Growing a PLN is More Than a Numbers Game

Growing your PLN is one of the most powerful things you can do for your own professional learning. Period. But, I find that people don’t always know what it truly means to “grow it” and how to maintain it. It is more than a numbers game. It is more than connecting with the people who can “do the most/best” or who are perceived as knowing more or better. When done right, there is no doubt that it’s a lot of work, but it’s also, for me, one of the most rewarding parts of being an educator.

Growing your PLN is more than how many people follow you
There is no doubt that in order to grow your PLN you need to connect with lots of people but is not the numbers that you have as much as it is that the more people you connect with the better chance you have of finding the people you have a connection with. There is a difference. So while you should go out and follow who you can that would seem like you may have similar interests, do it with the idea that you are not trying to increase followers/following as it is that you are looking for the right people.

A connection doesn’t maintain itself
Once that you have found people that you connect with, it takes an effort to maintain those connections. It means that sometimes you have conversations that are silly or seem unsubstantial in order to maintain a relationship. A PLN is all about relationships and putting forth the effort to keep them strong. It may mean sharing your story or showing your vulnerable side, but it definitely means that it is not something that will naturally happen on its own without focus.

Build it before you need it
In regards to PLNs, one scenario I see happen often is that people have a lot of followers or follow a lot of people but fail to maintain any kind of connection with people. Then, when they need help or support, they cannot figure out why their PLN doesn’t seem to notice and therefore lose faith in the process of building it. Missing the step of maintaining the PLN and building deep seeded relationships will result in people being unfamiliar with you and your needs and therefore not as supportive as they could be in a time of need. This isn’t an issue with PLNs, it’s missing part of the process. If you’ve spent time building before you need it, you’ll have no issue finding support when it’s time.

Give as much as you get
To maintain your relationship with your PLN, you need to be willing to give as much as you get. This can be looked at both from an individual standpoint and a group standpoint. It is as important to share your ideas and the amazing things you do with the people in your PLN. Even if you think that your ideas aren’t as good as someone else’s, there will always be someone that will hear your thoughts and resonate with what you say. If you find yourself always just drinking in what your PLN says, it’s time to buck up and give back. From the standpoint of the individual, support must go both ways. You must give as much support as you seek, and support doesn’t necessarily mean only sharing someone else’s posts. Sometimes it means listening to Voxes or doing a hangout solely for the purpose of emotional support.

Sounds like work? It is. But if we seriously value relationships in education, we value ALL relationships. I have learned more from my PLN than I have learned in any class, any Tweet, any session at a conference. I am only as smart as the people I surround myself and only as talented as I am open to their strengths. The amount of effort that I put into these relationships is a direct correlation to what I get back from them and the effort is so worth it.

The Search for Harmony (Balance) Between Work and Life

We are beginning to recognize the value of balance in education. Finally, people are starting to understand that handing yourself over fully to the education profession doesn’t end well for anyone. There is no gold star for being a martyr. Throwing yourself in whole hog without balance only leads to burnt out educators who are too tired to do what’s best for students because they never took the time to do what was best for themselves. Now, this can be different in practice than it is in theory. While we understand in theory the need for balance, practicing it ourselves and allowing others to practice it can be another story.

As I have begun to try to find the best way for me to find this (what seems to be elusive) balance, I have discovered a few challenges along the way. Once I finally realized that I couldn’t just wish balance for others but actually needed to model and find it myself, I needed to figure out exactly how I was going to do that. People would ask me my “professional opinion” on what they could do to find it because I often preach it more than I practice…and I never really have any idea because I haven’t tried to find it myself. Another issue I discovered was that in order for me to find my balance, I needed to either quit doing some of the projects I had been doing or I necessitated others help on finishing things I would normally do myself. Which, in turn, caused upheaval in their balance. This became obvious to me when it happened to me on the flip side. People would say no that they couldn’t help with something because they couldn’t take more on. It would cause me to frantically search for someone else to help and fill that spot, so I knew when I told other people the same thing they would be in the same predicament. Yet, if I was trying to find a balance I needed to be okay with saying no AND with others saying no as they tried to find theirs.

Early in this journey, I’ve already learned a few things about attempting to create a more harmonious existence between what I love to do in my work and what I love to do in my personal life. Honestly, the latter has been a learning curve. I have been so obsessed with education for so long that I honestly don’t remember what I like to do when I’m not working. And not knowing or not remembering what should be a fundamental part of yourself is difficult and scary.

My realizations in balancing myself:

Be as nice to yourself as you are to other people
(and if you’re not nice to other people, work on that, too)
We need to be nicer to ourselves and give each other grace in everything we do: how we work, what we ask of ourselves, even our internal dialogue. I have a bad habit of taking on more because I want other people around me to do less when the reality is that when I take on more then they take on more of other things and we both end up unbalanced. One of my core beliefs is not to ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. Well, this works for balance as well. If you wouldn’t ask anyone else to take on extra duties that unbalance them, why would you?

Also, taking moments to celebrate goals that are accomplished is important. Take time, no matter how much you have going on, to be happy about things that have gone well. Part of balance is about balancing emotions and feelings. It’s awesome to have the drive but if we never celebrate the accomplishments from our hard work we will never balance the blood, sweat, and tears with the feeling of elation when it all pays off. You would (should) take the time to celebrate your students and other educators. Why wouldn’t you do that for yourself?

Realize that balance is an average
I actually think that the word balance is a misnomer. If we are looking for our work and personal life to be perfectly balanced at 50/50 all the time we will continually feel like we are failing because it simply doesn’t work that way. I consider the word harmony to be a better description of what should be happening. Sometimes work will require more of our energy and our personal life will need to take more of a backseat. Other times our personal life will be our focus and work will need to wait. What we need is for these times to average out. Our challenge is recognizing when it’s okay for the switch between work and personal to happen. For some of us, we feel guilty when we move from focusing on work and so we stay there because not working feels uncomfortable.

Quit equating self-care with being lazy or selfish
I think this is a shift that’s beginning to happen. It’s difficult, especially for educators who by nature put everyone else first, to both prioritize themselves and understand when someone else is prioritizing themselves because it feels selfish. In reality, when we take care of ourselves and have harmony between work and our personal life, it gives us the energy and stamina to be the best we can be for the people we serve in both worlds. We may need to take on five projects that we do really well instead of ten projects that we do half-way. This isn’t being lazy or selfish, it’s working smarter to do the best job we can.

Balance isn’t just time, it’s about how you spend it
I used to think I was better at balance than I actually was because I would come home from work at a decent time and I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I would be home. Working. I would leave work and I would go home to work. I still stink at this and it is my biggest battle. It’s nothing for me to work before I go to work, go to work, come home, work through dinner until I go to bed five days a week and then work all weekend. I would reason that I love what I do so when I was working at home it wasn’t like work. “Work IS my hobby,” I would say. But, I’m wrong. It’s still working.

My new tactic is to choose two days out of the week and one day on the weekend to not work. It is a challenge every minute that I’m not. I practically shake. I imagine all the things I could be doing. Tell myself that watching TV is ridiculous when I could be finishing something important. In order to do this, I had to realize that some things would not get done and I need to be okay with that. I almost feel like it’s a natural selection-like way of prioritizing. What I get done is clearly a priority. What I don’t needs to fall off my plate. Work will always be there. There will never be a shortage and I will never finish everything.

In this journey, I know I am going to have to start saying no to other’s projects, which is going to be difficult. I also know that in finding my own balance, I have a responsibility to others to help them find theirs by being aware of what I’m asking others to do.

My realizations in being respectful of other’s balance

Allow others to set their own priorities
Especially in education when we are working so hard to make a difference, anyone who is truly engaged gets excited at the prospect of a new project and the people they have the potential to connect. And rightfully so. The movers and shakers know that they need their PLNs both within their schools and on social media to make most ideas come alive. My challenge is to allow people to set their own priorities. If anyone thinks like me and they are allowing things to fall off their plate and my project needs to be one of those things, I need to keep in mind that my project is my priority but doesn’t mean it’s everyone else’s. It doesn’t mean that my project is of less value because someone doesn’t make it one of their priorities, it simply means I need to find other people to be involved.

Be okay with people saying no
This one is a difficult one especially when we’re so excited about something but just as important. I’ve seen on social media where someone has asked for help and there have been two subsequent tweets: the first saying that they think it’s an awesome project but in the spirit of balance they are not going to take it on and second someone responding with that they think it’s such an awesome, worthwhile idea so they will make time. The important realization I had to come to was just because someone decided not to take an idea on, again, doesn’t make the idea less worthwhile. It also doesn’t mean that the people who are passing on what we think is an opportunity are not working as hard as everyone else. This is one of the areas where we need to recognize and sometimes challenge our own assumptions and accept that I need to be okay with people saying no and even support them in that decision. I have as much responsibility in creating an environment where people have the right to say no to me for their own well-being without consequence as I have in recognizing the need for my own self-care.

The most difficult part of trying to find balance, for me, is the fact that it would seem like taking care of myself and making myself a priority directly contradicts my need to take care of others first. On the contrary, taking care of ourselves allows us to have our best selves ready for the people in both our personal and professional lives. Being able to give 100% to everyone because we have taken care of ourselves is the best thing we can do for the people around us that we care for and serve.

Student Managed School Social Media Accounts

Recently, one of my favorite teachers in the high school approached me about students starting student managed social media accounts for the Art Club. My teacher side was ready to go, but my Director of Innovation and Technology side had red flags and alarm bells going off…not because I didn’t want the students to do it but because we often have situations where teachers are asking to do things that are actually against privacy and other technology regulations. I wanted to make sure that the students were set up for success which meant I needed to do a little bit of research first.

As a leader, I’m a big fan of creating a Culture of Yes, but I think sometimes people think that a Culture of Yes means that we can do whatever we want. That’s not the case, which to me, makes a phrase like Culture of Yes a little misleading. It’s really a culture of let’s see how we can make this work, although I understand that phrase isn’t quite as catchy. In technology, in particular, there are rules and regulations that sometimes stop us from being able to do the things that we want to do whether those are district regulations or state/national laws. It’s my job to know those and see how we can still provide a top-notch level of service while working within those constraints. It’s also my job to help others understand an overview of these things so they get why exactly what they want to do may not be able to be done. 

I was so fortunate that the first time I was asked to do this type of thing was with this particular teacher because she may be the easiest person to work with ever. She wholeheartedly trusts what I have to say and knows that if I say it can’t be done there is a legitimate reason. I asked her to give me a few days to do some research and headed to the Twitterverse to see if I could find others who were doing this same thing. I received lots of “go for it!” messages which were awesome, but I needed to know how. Another tech director, George Sorrells, responded to me that warning bells would be going off for him as well, which validated that I had reason to try to frontload this project as much as possible. Again, this wasn’t about finding a way to say no, this was about finding a way to say yes and set students up for success. His idea to set the teacher up with an alias in Google was genius. That way the students wouldn’t have access to another Gmail account and the teacher could monitor all emails/messages/notifications from her own email instead of logging into something else. The students would use the alias account in conjunction with the teacher’s support to set up the accounts. 

The next order of business that I knew needed to happen was to have a meeting with the students along with getting a contract signed, which was another idea that I received from Twitter and Steven Anderson. I set up the students with a meeting. Ideally, the teacher/advisor would have been there as well, but finding a time where four people can meet throughout the day is nearly impossible. I met with her separately. 

During the meeting we discussed these additional points beyond going over the contract:

  • I gave the “with great power comes great responsibility speech.” It’s literally written in the contract as well.
  • Discussed how school districts were held to higher standards than other businesses because we work with children. Reiterated that they were representing the school district and anything that may typically seem ok on a personal account needed to be thought about extra hard.
  • Stressed the importance of staying away from sarcasm or anything that could be misinterpreted by anyone.
  • Most importantly: I told them we wanted them to do this. That it is an amazing opportunity to showcase the amazing things we know they do. That the guidelines that I was going through were to set them up for success. 

The students repeatedly thanked me for helping them and I really wanted to make sure they understood that we were in support of their positive and proper sharing 100%. I wanted them to simultaneously feel proud that they were chosen for this honor, but also know that we were proud of them for taking the leap and sharing their awesomeness. 

In some ways, this may have a follow-up post… something like, “What I’ve learned from allowing students to manage a district social media account.” As this hasn’t been done before in our district before, I am also putting myself knowingly on the line and taking a risk with something I have very little control over. However, we will learn together and move forward, and I am hopeful that this turns out to be an amazing experience for all of us. 

**You can find a copy of the contract here. Feel free to use as you wish. Please give credit when sharing out.

***Also on Twitter, Jennifer Casa-Todd, author of Social LEADia, recommended co-creating a contract with students. I think that is an amazing idea. Unfortunately, due to a time crunch, we weren’t able to do this together, but should definitely be the ultimate goal. I highly recommend if you do this that you get your district Technology Director involved in the process so they can not only be aware but they also will have some input as to certain pieces that need to be in the contract through their specific lens.

 

Am I as Perfect as that Other Educator on Social Media?

Most of us know, in our heads, how social media can skew day to day life. We talk about this in relation to how our kids need to understand that life isn’t always as perfect as social media might portray. Instagram has filters. Snapchat has a great camera. You can choose to only post about the amazing things happening in your life on Facebook. No matter what you read or see, it can seem like other people have it all together, are prettier/more handsome than us, more successful, happier…and then we look at our lives and ask ourselves what we are doing wrong or question why we are so unlucky even when we know in our heads that social media is like this.

It’s not much different in our professional lives. We read blogs where people say amazing things and have incredible ideas and we tell ourselves we will never be able to think big thoughts like that. Or we get on Pinterest and try to recreate a bulletin board and even if we can pull it off and it’s not an epic fail, we still wonder why we couldn’t have been the one to come up with the idea in the first place. It’s this Catch-22 of utilizing social media for sharing ideas which in turn can make people feel like they’re not living up to the perfection that other people are putting out there-forgetting that it’s not always truly perfection being lived.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in regards to my writing and how it often revolves around teacher engagement and how I want people to love their jobs. I talk about how if you are engaged you love what you do, and I wonder what kind of perfect system I’ve been describing. If I’ve given anyone the impression that loving your job and being engaged means that you’re always happy with everything you do. Of course, things always become a little clearer when you begin to realize that you might be wrong and there is a disconnect between what you say and what you experience or believe and subsequently, a need for deep reflection.

I had a really bad week this past week. It was one of those weeks where I worked my tail off but the only thing I accomplished was putting out a few fires from what seemed to be an inferno popping up. I accomplished nothing on my task list. And this is coming from someone who believes whole-heartedly in procedures and being proactive in order to avoid the fires in the first place. I was unhappy every day I came home from work because I still had my task list waiting for me but was too exhausted to even look at it. I had several what am I even doing this for moments. I saw other administrators posting videos out on social media and their blogs about how amazing their beginning of the year was and I was incredibly happy for them and disgusted with myself. I started to think…am I disengaged again? Burnt out? How did this happen?

But I don’t believe that loving your job and being engaged in your profession means you don’t have challenges. It doesn’t mean that there are parts you don’t like. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have bad days or weeks. It means that at the end of everything, do you still believe that this is what you were meant to do? Are the parts that you love the things that drive you forward? When you see a student, do you still think, “Oh yeah, they’re why I’m here.”

I want educators to continue to post on social media and I want them to continue to write on their blogs because that inspiration and those ideas are what I need. It’s my responsibility to remember that I’m not trying to live up to someone else’s ideas and standards, but instead trying to be the best version of myself I can with my experiences, my story, and my strengths. And I may have irritating weeks but that is also just being real. We can all still love our jobs without loving every moment we are there, and it doesn’t make us less of an educator to have a bad week as long as we wake up on Monday morning knowing that it’s a new week where something amazing could happen.

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Is it better to be kind or right?

I am on Twitter because my friends are there. The ones who push my thinking and who I want to see what they are doing professionally because they make me a better person. I wholeheartedly agree with Aaron Hogan‘s famous quote, “Twitter won’t change your life, but the educators you meet there will.”

There are times, though, when I feel like Twitter is like being back in the school playground at recess. Realistically, most of us have the desire to get along with everyone, but there will always be people we gravitate toward because of similar interests, opinions, etc, but there are other groups of people who have similar beliefs who stick together, and hypothetically, (especially) because we work in a human-focused profession, we should be able to disagree respectfully and remain kind. Lately, I feel like the difference between pushing someone’s thinking and arguing in an unprofessional fashion have been separated by a very fine line. And I, honestly, don’t think that challenging thinking and rudeness should have a fine line. I think it should be very, very thick, in fact.

When someone challenges my thinking, I feel like I’ve had an ah-ha moment. I have found some way that I know I can change my own practice for the better. It leaves me feeling invigorated and ready to move forward. They have probably acknowledged what I’m doing right and have pointed out an area where I could grow with HOW I could change. Maybe they have kindly suggested a resource or person who might help me. I have probably asked more questions for clarification. Overall, it’s a good experience on both sides. This kind of push is why I get on social media. I am a better professional now than I was prior to Twitter.

What I don’t understand is when the need is so high to be right that the basics of human kindness are completely forgotten. In any argument, there is always an element of truth on both sides, even if that truth is the perception of being right. And as I’ve said before, in many instances, it is not our job to tell someone they are wrong, but instead to shift their perception. We will never shift perception with words that make people’s walls go up. The second they feel angry, resentful, backed into a corner, or like others are being unkind, they stop listening. So, if just being kind isn’t a good enough reason to push someone’s thinking versus being rude, the logical, reasonable expectation that you will not accomplish changing someone’s mind with unkind words should be. Because if you’re not trying to shift their perception, what are you trying to accomplish?

The older I’ve gotten, the more I understand that being kind is more important than being right.  I’m not going to lie, sometimes, that means I need to check my temper, bite my tongue, and take a break from a conversation because I really, really like to be right. Sometimes, I forget and need to apologize and try harder because I’m human. But, being right should never be more important than a relationship. And if I find I’m not being heard, then I need to either accept that it might not be the right time to change that person’s perception or that I’m not doing a good enough job at being persuasive. After all, we are modeling these behaviors for kids, and we shouldn’t expect any better behavior out of them than we exhibit ourselves.

Kindness

Kids These Days

I truly believe that part of being an advocate for kids is believing that all of them, no matter what, possess redeeming qualities. I know that I see kids do absolutely amazing things with talent and grit and an awareness of other people that I don’t remember myself or my classmates having when I was their age. On the flip side, I know we have students who are so angry and struggling and do things that are unkind and frankly, sometimes violent. But, instead of asking why the students are so poorly behaved, I think the better question is what support did we miss as parents/educators/society and how can we bring out the goodness? My point being…no matter the child, if we don’t believe that there is a place inside of them that has the potential for greatness then that is more about our shortcomings than it is about them.

I often hear adults speaking about kids like they are some lost group of souls; that they make bad choices, they have terrible attitudes, they’re impolite and spend all their time doing inappropriate things on social media. While there are many lines of thinking where I am very open to listening to the other side of the coin, believing that kids these days are inherently bad is just not one of them. If that’s truly what I believed, I clearly don’t belong in education. What I believe people sometimes miss is that kids live in a world that adults created for them and are just trying to survive the reality we concocted.

For every time that I have seen a child not say thank you, I have held the door for an adult who has given me about the same attention as a doorstop.

For every child I have seen bully someone on social media, I have seen an adult get personal and nasty over political posts on Facebook or Twitter.

For every student I have seen lash out physically at another person, I have seen an adult grab their child too roughly in a grocery store or watched brutal shows on TV.

For every inappropriate song that I’ve heard a student listening to, I have been listening to my own 80’s playlist with Pour Some Sugar On Me and She Shook Me All Night Long.

Do students make poor choices? Absolutely. As do adults, and we are supposed to be the models. But deviant or socially unacceptable behavior does not equal worthlessness. What we believe for students could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I would so much rather believe that our students have greatness in them and take the chance that that’s the prophecy that comes true than believe that they are inherently awful and perpetuate that thought into the universe. Students learning differently, speaking differently, listening and communicating differently, does not mean that the way they do it is wrong. If I have to be the one person that believes in a student when it seems hopeless I will be that person because that’s why I got into education and that’s what teachers do. If you ask me about kids these days, I will tell you about all the kids I know that are already better people than I ever was at their age.

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My Core Beliefs: I’m Only as Good as the People I Surround Myself With

This is a post in the Core Beliefs Series. To read the introductory post, click here.

In other words, relationships are the most important investment I make.

When I was a first-year teacher, I took a one-year limited term contract job to teach cooking and Human Growth and Development to middle schoolers. I had no interest in teaching middle school. In fact, I believe that I had expressed this several times, but in an era where there were 800 applicants to every one teaching job, you didn’t turn an opportunity down. I’ll never forget walking into my office that first day. On the right of the office, on the high shelves, there were boxes of deodorant (a staple for every middle school classroom) and shaving cream. On the left, on the highest shelf, I could see laminated posters. With my elementary training, I conjured images of inspirational elephant posters or a “50 more interesting words than thing” chart. I reached up and brought them down only to discover they were posters of venereal diseases. Images I’ll never be able to erase from my brain. I slowly reached up and put them back on the shelf and wouldn’t go back in that office for a few weeks. Also, I was a terrible cook. I can’t imagine what those poor kids thought as I struggled to teach them even the basics of making an omelet. But, all of this teaching struggle taught me so many important lessons. I realized I loved middle schoolers, which taught me to never pre-judge opportunities. I also realized that many people can teach the content, after all, I had no idea what I was doing content-wise, but I knew I had to create relationships with the kids. How would I have spoken to middle schoolers about HG&D without creating a connection first? The relationships not only fulfilled that part of me that loved teaching kids, but also showed me that I could learn content if I wasn’t familiar with it but I couldn’t teach that content without the relationships.

I have also worked hard to grow my PLN, and when it comes down to it, I have really amazing friends. I know people who are very literally changing the face of education. They are caring, considerate, kind. They value students as I do and spend energy helping others as I believe in. I have been fortunate to meet these people, but it’s my desire to cultivate relationships that has kept me connected and continually learning from them. I do this by not only making time to listen when they are doing something incredible and want to share but also when they need support, even if it’s not advice they desire but just to vent. My PLN is literally world-wide. I have friends in Australia and England and Canada as well as all over the US. What I’m most proud of is when someone tells me they know they can count on me if they need me. That’s how I know I’ve done my job in that relationship, and it holds a very high value to me.

A few months ago, I read an article about Elon Musk and the Neuralink project he’s working on where he wants to have a chip planted into people’s brains. He wants to start with people who have a disability in order to assist them.  His goal is to have it available to the general public in eight to ten years.

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When I proposed this project to a group of teachers, I said to them, “Hypothetically, we could be discussing our current kindergarteners being high schoolers having chips in their brains that function like a computer. What will you do when you no longer teach facts?” The number one response was that teachers would be obsolete, but I disagree. If this would come to fruition, we would need a shift in education that focuses on real-world problem finding and solving, critical thinking skills, creativity, soft skills, innovative thinking and among other things, the ability to create positive relationships. Wait, but students have devices that function as a computer in their hands at all times now (cell phones)! While some people might be afraid of this shift, I celebrate it because our focus would become relationships. We would be able to spend more time getting to know our students and connecting with them, and THAT’S why I got into education in the first place. I wanted to teach kids first, content second.

And maybe I should be more specific, because we all create relationships with our students, but we want to focus on the positive ones. My second son had major speech issues and some small motor skills problems when he was younger. He had started early childhood two weeks after he turned three years old. When he was in an early grade, he liked his teacher. He came home one night and colored her a picture. Spent a lot of time coloring and drawing, which was really difficult for him. He got an envelope and decorated the envelope for her, stuffed the drawing in, and was so beyond excited to give it to her. When I picked him up from school the next day, I waited for him to tell me about the picture and he didn’t. So I asked. He told me that she instructed him to put the envelope on her desk. He didn’t see if she opened it or what she did with it, and she never said anything to him about it. He was heartbroken. In all the rest of his years in school, he never made a teacher another picture or wrote a teacher a note. Now I understand that the teacher was probably insanely busy and doing 100 things at once, but every move we make affects the kids around us and the relationships that we create. Kids won’t learn from people they don’t like. Positive, connected, deeply seeded relationships should be our focus, and every single small moment counts.

Relationships should be the fundamental reason that we are in education. I truly believe that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with. Our PLN, our colleagues, and especially our students should make us better people. They should give us strength when it’s wavering and a high-five when something goes exceptionally well, just as we would do for them.

I have built my PLN through social media and have taken time to meet them or connect with them either at conferences or via apps like Voxer. It takes time, no doubt, to maintain these relationships, but anything worthwhile will take time. My friend, George Couros, always says that we make time for the things that are important to us. I have found that spending the time on relationships is the best investment I’ve made.

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The Rules of Teacher Engagement

So many times we talk about teacher engagement in the form of how engrossed they are in their professional learning. However, as I’ve started speaking and working with educators on a larger scale, I’ve come to realize that engagement has more to do with the depth of the relationship that an educator still feels they have with their profession than it does their professional learning.

The teaching profession is a passionate calling. We serve kids. We desire to create better people than we consider ourselves to be. We work tirelessly, lose sleep, and get excited over an extra package of copy paper found in a back cupboard. But, year after year, we are required to do more with less. Classroom budgets dwindle while expectations rise, declining quality of health insurances leave us with more bills for general care yet our salaries rarely go up, and new challenging behaviors and mental health issues surfacing in both teachers and kids wear educators down.

Even though I would say that I’m highly engaged in my profession now, I wasn’t immune to this issue. When I hit this point in my career, I began to say things like:

“If the district is not going to do __________ for me, they can’t expect me to do __________ for them.”
“(student’s name) is doing that to me on purpose just to irritate me”
“I’m not doing _________ because the district doesn’t pay me to do that.”

I was so incredibly tired of being told that I needed to know my kids the best but then told to follow whatever canned curriculum had been adopted because some random curriculum designer must’ve known my kids better than I did. I was hurt and I didn’t feel trusted with my professional decisions that I had partially made with a very personal heart. I had checked out, and I felt I was done.

At first, I thought I was just in a district that wasn’t providing me with what I needed to be the teacher I was destined to be, which might have been true, but only to a point. However, after a district and position change, I realized that the actual issue was something that I didn’t necessarily want to admit. The issue was inside me. It took me taking control of the way that I viewed my profession through deep and sometimes difficult reflection to get to where I am today. And I need to say…it’s amazing. There are so many positives that come from being truly engaged in your profession. I am less stressed. I am a better leader and educator. I appreciate students and the quirks that make them special. I am more open to diverse opinions and ideas. I know my value. I recognize the value in others. I know my place in the education world.

Most importantly, I am happy.

When I decided to take control of my engagement, I did a few things that anyone could do. The most important one I made, however, was the decision to just be better. I knew that in order for me to love education again, the changes had to start with me.

I practiced reflecting & developed my core beliefs
My reflective thinking shifted from what other people had done to me to what I could have done better. I stopped focusing on the fact that sometimes other people’s decisions affected the outcome of something I was doing, and started focusing on what I could have done differently in the situation. When I realized that I had more control over my world than I thought I did, I was able to drive myself forward in spite of what others were doing around me, and focus on the people that were willing to support me instead.

My practice in reflection continued when I started blogging but really didn’t develop until I realized that my blog was about my own reflection for me and not writing for someone else. It was about getting my own thoughts in order to create headspace and develop my core beliefs. I’ve written about my reflection and beliefs before in my post What Is the Point In Blogging?

I grew my PLN
I have wholeheartedly recognized that I am only as good as the people I surround myself with. I have worked hard to connect with people that are amazing at what they do. I have multiple mentors because everyone has different strengths and can help me be better in those areas. I have a wide range of people I’ve connected with to the point that at any given time with any question I have, I know multiple people I could reach out to that would help me, and I have complete faith in their abilities to do so. I have used Twitter mainly to grow my PLN, but I’ve also utilized Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, as well as connected with people in person at conferences. I’ve focused on growing my PLN worldwide because I want to be challenged by a wider range of ideas and opinions.

I focused on relationships
One strength I have is creating relationships, and if you’re growing your PLN, relationships still need to be at the forefront. It’s not enough to be connected with them virtually or superficially, the relationships created in these places need to be cultivated and nurtured. Like any relationship, that takes time and effort. I do the same with the people around me. I often hear, “I feel like I have a connection to you” from people, but it’s really just because I legitimately care and will do whatever I can for the people I care about. Minimal effort into relationships will result in minimal connection and minimal support from others. People can sense when they are not seen as important, especially if they’re only connected with when there’s a need for assistance.

I read books
I began setting a goal for reading for myself, just like I had for my students. I also had a long commute so I would find audio books to listen to. I looked for books that fit particular purposes and what I needed at that moment. Sometimes, it was a book that would push my thinking, sometimes it was one that would support my thinking, and sometimes it was something that would motivate or inspire me. Prior to re-engaging, I would focus on non-fiction books and “fun reading”, but I began to understand that there is a place for both, and if I want to continue growing, I need to connect with great thinkers and authors in the education field. When growing my PLN, some of these people have become some of my best friends.

When I realized that I no longer wanted to be miserable going to work every day, that I owed my students so much better than I was, and that I had control over how I viewed and engaged in my profession, I finally discovered the educator I was meant to be. It wasn’t going to be a degree or a district that gave that to me, I needed to go out and take control of what that looked and felt like. It was me that had to make that decision and take the initiative, and it’ll always be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for both myself and the little people I work with every day.

e-teaching

What Is the Point In Blogging?

Lately, I have been asked repeatedly by various people why I blog. I started blogging because one of my good friends, who I have a ton of respect for professionally, told me to. That’s it. It was never an epiphany that I had on my own. Over the course of a lunch, he told me that he felt he needed to blog just to get stuff out of his head. At that point, I actually thought to myself that he must be so much more intelligent than I because there was no way that I’d ever have so much in my head that I’d need to write. I had all the typical reservations about creating a message that would be put out for the world to see. A year and a half later, blogging is one of the areas where I am so thankful that I took the leap and stepped outside my comfort zone as it has really helped me define who I am as an educator.

Why?
Yesterday, I had a meeting with our district Innovation & Leadership Cohort. We worked with George Couros over the summer to set up blog/portfolios. They did their first post with George and I had tried to send out post ideas, but realistically, as the summer began to wind down and we had conferences, back-to-school inservice, and then the beginning of the year, I had a feeling that if something had to go, it was going to be that. I knew that because when I started blogging, it was the first to be put aside for the next day or week because I didn’t “need” it. And as we are now well into the meat of the school year, as I looked around at the exhausted faces in front of me at that meeting, I felt incredibly guilty asking them to do one more thing. I know that we often run our rockstar teachers ragged because we know that they will do what’s best for students, but I really felt like this was something that might help them instead of being just one more thing. I tried to give them some of the “whys” behind why they would spend their valuable time on blogging, and they are as follows:

I give back to my PLN
I feel like this is one of the most overlooked reasons to blog, but I often felt like I was taking from my PLN and not giving back. Even though this isn’t the reason I blog, it is a great side effect. People often miss that a PLN is a community of learners and in order to receive you need to give. While I never expect my PLN to read it, I do feel like even if one person a week reads a post along with my interactions on Twitter, I am at least contributing to my PLN community.

I have developed my core beliefs
By really working on my reflection skills, I was able to develop what I consider to be my core beliefs about education. I only realized that I was even doing this after I had written awhile and noticed some patterns in my own thinking. I can now rattle these beliefs off at any point, and I bounce every decision I make off of them. Developing these beliefs has also made me more engaged in my profession. I know what I stand for. It is incredibly powerful to understand what it is that makes you tick and holds you up when it comes to certain ideas and concepts in education, especially in the face of adversity. There are times when these beliefs are my lifeline and assure me that I am making the right decisions when they align to these philosophies. I am also more bound to my thinking when I write about it and put it out there for the world to see. Similar to writing down actionable goals, I feel like if I want to be who I say I am, I need to live the ideas that I write on my blog.

I am able to create space in my head
When I realized this was happening, it officially dawned on me what my mentor was talking about. I described it to the Cohort as being able to get something off my mind, but it’s definitely not only when I need to vent. If I am turning something over in my mind, trying to reason through it, blogging forces me to get it written down. I need to make it a coherent thought in order to share it out, and that takes a significant amount of working through the issue before I can do that. Once I have done this, I am able to stop thinking about it chaotically in my head, and therefore, create some space. This is something I developed over time as I practiced effective reflection and putting my thoughts into writing. Creating space has been what keeps me blogging.

Tips
Below are a few questions and tips that I’ve been asked about blogging that I thought might be helpful for someone just starting out.

What if I write about something everyone already knows and I look stupid?
Would you ever tell your students to be careful about what they say in collaborative groups so they don’t look dumb? I didn’t think so.

This question is easy to get over when you begin to realize that you should be blogging for yourself. Even this post, which might seem like I’m writing it as being informational for a reader, is really about me getting my thoughts together about blogging. The next time someone asks me, I will be able to cohesively explain all these reasons and tips. While writing to give back to my PLN is important, I really write for me. Because I do this, it doesn’t matter if someone knows what I know or not because I am on my own learning journey. If they didn’t know, awesome. If they did, hopefully, they can bring me along faster and help me out with what they know.

Also, awhile back a teacher shared this video with me and I have found it to be true over and over, especially when I go to other districts to teach something about technology. There are always people who know how to create an amazing Hyperdoc and someone who is still trying to figure out how to get to Google Drive. There will always be someone who knows more than me, and always someone who knows less in certain areas.

Where do you find the time?
When something is important, I will make the time. Sometimes, I use Voxer or the voice recording feature in Google Keep during my commute to record my thoughts and type it up later. I have also used speech-to-text while in Google Docs to speak my post, usually with some major word choice issues that need to be fixed, but I can essentially copy it into a blog post when I am able. I have written parts of posts in the grocery store checkout line and walking to my car from work. I do it wherever I can. I am now able to write fairly quickly, although it has taken me practice to get here.

What do you use for a site?
I use WordPress, but there are many other sites depending on what style you want. Blogger, Wix, Weebly, and Webs all have great blog features.

How do I get people to read it?
Tweet it out, put it on Facebook, post it on LinkedIn. If you think certain people will like it, mention them. If you think it applies to certain PLN groups you’re in, hashtag it. When you begin, you will not get 500 people a day reading your blog, but remember, that doesn’t matter because you are writing it for you, anyway.

What do I write about?
It depends on what you want to write about. My friend, Rachelle, writes posts that are about how she uses technology in her classroom. The posts rock. They are super practical. My blog is usually ideas and reflections that I’m working through. Sometimes, they are about leadership or experiences I had with my students that I’m now looking at through an administrative lens. We each wish we could incorporate the other’s style into our own. My posts stem from articles I read, conversations I have had or overheard, or interactions with people both positive and negative. I also keep lists of potential topics that I haven’t fully thought through, but are concepts where I would like to spend more time exploring my own thinking.

The amount of professional growth I’ve experienced by blogging has completely taken me by surprise, but now that I have made this discovery, I am fully committed to continuing my reflections. Experience has taught me that there is power in becoming a true reflective professional. I have discovered my core beliefs which defines who I am as an educator, and I’m able to create extra space in my head to organize my thoughts. It is one of the most valuable tools I have to continue my own professional growth.

believing in yourself

The Creation of a Genius Bar: How our student led tech teams have formed

Although our district has been 1:1 for about eight years, this is the first year we have implemented a student led helpdesk. I’m not going to lie, at first I was dreading it, not because I didn’t believe in the idea or think it would be fantastic for students, but because I didn’t even know where to start or how to manage it. There are logistics to the helpdesk when it’s been led by students that are difficult to anticipate. I didn’t know what they were going to do all day. I didn’t know how they would interact with our tech department. I didn’t even know how we were going to take attendance since their assigned teacher wasn’t in the same spot as the physical helpdesk. It has been a project that has taken me a year to put together with researching other helpdesks, and calling up my teacher instincts and going with them. I’m proud with what we have put together so far, but as with every major implementation, will need to continue to adjust throughout the year.

Where did you go to research?

As per usual, I used my professional learning network to really connect and see what other people were doing. I had gotten some amazing information from the Director of Technology for the Leyden School District, Bryan Weinert. Their TSI system is a nationally recognized student led tech support program with pathways that the students choose and follow to support the skills that they want to focus on. As part of the program, Leyden pays for the students to get the certifications. Thanks to Bryan, I was able to get invaluable information on how they started their program and continue to make it a successful way for students to be involved in the technology department for both students and the district.

I also loved this article by Jennifer Scheffer. I have borrowed many ideas of how they run their Genius Bar (as ours is called as well) and have implemented them. Basically, our Genius Bar is a combination of information from this article and the resources and information I received from Bryan.

How did you recruit kids?

Our Genius Bar is a class that is available every hour throughout the day. In our first semester, we have 16 kids who have taken the course. Realistically, some kids have taken it because they needed something to fill an hour in their schedule. Some have taken it because they wanted to try something different and had an interest in technology. Some are a part of the program because they had formed a relationship with our department and were excited to be a part of the Genius Bar. The most important thing we did was explain to teachers and the guidance counselors that the Genius Bar kids did NOT need to know a lot about technology. When I first told them this, they looked at me like I had lost my mind (a look that I feel I get a lot), but here’s my reasoning: if they have an interest but don’t think they know enough to be a part of the program, how are they ever going to learn if it’s something they really want to do or not? I made sure I erased “tech-savvy” out of our vocabulary. Might this change as the program becomes more popular? I have no idea, but I sure hope not. I want anyone to feel comfortable at any level coming to the Genius Bar, knowing they’re going to learn, not that they are only going to employ the skills they already have. This has hands-down been my best decision.

george

When talking to one of the girls that now works the Genius Bar, she told me she doesn’t really know anything about technology and that she is not tech-savvy. The next day she was so insanely excited when we told her to YouTube how to change a Chromebook screen and handed her a broken one, and she did it on her first try (with the support of one of our tech services ladies). To me, THAT is the function of the Genius Bar. We want to open kids up to the possibility that technology might be an area they want to look at, and when we tell them they need to be tech savvy, we automatically exclude the population of kids that have an interest but don’t consider themselves to know a lot about tech.

What do they do all day?

The Genius Bar assistants are the the first line of defense for technology that faculty and other students are having difficulty with whether it’s that it is actually broken or just isn’t working right. They troubleshoot and have forms to fill out to document issues so we can see patterns in the data. They must answer help request emails and tickets assigned to them. Beyond the technical aspects of the Genius Bar, they are also responsible for researching new tech learning tools and working with students and teachers to use them. Aside from their actual desk functions, they work on these things:

Canvas LMS Course: Our students have a course that they complete in Canvas that is a work in progress. They have access to the logistical parts of the course, video explanations with how to use the forms and what their expectations are. We use discussion boards to collaborate on projects as a team since the kids are scattered across seven class periods. There are also learning modules and assignments on concepts like customer service and creating a positive digital footprint.

Blog: We have a helpdesk manager, which is a student that is a paid internship. This year, it is a student named Brock (an absolutely amazing person) who spent some of his free time last year helping me brainstorm and develop the Genius Bar, and he is in charge of various projects, and has both designed and will maintain and schedule blog posts that focus on technology integration for both students and faculty. Genius Bar students will be expected to contribute to the blog on a regular basis.

20% Time Project: Students will be creating goals based on what area of technology they would like to know more about. There are multiple ways they could design this project, but if the project requires the knowledge base of a certification to support that goal, the technology department will support them by paying for the certification. Project goals are monitored by myself and the assigned teacher, and the students will meet with us on a regular basis to update us on their progress and let us know if they need support in any way. Their 20% time project will also be documented in a portfolio on EduBlogs that they will be able to take with them when they graduate.

Additional projects: The Genius Bar assistants are also in charge of additional projects that might come up as needed. For example, currently we found that third through fifth grade kiddos are not handling their Chromebooks with as much care as we would like. As our Kinder through second graders’ touchscreen Chromebooks are coming in soon, we are anticipating a similar issue. The Genius Bar kids have been asked to create videos for each level demonstrating the proper use of the devices. So far, they have been brainstorming if they would like to create cartoons or use the green screen, but they are in charge of producing the videos.

The students always have a multitude of things to be working on. They will need to manage their time wisely, stay focused and organized. They also will need to collaborate with each other and our tech services department, as well as students and teachers that they may not know or necessarily have. They are treated as they an extension of our department. We have placed immediate trust in every student that works behind the desk, no matter what. Another decision that I think is imperative to the success of the students, and ultimately the Genius Bar.

Moreover, as a director, I have been more removed from the classroom than any other position I’ve had in education. My focus has become the adults, and I do enjoy this because I know that I can affect student learning by supporting their amazing teachers. However, an unexpected side-effect from working with the kids from the Genius Bar has been remembering how incredible it is to work directly with students again. One day, I was sitting in my office, and I could hear them laughing while they worked. I literally stopped what I was doing and just listened. Working with the Genius Bar students has kept me focused on why I do what I do. I might be supporting their learning, and I hope that I have awakened or support a love for technology in the students like I have, but they are reminding me every day why I keep going when things get difficult, and why I love being in this profession so much. They do so much more for me on a daily basis than I could ever do for them.

 

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