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.
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 lessvalue 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.
I often get asked how I re-engaged back into loving education. And I do love it. Like everyone, I have difficult weeks. Loving what you do doesn’t mean it’s always easy. I sometimes just want to sleep in past 4:30am and some weeks make me question my ability to make a solid decision. I do, however, overall, love it. But while I can tell people how I re-engaged, I can’t tell anyone else what will be the thing that works for them. It’s personal. The book and person who re-engaged me might not do that for everyone. I also think that what works once might not work again. Let’s face it, teaching is hard. To re-engage yourself you need to find the thing that feeds your soul.
I heard this recently from my good friend Jen Casa-Todd and it really made me reflect: what is it that feeds my soul? I would think that would be an important question to have the answer to so you can get more of it. This has been a rough year and an even rougher week prior to the holidays. I have questioned everything from my sanity to my ability to be as supportive as I know I have the potential to be as a leader. I was somewhere between praying Friday would come and feeling guilty for wishing Friday was here because I usually speak out against any kind of countdowns that would make students believe that our happiest of times are spent outside of school.
And then, completely unexpectedly, today one of my former fourth-grade students from the 2011 school year reached out to me via my website to say hello and ask me how I was. She was a sweet, quiet girl with a huge heart and I was thrilled to hear from her.
And I can’t express how much I needed that right at that moment.
There are different types of things that can feed our souls. Maybe it’s spending time with our families or our PLN tribe. Maybe it’s reading a certain quote or book at the right time. It could be diving deeper into a passion or being successful when taking a risk. It can shift depending on what we need in that moment.
Part of what feeds my soul is remembering the students that I taught and how happy they made me. What drives me is knowing I support the people who are having a positive impact on students every day. You want to know how to re-engage? Find that.
I hope I was what that student needed when she needed it in fourth grade, because today, without even knowing, she returned the favor.
I was reading through this guide by the University of Texas at Austin on thinking and teaching divergently and I came across these reasons as to why divergent thinking is important:
● Opens possibilities of innovative ways to solve more complex problems, overcoming the tendency of many learners to only work within the confines of first impressions or latent assumptions. ● Fosters empathic understanding of difference and appreciation of varying perspectives. ● Builds on learners’ curiosity, encouraging experimentation, risk-taking, perseverance through failure, and self-expression. ● Develops creativity, which is often cited as one of the most in-demand skills by employers.
How to Teach: Divergent Thinking
I was considering how this connects to my definition of a divergent teacher in Divergent EDU and I believe that if all of these characteristics can develop from divergent thinking for students, the same could be said for divergent teachers (who then, of course, model the traits for students). I’ve found that defining how something will affect students will many times get buy-in, but ultimately people also want to know how some of those same ideas can drive them forward as well. The definition of divergent teachers that I developed from the psychological definition of divergence is “the ability to recognize our own assumptions, look for limitations and challenge our own thinking in regards to teaching and learning. It’s taking an idea and creating new thinking that will facilitate student learning in new, innovative directions for deeper understanding. It is diverging from the norm, challenging current ideas, looking for a variety of solutions, and being willing to fail and grow” (Divergent EDU, 2018). The practice of the definition and the outcomes for divergent thinking for students are very similar. If we had to reframe the question as, “What can divergent thinking do for teachers?” we might see:
Opens possibilities of innovative ways to solve more complex teaching challenges, overcoming the tendency of educators to only work within the perceived confines of district initiatives, first impressions, a fixed mindset or generalized assumptions.
Fosters empathic understanding of differences, varying opinions, and an openness and appreciation of varying perspectives, cultures, and backgrounds.
Builds on educators’ curiosity about both their content and the learning of their students, encouraging branching out in lessons, risk-taking, perseverance through failure, and a heightened awareness of how their own passions and interests drive their teaching and professional learning.
Develops creativity, which has sometimes been diminished by the implementation of canned curriculum and compliance measures.
But moreover, if these aren’t a reason to buy into how divergent teaching and thinking can support your teaching, recently I was moderating a panel on this exact topic (find it here). One of my dear friends and panelists, Rachelle Dene Poth, cited divergent teaching as one of the reasons she was reinvigorated in the classroom and engaged in her profession. In turn, her students were happier, learning, and more engaged in the classroom. This correlation makes sense. When teachers are more curious about their own content and how their students are learning, when they challenge their own assumptions and biases in favor of exploring, when they model taking calculated risks, failing, and adjusting their course, they become more excited about their own journeys and their students follow suit ultimately creating a more enriched learning experience for both the teacher and their students.
I’ve been watching my boys play football since they were eight years old. Actually, before that, if you include flag football. And in all their sports I have seen a multitude of different types of coaching strategies, involved parents, athlete attitudes, and how the trajectory of a game can change depending on all of these things. Our high school football team in particular, for many years, had built a culture where the kids didn’t care if they lost because they did it so often that it was a surprise if they won. Therefore, they never played to win, they played to not lose, and there is a difference in mentality when you play that way. A change in coaching has shifted that entire mentality (proving, once again, that a change in leadership can make all the difference.)
Yesterday, I was at my eldest son’s college football game and in the first half, they were playing really well when everything began to go awry. With two minutes left in the half, we were winning, but not by much. Our team began running the ball, and even when it was third and long and obvious that an alternate play needed to be called, they continued to run. They were trying to run out the clock and just make to halftime. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the first down they needed to continue and the other team took the field with 50 seconds left. They marched down and even our own fans could feel their energy. They played hard, calling plays to win, trying to score prior to halftime. Unfortunately for them, they got close enough for a missed field goal, but that drive had effectively changed the momentum of the game even with only 50 seconds to go. One team played to score by halftime. The other team was just trying to hold their lead at halftime.
One team playing to win. The other playing to not lose.
While this seems like semantics, the mindset that comes with each is very different. And it’s a fine line, really. Just the slightest movement can shift you one way or the other. Are you doing one thing, or are you just trying to not do the opposite? Are you trying to be happy, or are you just trying not to be miserable? Are you trying to be positive or are you just trying not to be negative? Are you engaged in your profession, or are you just trying not to disengage from it?
I think it’s natural that our attitudes may shift from day to day depending on things we have going on, but I also think that it’s important to be self-aware enough to check our mindsets and realize where we are most of the time. Also, are we teaching our kids to think this way? Recognize where their mindsets are and learn how to shift them?
And maybe sometimes the line isn’t exactly the opposite but is about being great or good enough. For example, are you trying to empower learners, or are you just trying to teach? Do you recognize that you may be the one person in a child’s life that is consistent and cares, or are you just concerned with teaching the content?
There are no doubt some days where I am just trying to get through the massive amount of meetings I have and put out the fires I never saw coming. There are some days I’m just trying to be and thinking about how I can be better seems like an insurmountable struggle. It’s human to have these kinds of days. But, it’s important to recognize the challenge and try for better the majority of the time. I’d rather lose while trying to win than try not to lose and lose anyway.
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.
I watched a video on Facebook yesterday about The Mengele Twins – a woman who was kept with her twin sister as a science experiment during the Holocaust. Her family was killed and she and her sister were tortured and injected with unknown substances that made them very sick. At the end of the interview, she spoke about how she met with two of the doctors that did this and forgave them for what they did. She said, “But what is my forgiveness? I like it. It is an act of self-healing, self-liberation, self-empowerment…I want everyone to remember that we can not change what happened. That is the tragic part. But we can change how we react to it.”
I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on the concept of forgiveness since revisiting and sharing my story inThe Fire Within, and it’s taken me a long time to even write this post. There are some commonalities between the stories within the book. In every story, there is resilience, determination, reflection, growth, and forgiveness. In every story, the choice that people made in how to react to their adversity involved forgiving the people who caused the hurt. One of my most important life lessons has been:
The story I share in the book that led me to this conclusion was very personal, but there are professional connotations. The Mengele Twins story from the video was heartbreaking and tragic beyond words. The stories in The Fire Within are adversities that can be difficult to read. But there are many times beyond major adversities that we need employ forgiveness. Many times I have needed to forgive someone in my professional life that may not have been ready or willing to say they were sorry. They may not have understood the damage they caused. They may not have had the tools to understand what they did. They may not, from their perspective, believe they were wrong.
I’ve been the victim of workplace bullying. I’ve been told that I’m not boots on the ground because I’m an administrator. I’ve been told that my ideas are too way out there to be real. I’ve been made to feel inferior and stupid and wrong. Sometimes, it’s been as simple as an idea I’ve been really excited about that was shot down. Sometimes, it’s been about sitting in a meeting and contributing to the conversation, only to have everything I say ignored. It doesn’t need to be a major adversity that makes me feel hurt. It can be all the small hurts along the way that add up.
And I know what people say. It’s easy to believe that people who do things wrong don’t deserve to be forgiven when you’re angry and hurt. But here’s the part of forgiveness that I figured out a long time ago: true forgiveness isn’t about those people. Forgiveness is allowing yourself to accept the things you cannot change and find the peace you need to let go of the anger. Forgiveness is actually about you and valuing your own happiness and peace over anger and sadness. It allows you to build your self-worth and confidence because there is more power in controlling your ability to forgive than allowing someone else to make you angry.
There are also a few things that I think forgiveness is not:
It does not mean you’re weak. To forgive someone who has hurt you actually takes a massive amount of strength to let go of the anger.
It does not excuse the people for their behavior.
It does not mean you forget what happened.
It does not mean you put yourself in the situation of allowing it to happen again.
It’s also important to allow forgiveness for yourself. We all make mistakes and we all have things we struggle with. So many times we feel guilty because we can’t balance, for example. A smart friend of mine told me lately that balance does not mean 50/50, yet I know that as I’m typing this post I’m feeling guilty for not speaking to my daughter sitting next to me, and when I put my work away and chat with her, I’m going to feel guilty about the work I didn’t get done during that time. But, forgiving my inability to effectively balance allows me to let go of the guilt that I constantly feel.
Developing the ability to recognize when forgiveness is necessary and what I need to reflect on to make it happen has made me a less angry person and letting go of that allows me to focus on the things that make me happy in my job and keep the negativity from dragging me down. I really do feel like adversities that hurt us are one of the reasons why teachers disengage from the profession. Forgiveness and letting go of the anger can be one of our best defenses and a way to keep us happy and engaged in our jobs and doing the best for the little people we serve.