How Becoming a Connected Educator Saved my Career

I was 26, starting my fourth year of teaching, and in danger of becoming part of the 50% of new teachers that quit by year five in the classroom. Although I could recognize areas for growth in my teaching practice, I was frustrated at best (demoralized at worst) by the one-size-fits-all approach to my professional development.

I was 26, starting my fourth year of teaching, and in danger of becoming part of the 50% of new teachers that quit by year five in the classroom. Although I could recognize areas for growth in my teaching practice, I was frustrated at best (demoralized at worst) by the one-size-fits-all approach to my professional development.

The Journey to Becoming a Connected Educator

Traditional professional development (PD) usually looks like this: faculty are herded into a large group room where they will spend the next hour, or two, or three, passively listening to an “expert” explain to them what they’ve been missing. That silver bullet. You know, the one that will make disengaged students suddenly pay attention, struggling readers rush to consume novels, and apathetic writers churn out pieces screaming for publication. These speakers and consultants rarely ask what teachers have to offer to their own learning experience. These “experts” rarely bother to find out if their message is in any way relevant to local or current situations. In traditional PD, the actual experts, the teachers in the room, are silenced.

In short, it is difficult to NOT become disillusioned with this tone-deaf, sit-and-get scenario.

With no time built into my day to learn with and from my colleagues, and with sporadic professional days throughout the year looking like what I described above, I felt isolated and restless. I craved time to collaborate with my colleagues. I wanted to learn from other teachers who did the same job I did every day or worked with those same difficult students. I wanted to learn from the more experienced teachers in my building and connect with the newer faces.

I wanted authentic learning and authentic relationship. Does this sound familiar to you?

In the midst of my restlessness, I found an online community of educators who changed my life. These educators teach in schools across the country, and in classrooms ranging from pre-K to higher education. They are authors, keynote speakers, and policy advocates. They make up an interdisciplinary and diverse community that challenged me to adopt a new perspective: instead of simply identifying problems and frustrations with the educational system, I should propose the solutions. These educators challenged me to see my own professional development in a new way, an empowered way.

Let me introduce you to the CTQ Collaboratory. It has transformed my practice by helping me to see myself as a teacher leader whose experience in the classroom enable me to affect decisions outside of my classroom. With the support and encouragement of this vibrant community, I began to engage with other educator communities through Twitter and ASCD. In these virtual spaces, I found not only teachers, but also principals, superintendents, and authors willing to discuss the issues I was passionate about: educational technology, educational policy, and reimagined schools. I found authentic learning and authentic relationships.

It doesn’t have to be this way!

While districts and educational literature continue to promote personalized, differentiated learning for students, teacher PD too often remains ironically one dimensional and devoid of valuable teacher input. Yet with the proliferation of online communities, webinars, and educational chats, school districts shouldn’t have to settle for the old practice of a “sit-and-get” for their professionals.

Promoting online learning communities as formalized PD honors teachers’ autonomy, professionalism, and commitment to life-long learning.

Online communities and digital learning spaces are not only valuable for what teachers can learn. These digital spaces offer new platforms for teachers to share what they know. Professional development is not limited to the great resources and ideas delivered by desginated “experts.” Instead, innovative PD allows for mutual collaboration, and the chance for every teacher to share his/her expertise with others.

A Whole New World

In this eighth year of teaching, my career has taken a direction I could not have predicted as that restless, frustrated, year-five teacher. I have a vibrant personal learning network (PLN) with educators who both challenge and encourage me on a daily basis. Likewise, I have developed the confidence to lead within my expertise and strength and in ways that enrich my community both locally and digitally. I’m currently working in a hybrid teacher leadership role, teaching and leading in my district for half of the day and working in a virtual community for the other half.

My own journey from disillusionment to empowerment is perhaps the greatest testimony I can offer to transformative power of online communities.

My local district has also changed tremendously in the way they approach teacher PD. From facilitating teacher-led conferences to formalizing teacher leadership roles, the administration has adopted a new approach: one that acknowledges teacher expertise and the power of professional collaboration. We still bring in some outside experts, but instead of offering silver bullets, their message is often one that uplifts and encourages teachers to find their own solutions, keeping in mind the world that their students will face. The mindset of PD has shifted from perpetuating the status quo to finding new ways to re-engage, connect, and enable teachers to lead from their strengths. And I am so grateful!

Connected Educators: The Silver Bullet?

This October marks Connected Educator Month, an initiative launched by Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, and now run, promoted, and supported by a wide variety of partners and organizations. Two of its stated goals are “helping schools credential/integrate connected learning into their formal professional development efforts” and “stimulating and supporting innovation in the field mission is to draw attention to online communities of practice and networks in education.” According to research, a growing number of educators (though still less than half) are turning to social-networking platforms, online courses, and virtual professional-learning communities for PD opportunities.

Will you join that number?

Will you reexamine the PD status quo in your district and building?

Will you embrace teachers as experts and leaders that have an enormous amount to offer your learning community?

Will you connect with educators through the vibrant virtual networks thriving all over the world?

I hope so. Reimagining professional development could be that silver bullet you’ve always been promised. The catch is that it doesn’t come fully assembled–you have to build it. First by looking inward at your local experts, and then, by reaching out to the communities that can grow those experts into leaders. The result? Dynamic communities of collaboration and learning. Also, the end of eye-rolling every time the term “professional development” appears on the schedule.

This article originally appeared in Education Week Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable as part of a publishing partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality. It was then modified and published for a CTQ blog.

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