A PLN isn't a new concept. For years, teachers have had friends, family, and neighbors who helped them grow professionally. Before Twitter, we had stoops and back porches. We had clubs and groups that actually met in person. We had chats that didn't require hash tags.
I know that face-to-face networks seem more authentic. We're supposed to network in families, in the staff lounge, around front porches and in our local communities. Sometimes, though, the networks that should be places of support are toxic. A staff lounge can be a den of vipers. A family can turn dysfunctional.
It's for this reason that I feel grateful for my online personal learning network. When my grandfather died, I wept with my wife. I grieved with my family. However, I also wrote a blog post. It's what I do. I write. And unexpectedly, I received and outpouring of compassion from blog readers and Twitter followers.
When I yelled at a student and felt like quitting my job, I couldn't share the moment in the staff lounge. I knew my words would be turned against me. However, when I shared the moment on Twitter and on this blog, I learned that vulnerability can draw people closer rather than pushing people away. I felt restored. These "strangers" who live miles away saved my career (along with the wise words of my wife, whom I would also consider a part of my PLN).
Over the years, this network has felt more like a real community. I play Draw Something with Philip (though not lately, because it's acting up on my iPhone Air). I had the chance to crowd-source novel editing with Malyn, Brian and David. I've gotten to geek out about literature with Tom and music with Jabiz.
I have Skyped and Hungout with Russ, Matt, Jeremy and others who were once an avatar on my screen And I hung out in person with Patrick, Dean, Angela, Joan and others at the Blogger's Cafe at ISTE - or, in the case of Jeff, hung out with someone local who I never managed to meet in Phoenix. Then there's Greg, who I've gotten to Hangout with and hang out with.
I've eagerly anticipated the posts of Pernille (who is on a similar wavelength), Michael (who is poetic without trying too hard), Scott (who has helped shape what I think about my own pre-school aged children), Bill (who is one of the deepest thinkers I know), Brazen (who was one of the best all-around writers I know) and several others. And often, these blog comments have meandered into full conversations that I wish would happen more often in the staff lounge.
I've joked around with made-up hash tags (#pencilchat #rockstarteacher). I contributed to a crowd-sourced poem (thanks, William). I've shared a pint with Rob and Stephen. And for all the e-mails we've sent back and forth, I'm hoping I'll share a pint some day with Michael. I've had dinner with David and Chad and more recently with Jeff and his wife. I've talked honestly about teaching with Michelle, Beth, Tim and Nick on top of the fancy rooftop at the #edubros event and I talked ed policy with Nancy at the Arizona K12 event.
On some level, it's been personal. However, I've also grown professionally in the process. I've debated ideas with people I would normally have little exposure to (progressive schools and unschoolers). I am regularly challenged by the fellow blogger at the Cooperative Catalyst. I've planned an assessment with Russ. I've asked random tech questions and had an instant help desk of techies who can offer advice.
But here's the thing: the professional growth couldn't have happened without the personal interaction. It took time to build trust and to get to a place where I could be vulnerable. The random photographs, the silly tweets, the heated debates, the commentary on music and sports - these all led naturally to professional growth. I went online hoping to share some ideas. Instead, I've found a community of teachers who I can share my life with.
*Note: I know that this feels like name dropping, but these aren't simply names. These are some of the people in my community who have shaped my career as a teacher. My second thought is that this is by no means an exhaustive list. If you're name isn't mentioned, it's nothing personal.