about relationships or faith or baseball and I will forgive him once again for being a Dodgers fan. Perhaps we’ll even find the intersection between all of these topics (Why God hates the Giants and what that means for my world view). Then we'll talk about learning centers and what free movement would look like in my classroom given my own emotional need for a calm environment.

I'll allow him into my classroom and into my mental space of lesson planning. He's one of a handful of people who have that permission. He didn't earn it through a title or a skill set, either. He earned it through friendship. He earned it with pints. Perhaps I'm being cruel here, but I don't genuinely listen to people's ideas unless I know them. Oh, I'll listen to ideas as a skeptic and perhaps try out a few strategies that people pass along. But I don't really listen to a person until there is a relationship of trust.

I realize this is an inefficient and perhaps even ineffective method of collaboration, but I have to trust people before I really try out their ideas. I trust Javi with my teaching because I trust him with my students and I trust him with my story. I know his heart and his values. We've done service projects together and I've watched how he interacts with students. I listen to him because he has the freedom to criticize my ideas without me feeling attacked. I listen to him because he's not wielding authority. I listen to him because he's humble. For all the talk of a "flat world," nothing makes things multilateral like a pint together.

I'm not necessarily opposed to sharing ideas with a team of grade-level teachers. I've never bought into the Lone Ranger myth. Yet, one of my favorite parts of teaching is the times I get for true collaboration - the kind that isn't tied down to an agenda or a data sheet or meeting notes or techie tools.

Personal Learning Network
New teachers want to grow professionally. However, it’s easy to find the site-based professional development as irrelevant. Often, it’s not the fault of the school or the district. It’s the issue of a one-size-fits-all mentality that prevents teachers from customizing their professional learning to their professional needs.

Enter the Personal Learning Network, or PLN. It’s a fairly new name that took off about a decade ago, but it’s a concept that teachers have embraced for years. It’s the idea of deliberately cultivating a network of both people and resources that help a teacher grow professionally.

My meetings with Javi are part of my PLN. However, so is my blog. I learn from writing, reflecting and advocating as well as having conversations with the people who comment on my blog. Yet, I also learn from reading other blogs. I subscribe to about a hundred blogs on Google Reader. I learn from Twitter chats, Google Plus, videos on YouTube, professional books and informal conversations. It’s an eclectic web of online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous, passive and interactive, practical and personal.

To a large extent, a PLN is simply an intentional shift from “this is my professional development” to “who do I know and how can I learn from them?” It’s a mindset that recognizes the natural way that we learn and the clear recognition that we don’t necessarily have to experience formalized training sessions to grow professionally. For me, it's more than growth, though.  It's sustainability. I need people, both online and offline, so that I don't burn out.  Whether it's interactions on blogs or coffee with a friend, these are the moments that keep me from spiraling out of control when I start to get insecure as a teacher.

The following are a few examples of what a teacher might embrace in developing a PLN. Please take note that this is a brainstorm. No teacher (especially a new teacher) could possibly embrace all of these and still have a functional life.
  • Social Media
    • Twitter: The chats (using #hashtags) are especially helpful to new teachers. (Cybraryman has a frequently updated list of the chats and hashtags)
    • Facebook: There are specific Facebook groups devoted to various aspects of teaching
    • Google Plus: I am already noticing informal networks of teacher
  • Communities
    • Off-line: professional organizations based upon grade level, content or teacher’s rights
    • Online: joining specific Nings, like The Educator’s PLN or Classroom 2.0
  • Blogging
    • Subscribe to various blogs that you find helpful
    • Create your own blog
    • Join a group blog
  • Multimedia
    • Create or subscribe to a podcast
    • Create or subscribe to a video series
  • In-Person Relationships
    • Talk to your non-teacher family and friends. Sometimes the education world can become an echo chamber
    • Find a few close teacher friends and meet on a regular basis to debrief how teaching is going
    • Get to know your neighbors.  There is more philosophical diversity in a neighborhood than in most Twitter chats
  • Traditional Print
    • Trade magazines
    • Newspapers - If you want to get yourself real worked-up over teacher-bashing, read The New York Times and ask how they can still be considered respected journalists
    • Journals – the downside is that they are often expensive. So, you might want to see if your district has a place where teachers can access journals.
    • Books – they still exist and yes, they can be very helpful
  • Professional Development
    • Conferences
    • Online Conferences and Webinars
    • Un-conferences
    • Workshops
    • As you grow in your knowledge, start teaching professional development
It’s About the Conversation
A leader of a non-profit asked me how they could use social media to get their message across. I told her that Twitter and Facebook were not tools to use so much as places to connect. It has to be horizontal. It’s about the conversation.

As you develop a PLN, you will find that it is oftentimes a complex conversation. Sometimes the conversation feels loud and chaotic (#edchat, for example) and other times it can be intimate (a pint with a friend). There’s a place for both. The bottom line is that you connect and through those connections, you have the chance to ask questions, process your insights and grow professionally.

A Process for Developing a PLN
A PLN is a messy concept and so I am reticent about sharing a process for developing one. These were the steps that I found helpful, but they might not fit your individual needs:
  • Step 1 - Data: Acquire data for your strengths and weaknesses. These can include student surveys, personal reflections and conversations with colleagues.
  • Step 2 – Needs: Make a list of needs that aren’t being met in your current professional development situation. These could be personal (loneliness, insecurity) or practical (classroom management, assessment)
  • Step 3: Resources: Based upon your list of needs, choose a few areas where you would like to grow (and learn more about) and then list potential resources that can help you grow in these areas
  • Step 4: Relationships: Choose a few areas where you would like to connect more with others (it might be for conversation, for resources, for the chance to be transparent) and find both online and in-person methods of interacting socially
Pretentious, Presumptuous and Perhaps Even Practical Advice
  • Not every teacher has to use every medium. Some teachers don’t enjoy writing, but would do well posting videos and pictures to Posterous or Tumblr.
  • Figure out which medium suits your needs and your personality. You might do well creating videos or podcasts and immersing yourself in multimedia. You might simply need to share links on bookmarking sites and on Twitter. You may want to join Google Plus and interact with educators there.
  • Try and avoid the need to be influential. Klout can be a trap for Twitter users and Feedburner can be depressing for new bloggers. It’s not about the numbers. Really.
  • Give yourself permission to stay low-key. You don’t have to join every chat and engage in Twitter everyday. You don’t have to write constantly. It’s your first year. The PLN is about your professional needs.
  • Choose people and resources in your PLN who will challenge your thinking as well as affirm it. However, limit your PLN to people who share your values. For example, a teacher blog that trashes students is not ideal for a teacher who values student-teacher relationships.
  • Each year, I create a Professional Growth Plan with your strengths, weaknesses and specific goals for growth. I then look for people and resources in my PLN that can help me grow in those areas. For example, I wanted to move toward deeper understanding of standards-based grading. I found a few books, a few blogs and a few friends on Twitter (Russ Goerend and Matt Townsley).
  • Recognize that there is a cost involved in every aspect of a PLN. No medium is neutral. Social media can be great, but it can push us toward shallow interaction and incessant echo chambers. No relationship should be one-sided, meaning there will be an emotional, social and time commitment.

John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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