Some years ago, while participating in teacher CPD, I found myself having an aha moment. One of the other course participants was delivering a presentation and at the end she told this story of how in her school all of the teachers appear to ‘walk the walk’. Through her eyes, teachers walk the corridors with confidence and deliver a display of preconceived ideals. Believing I am a teacher. I am an expert in instruction and pedagogy. I am at the top of my field of learning, and I know my subject inside out. My students are engaged, and I always know what I’m doing. These teachers then go into their respective classrooms and close the door with somewhere between 20 and 30 eyes on them, with many expecting to be taught, engaged, entertained, listened to, and the list goes on. We haven’t mentioned parents. Back to the classroom, through the window in the wall to a passerby it appears like I am in control, I am confident, and I know what I’m doing. But don’t open my classroom door. In reality, being the teacher in the room comes with a lot of expectations. The role of a teacher can often be isolating.

Driving home that evening I thought to myself, ‘why do teachers typically work within the confines of their classroom walls?’ In business, people network but does this really happen in the world of education? Years later, I can tell you it can, and it does if you know where to look. My aha moment saw me set about building my own professional learning network (PLN) and I would like to share some of my experience.

But first… Why?

As Carrie Archer referred to in her post earlier this month “Choosing a tool: It all starts with Why?” The work of Simon Sinek encourages us to “Start with Why”. When planning to grow your PLN, a great place to start is to figure out “Why” or more importantly your why?

Let’s take a moment to think about your why?

It took me awhile to get to the bottom of my why… I’m sure it will change over time. For now, I have named it CECIL so that I keep it at the forefront of what I do or at the very least what I am aspiring to do. CECIL keeps me focused on living my why which is to Care, Educate, Coach, Inspire and Lead.

Bitmoji graphic showing my 'why'.. Care, Educate, Coach, Inspire, Lead.

If you are unsure where to start on refining your why consider having a chat with some teacher friends. You could start with “Why are we teachers?” and then move onto ask them their thoughts on you… “Why do you think I am a teacher?” for more on this take a couple of minutes to watch Simon Sinek’s video ‘A Quick Way to Find YOUR Why’.

Why grow your PLN?

In terms of learning, John Hattie talks about the evidence of impact, understanding our practices as teachers, how we engage with students and how we create learning environments which encourage student autonomy and independence. Before we can authentically provide these conditions for our students, I believe we must first experience similar learning experiences for ourselves and take control of our professional engagement. “The best teachers are those who passionately pursue their own learning and, in turn, share that learning with students.” (Novak & Tucker, 2021).

Bitmoji Graphic with previous quote from Novak and Tucker, 2021

Like many teachers I have spoken with over the years, stepping into the classroom is often like getting up on stage, a ‘performance of sorts. It is a well-known fact that like actors and athletes how well we perform is affected by our confidence. Belief in self is relevant at an individual level and if Manchester United’s current performance is anything to go by perhaps even more relevant for the collective impact and ultimate success of a team. The belief of the team, in the team, is not a new idea. The work of psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s, in the area of self-efficacy, identified that the belief of all of the individual people in a team in their potential as a collective, the team, ultimately results in their success. This work was extended in 2011, by Rachel Eells, when she introduced the concept of collective teacher efficacy later identified by Hattie as the number one visible influencing factor on student achievement.

To explore the concept of collective teacher efficacy, all three words carry equal weight. Collective refers to the potential of the group over the power of one individual. Teacher refers to a professional educator currently in the role of classroom teacher. Finally, efficacy, a word we have become too familiar with throughout the pandemic relates to our ability to produce desired results and also in this instance our confidence to deliver.

Here goes… looking back to building my PLN

That’s enough of the high level jargon, let me share some of my experience in growing my PLN. First off, I was terrified to put myself out there. Looking back on it now, I don’t really know why, the fear was based on assumption and lack of confidence. I did not know anyone who had a presence in the online space – they were the real ‘professionals’. For me as an onlooker, the social realms appeared to be experts in the field, renowned authors and international speakers. Who am I? I’m just a teacher.

It was my aha moment that gave me the push I needed to get to work on making connections and building my PLN. Technology is an area that I am comfortable with, so I decided to start there. I set my sights on working towards becoming a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE) and I am so glad that I did. My only regret is not taking the leap sooner. Joining the MIEE community, both here in Ireland (CapesAndCelts) and worldwide, was one of the best decisions and experiences of my professional career. My MIEE PLN provided exciting professional opportunities, selection to represent Team Ireland MIEEs at the Microsoft E2 Educator Exchange in Sydney, Australia with fellow MIEE educator Patrick O’Callaghan, who inspires me weekly with his approaches to “Learning without Limits” (Covid ruined our plans we are still waiting on this one!). Also, it was fantastic to have the opportunity to present at the Microsoft European Showcase Schools Summit on one of my favourite tools for student choice and voice, Flipgrid!

For me, the most valuable part of the MIEE community is the connection, the relationships and the support. Like-minded educators come together to share resources and ideas to improve and innovate to enhance practice and experience for students – this is where the magic happens! If this is an area that interests you, start with the MIE programme and work towards joining the MIEE family too. Applications are currently open for the MIEE programme. Whether you work in a Microsoft, Google or Apple school there are similar professional programmes for you to explore and get involved in.

Another area of education that I am deeply passionate about is the potential for designing-in the Sustainable Development Goals to our lessons. To provide students with opportunities to explore and learn about issues that they can connect with, share their voice and also show how they can work collectively towards a better world for all. This saw me join a group of inspirational ladies around the world when we founded #SDGWomen. Keep an eye on the hashtag on Twitter if you would like to know more!

Back to what you can do to build your PLN… Let’s look at the ‘How? What? When? Where?’

As teachers, we have influence on the people we educate, and on our colleagues, and that makes us leaders in our field, the world of education. We have opportunities to learn and evolve from daily interactions with our students in the classroom. As we build our PLN this opportunity grows to include the people that we choose to form our professional circle together with how we choose to interact with them.

I couldn’t post this piece without pointing you in the direction of a guide to How? What? When and Where? to grow your PLN, check out my Wakelet Collection, A Teacher’s Toolkit: Grow your PLN on Twitter packed with ideas and pointers to get you started.

If you are a leader reading this, a Principal or Coordinator, the greatest gift you can give a teacher is the time, space, and professional trust to engage in multiple modes of professional development. We need to work towards acknowledging conversations which focus on teaching, learning and assessment practice; strategies and methods together with tangible impact as one of the most powerful forms of professional learning available to our profession.

I didn’t need the pandemic to show me that teachers are real life superheroes. I hope that you too, start to break down the walls of your classroom and connect with other superhero teachers. Go forward, refine your why and build your dream team (PLN). In the words of John Hattie, “together teachers can achieve more, especially if they collectively believe that they can do so!”

Bitmoji Graphic with previous quote from Novak and Tucker, 2021

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