You Down with PLNs?

Have you ever had one of those REALLY GOOD ideas that gets you super excited? I’m talking about the kind of idea that could make your grade level or school really better–or an idea that might even improve education in Arizona? Have you ever gotten so excited that you decided to share that idea with people in your local work context…only to find that most people weren’t very interested?

Yuck. It’s an awful experience, right? It feels isolating, confusing, and discouraging to see an idea wither away without enough support from colleagues. In these busy, busy days of teaching–I’d guess this happens a lot. Teachers have so many commitments and expectations to accomplish each day. There’s not much energy left for other things. As I wrote in September, teachers just don’t have enough time.

Last month, I had one of those experiences. I was trying to get support for a project that was really important to me–important enough to invest energy during a very busy time of the year. I worked hard to get others interested, but the response was dismal. The more effort I invested, the more discouraged I got. Teachers had good excuses for not participating. They were doing so many other things like sponsoring clubs, helping with after school programs, keeping up with their workload, working their second jobs, or picking up their own kids. (By the way, none of them were busy on boating trips!) I couldn’t blame them, but discouragement set in HARD.

As I drove home feeling dispirited, I realized: Why hadn’t I reached out to the teachers I correspond with on Facebook and Twitter? Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to meet amazing teachers from other districts through graduate courses and events at Arizona K12 Center. I don’t see them often, but I realized they were this untapped powder keg of greatness. With hope renewed, I reached out to a couple people and to my surprise, they were really interested. And my little project lived. There’s an official term for this group of people: They’re called a “Professional Learning Network” (PLN).

According to Marc-André Lalande, a PLN is “a way of describing the group of people that you connect with to learn their ideas, their questions, their reflections, and their references.” Essentially, your PLN includes all the people you connect with (either in person or online) in your school, district, state, or greater context. I was first introduced to the term on a June retreat with the Arizona Hope Street Group teacher fellows. At the time, I just thought it was cool to learn a fancy term for the brilliant people that I hold dear. After my experience last month, I’ve learned the true power of a PLN.

Now I realize that all teachers should be intentionally cultivating relationships with talented, passionate people that make us better at what we do. Here are some strategies I’ve been thinking about related to cultivating a PLN: (1) Show up to trainings and meetings early. It’s important to connect with others and get to know new people on a deeper level. (2) Be strategic with Facebook. I created a “friend list” of PLN connections who tend to post about education topics. When I’m in a rush, I can quickly check my PLN friend list after glancing at my friends and family lists. This saves me from the time blackhole of scrolling through my news feed. (3) Join Twitter, actively participate, and follow some intelligent people! I truly did not know how many professional conversations and resource sharing were happening on Twitter until this school year. There are some great hashtags like #azedchat to connect with educators in Arizona, and Twitter chats are an interesting way to learn and connect with new people.

Overall, I’ve learned not to just let my PLN happen to me randomly. It’s magical to meet a new colleague and really click, but these experiences can be infrequent. Instead, I think it’s important to be outreach-oriented and strategic about connecting with teachers outside our daily workplace. These types of connections can prove fruitful for learning, encouragement, advocacy, and support.

I’d love to hear your PLN reflections or tips in the comments section below! Also, here’s some additional reading if you are interested in extending your learning about PLNs.

Steps for Building a PLN:

10 Reasons Every Teacher Needs a PLN (with great infographic):

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Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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