By Sarah Giddings
From the first day I stepped foot into my class in a small urban public high school, I realized one reality about teaching. Traditionally, the classroom can be one of the most isolating places to be for an educator. Although this is not my experience today, it took me a long time, many tears, and much frustration to find a sustainable network of educators that I could learn from regardless of classroom, location or grade level. This accessible group of educator peers is usually called a professional learning network, or PLN.
When I graduated from college, I stayed in touch with a graduate professor but did not maintain contact with most other professors, as most had teaching experience in the suburbs, not in an urban, high-poverty school like the one where I secured my first teaching position. (The only contact I’ve had with my university since then has unfortunately been when I’m being solicited for donations.) I also had a mentor teacher but our schedules conflicted, making it difficult to connect when I needed that person most. Without a robust PLN, those first years could have been unbearable for me, as they are for many others in our profession.
During my two-year National Teacher Fellowship with the Hope Street Group, we were tasked with a two-part project, first learning from educators in our PLNs across the U.S. about their experiences with teacher preparation; the work also included collecting this data in a report called On Deck: Preparing the Next Generation of Teachers. Then, in our second year, my group of National Teacher Fellows was asked to continue efforts to improve teacher preparation with a state/local project. At first, I was unsure of what my direction could be. It was then I realized that the network I learn from and lean on was and still is my biggest asset for my continuing education as a teacher leader.
To learn where I could make the greatest impact in my state, I partnered with a local university and they shared that a growth area for the school of education was how to engage their alumni and sustain communication with graduates. I again reached out to my network, and found a cohort of educators ready and eager to share the practices for how they foster and sustain a digital PLN in overwhelming numbers. The sheer number of volunteers I recruited to assist aspiring teachers in this way shows me that so many of us agree upon the high value of building and accessing a network, and we wish to pay it forward.
I want to present a scenario that will be familiar to may teachers: You are in school, your administration is too busy to talk, your staff is overwhelmed, and you just feel lonely because you might be the only teacher in your content area. In circumstances such as this, the digital PLN that awaits you can feel limitless.
This fall, along with a cohort of Michigan teachers, I helped lead our first session for preservice teachers at a teacher preparation program. We showcased the benefits of digital PLN communities like Twitter, Voxer, Google+, LinkedIn, and educator blogs. What else did we share?:
- Specific teacher leaders to learn from and follow in our state and nationally
- How to locate digital thought leaders in education
- Twitter chats for educators
- Classroom design on Instagram for feedback from educators
- How to connect with parents and students in the digital world
One takeaway from our work was an understanding of just how little preservice teachers know about the digital world and the deep professional community support that exists beyond their school walls. We came away with feedback from grateful educators, almost all of whom said they did not know these resources, all of which they were familiar with in their personal lives could also be utilized in their professional lives. Best practices for responsible social media sharing is a topic from which all teachers could benefit!
Another takeaway from our fall workshop at the university was how important it is to have current teacher leaders embedded in teacher preparation to help sustain and elevate our profession. As accomplished educators, we must leverage our knowledge and expertise, and also highlight the work we do and the support we provide pre-service and novice teachers. This will help assure that new educators come into the field knowing how to get help, where to carve out a community, and where they can ask questions if they don’t feel comfortable approaching someone face-to-face. The classroom does not have to be the isolating silo it can sometimes feel like, especially in the first years as a teacher. As it can be difficult to create collaboration in a new physical space, we need to show preservice teachers where it does always exist — in the digital world — and encourage their network-building before they are certified and begin teaching full-time.
The possibilities for partnerships, continued learning and inspiration for the teaching practice found through my digital PLN have been invaluable to my career thus far. These partnerships are how I have shared strategies, practices and insights from all levels of education and I am a better educator for it. My wish for the next generation of teachers is for them to discover the digital connections that can enrich their practice and remind them they are not alone. All they must do is touch their keyboard and a world of educators is at their fingertips.
Sarah Giddings, NBCT, is an advisor, instructor, and curriculum coordinator for Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education in Michigan. A 2015-2017 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow, Sarah has also served as a 2014-2015 Michigan Educator Voices Fellow and previously taught in Chicago Public Schools.