Sunday, February 14, 2016

Connected Community

My grad school cohort, #WSUCohort1, recently discussed the need for connectedness and community for both teachers and students. Given one particular frame of breaking it down, I see two core reasons why someone would want to connect with other teachers:

  1. Create a professional network that challenges my existing practice, brings in new ideas, and offers support in implementing my vision for my classroom.
  2. Create a social network of people who can really understand what I do at work and why I do it. These are people who I can care for and who can care for me beyond just classroom practice.

Notice that I didn't say digitally connect, just connect. I think that connection is a human need that everyone seeks at varying levels.  The digital medium offers the ability to choose any plugged-in person in the world, not just those who happen to live near you.  The physical medium offers a much richer experience of connection (high fives, hugs, voice inflection, shared experiences).

When I think of other teachers interacting with each other in my Twitter timeline, I see both professional and personal connection at work at varying levels. A common thread I perceive amongst many of the most active users is teachers who cannot find the kind of connection they are seeking in their physical school, leading them to not only participate, but immerse themselves in a wider world of people who share their passion and care about them.

Getting back to our weekly #WSUCohort1 chat, my co-facilitator for the topic, Jen @JG0005, started Question #4 by asking about obstacles to creating a connected school. A lot of our discussion focused on teacher discomfort and unfamiliarity with digital tools like Twitter as a major barrier to a digitally connected school.

I asked the question:
Most of the time, I personally do not feel the unmet need for connection at either a professional or personal level. Part of this is due to some degree of introversion and a desire for quiet thinking time, but most of it is due to having my needs met with my face-to-face personal learning network. I spent the past 4.5 years working very closely on every single course with my high school math PLC, I work daily with an all-in co-teacher, I feel very comfortable discussing ideas and concerns with my principal and school counselors, and share a building and district with many other hard-working, passionate adults seeking the best long-term outcomes for our students. More than just pushing my work, these are people who care about me, my family, and other things I am passionate about. Having a classroom right at the busiest intersection of hallways means that my greatest challenge is hiding from all of these awesome people so I can finish my work once in a while. I am overloaded with meaningful, professionally-rooted connections.

However, my tweet above set-off a long discussion with a number of interesting points. Jen G @JG0005 looked at the angle of medium:
Kory @korytellers brought up the importance of modeling professional, digital connection with the intention of students using it in their future:
Jen @jenhegna, our course professor and fearless tech/innovation leader in Byron, pushed back with some of the unique aspects of the digital PLN that a face to face network cannot replicate:

Four days after our Twitter chat, there are still new posts being made on this thread. The topic is a hot button, as it pushes against the entire point of our class -- digital connection between teachers and classrooms. From my own reflection and the torrent of tweets coming at me since Wednesday evening, I do believe that all teachers should be part of a digital community of other teachers.

I think of it in a similar way to exercise: we all need it, but it meets more needs for some people than others. My wife loves to run, ski, or do anything that involves moving. It clears her mind, makes her stronger, and helps her sleep better. She is a much happier person when she is able to exercise. On the other hand, I only feel this need after not moving for 8 hours straight, and even then, it needs to either be short or part of a game to engage me. I exercise just enough to avoid early death.

For some, Twitter will fill an unmet need for professional and/or personal connection, making it more likely that the teachers will stick with it on their own. For others, this tug does not exist. This doesn't change the importance of modeling professional connection for students, giving students the opportunity to engage with others around the world, or opening yourself to a much wider set of ideas than you could ever see in just your physical network. It just means that it has to become a routine, a chore, a part of the work day, or more creatively a game.  If we want to convince other teachers to engage in a social, digital community, we need to consider that many will lack the tug that so many Tweeting teachers have pushing their sails.


  1. I appreciate discussions that challenge my thinking. There are a couple of things to remember. While I believe wholeheartedly that teachers need to be networked - for reasons you share above. I also believe the stories from the classroom need to be shared to support the vitality of teachers today. The reach of social media is undeniable. While your stories certainly can spread ideas across our district…. a bigger picture is to think how your story can inspire networks of teachers across our State? Nation? World? Right now, many politicians don’t have a clue to the challenges and awesome things happening in public education classrooms. We need “leaders” who will share their stories and inspire educators today and more importantly educators of tomorrow as enrollment for teaching is on the decline. (Shared in this NPR post - Where have all the teachers gone?

    Knowing you personally, I know you are innovating all the time. I also have had numerous conversations about your vision for education and I do believe you are on the right path. Some of the things we chat about challenge “School” as we know it. It's important that you have a good network of folks to support/cultivate/encourage those ideas too. Plus, there are teachers that are living those ideas right now. The more you can connect/learn - the less you have to build from scratch.

    I do believe that the tools to create a PLN will differ. While Twitter is King in my PLN right now - it doesn't necessarily mean it should be the king of yours. Just in the last 6 mos, other tools are starting to make an impact on my PLN- specifically Periscope, Voxer and Facebook. Some teachers rely on Pinterest. I even found teachers who are using Instagram. AND....drumroll - Snapchat is making an entry in PLNs. At any rate, you will want to determine your passsions, find those people and networks to follow and interact with to help you grow professionally. I also think a good cross of divergent thinkers, challengers is also good to have. Whatever you put into your PLN - you will get out of it. But this won't happen overnight and it does take time (even scheduled time) to build.

    1. Thanks Jen -- I can see your point about telling stories of the classroom. Most parents of my own students have little idea what I actually do, let alone other Byron residents or those in various levels of government. For that purpose, I think blogging is the best tool for me, but I need to use it more in that way.

  2. Great post Andy. You hit the nail on the head for me about teachers who turn to Twitter because they aren't feeling connections within their own school building. Now that I am working at Byron I find myself connecting more and more with my face to face PLN members versus my online PLN. I no longer feel like a silo, I now work with people just as passionate as I am about education. It's hard to put into words, but a void has definitely been filled with my move to Byron.

    My brain still spins about education and my teaching 24/7, so having an online PLN allows me the opportunity to ask those questions and share those thoughts that fill my brain with others no matter what time of the day.

    I do agree with Jen about sharing our stories. I can share many examples of how sharing my story as a teacher, the stories of my students and what's going on in my classroom have inspired not only others, but inspired me and also humbled me in a way. By sharing my stories. others feel comfortable sharing theirs, and their stories inspire me, humble me, and remind me how lucky we are to be teachers. Their stories also remind me that there are lots and lots of educators out there trying to do the exact same thing I am, putting kids first always.

    I love how you compare it to exercise and I think that's a great way to explain it to other teachers. We may not all like to exercise, but we all know that no matter how little or much exercise we do, it's always good for us.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, looking forward to continuing this conversation.

    1. Thanks Kory for inspiring much of this post -- it was your constant stream of tweets all week that kept me thinking about it. I think the 24/7 aspect of a PLN is a great reason why it supplements the best of face to face networks. I know that summer is a time I appreciate it most (when I don't see my Byron colleagues very much).

  3. Really interesting insights. I wonder if this could be said about students making connections as well? Those that don't have many peers to connect with in school may be able to succeed in a digital format.

    1. Great point -- I think connectedness is the primary goal, and finding a way to make it work for all students, such as adding online to traditional interactive projects, is really important.