You Down with PLNs?

Jess Ledbetter Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership

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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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I teach preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. I am 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. I earned my doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU. My research explored how early career special education teachers collaborated with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms. I believe all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. I am passionate about National Board Certification, mentoring early career teachers, improving teacher retention, elevating teacher voice, and collaborating with a network of courageous educators who passionately advocate for kids and schools. I believe that real-life stories from our schools should inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities. Therefore, I am grateful to have the opportunity to share my stories here. I welcome your comments on my blog posts and hope that we can advance the dialogue together.

Comments 8

  1. Sandy Merz

    You forgot to mention blogging for Az Stories from School as a way to build your PLN. I wonder if there shouldn’t be a another P added to emphasize that it’s my Personal Professional Learning Network, that I curated and cultivated myself. But everything your write is true, I get more growth and motivation from my (P)PLN than I do from my mandated PLCs – even though they have their valued and being in a PLC with me doesn’t mean your not in my PLN.

    In terms of building a network, I’d say show up and engage. As Megan Allen says, break your internal ice early so that your more accessible to others. That comes hard to many, but gets easier the more you do it.

    1. Jess Ledbetter

      That’s interesting advice about breaking the internal ice. I don’t think I’m very good at that as a natural introvert. I’ll have to think about being more intentional about getting past the small talk right away with new connections :)

  2. Eve Rifkin

    I am a huge fan and active member of an extensive PLN that includes not only my closest colleagues but members of my doctoral cohort, past professors, and people I meet at ed conferences. It’s been so crucial for me to find ways of not feeling so alone when I think I have a fabulous idea and no one around me seems interested. Thanks for posting this!

    1. Jess Ledbetter

      Agreed. I think I would feel a little bit crazy sometimes without the ability to connect with people who are concerned about education on the same level. It’s so energizing to know people who are paying attention to ed news, reading recent research, and advancing the profession in different ways. Gotta have sanity, right?!? :)

  3. Bryce Brothers

    The first part of your post resonates with me on a deep level. I am currently going through this now. Believing you are on the verge of something HUGE and having very little excitement returned, is incredibly frustrating. You offer some great advice about not letting PLNs just happen to you and reach out instead.

    This was much needed. Thank you.

  4. Leah Clark

    YES! YES! YES! This is so true. I recently started working the the K12 Center. WOW is all I can say. The professional learning community I have started to cultivate is often the lifeline I need when I simply want to talk to someone “who speaks my language.” I love your advice of getting to trainings a bit early. This is the best time to meet new people! Thank you for this awesome post!

  5. Susan Collins

    Great Blog Jess! I could not agree more. I have connected with some amazing people through twitter chats that I would probably never have encountered face to face. Two of my favorite chats are #ecet2 on Sundays at 8pm ET, and #teachermyth on Tuesdays at 9pm CT (adjust for AZ time depending on whether the rest of the nation is on DST). I’ve also become part of a few networks on Facebook that specifically relate to elementary music. All of these connections have enhanced my teaching and broadened my perspectives.

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