Problem solving is a key skill in teaching. But in the past year, especially, the problems in need of a solution seem to have grown exponentially.
How do we teach kids online and in person at the same time? How do we build a strong community of learners when, in some cases, kids haven’t seen each other for more than a year? How can we continue to have students collaborate meaningfully?
More than ever, we need to connect with others who can help us find the innovative solutions and opportunities hidden within this disruption of education-as-usual. To that end, we chatted with HP Teaching Fellows Rola Tibshirani, Vicky Masson, Joseph Filipic, Jim Pedrech and Chad Sorrells about how critical professional learning networks (PLNs) have been to both their craft and their well-being. Here, they share four essential recommendations for creating a strong PLN.
Looking for a strong, supportive PLN? Applications are now open for the 2021 cohort of HP Teaching Fellows. Apply now!
1. Diversify your network.
Your PLN will often start with the teachers in your building. It’s important to have thought partners who know your specific context and your students. Jim Pedrech uses Microsoft Teams to connect to different groups of colleagues within his building to solve instructional problems big and small.
But reaching beyond your immediate network can be a great way to bring in fresh ideas.
“Our students bring so many different experiences to our classrooms, so for us to be able to really address things that are best for them, we need to be able to see these different viewpoints,” says Chad Sorrells. “The HP Teaching Fellows has given me not only the confidence in my own practice, but it’s opened my own eyes up to beyond just what’s surrounding me locally.”
Twitter can be a great place to connect with educators in other districts or even other countries. Pay particular attention to whose voices you hear most often and who might be missing from your feed. When in doubt, ask other teachers who they follow.
But your PLN shouldn’t stop with other educators. Students and their families can support your learning as well. Joseph Filipic explains, “I think it’s important that I get my ideas from other educators, but then I use my parents and my students to adjust and accommodate for their learning needs.”
2. Focus on an essential question.
Twitter can expand your network geographically, but it can sometimes feel overwhelming. Sorrells recommends really pinpointing what you’re hoping to get out of your network.
It becomes much easier to evaluate whether a resource or a connection in your network can help you solve a challenge if you keep a focused question in mind, like “What are the different ways of cultivating student self-reflection?”
Connect with others who share your educational philosophies or your area of inquiry. Who else is talking about #TeachSDGs, or who is really focused on increasing student agency? By finding the people who are centering powerful learning practices, you get the most out of the time you put into creating new connections.
3. Find a network that goes beyond one and done.
For Rola Tibshirani, the key to getting the most out of your PLN is simple: follow up. “It’s not just the one-time conversation,” she stresses. Reaching out and making connections over time allows you to create trust with each other. That trust enables the psychological safety that allows our brains to engage in deeper learning.
The trust so critical to deeper learning can often be hard to come by. According to Vicky Masson, that starts with you: “You’ve got to be active! Asking questions is great, but in order for you to receive trust, you have to share your own ideas and build upon the ideas of others.”
This builds a cycle that increases your return on the investment of time with every interaction. Jim Pedrech knows he has a strong network because he regularly reaches out to others to find out what they’re doing in their classrooms. He reflects, “It’s nice to know that there’s always somebody out there that I can rely on for some advice and for some help and just to get some ideas.”
4. Find spaces that support your social-emotional well-being.
Sometimes, building your PLN can feel like just another thing to add to your already full plate. But for Tibshirani, PLNs can actually be a catalyst for prioritizing well-being. She says, “It’s important to pause and take time, not only to physically take a break, but also to mentally have a break and to support one another.”
In these busy times, look for educators and networks that are creating space for your social-emotional needs. By doing this, Masson points out that growth and rest don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “PLNs have been my support system, and at the same time, they have helped me to grow as a professional. They held my hand and lifted me up when I needed it.”
At Digital Promise, we endeavor to connect educators with trusting, diverse networks that are hyperfocused on creating powerful learning opportunities for students. The HP Teaching Fellows, part of the Reinvent the Classroom initiative, is one such network.
Masson puts it this way: “The HP Teaching Fellowship has helped advance my professional learning by being a diverse community of experienced educators where everyone is a contributor and always willing to collaborate on authentic classroom experiences.”