Your PLN gives you more people to disappoint

August 2nd, 2011 | Filed under: teaching

It’s a strange thing being a part of a digital network of teachers from all over the world, especially when you’re still a new teacher, feeling your way through this complex profession (when do you stop feeling new?). Even weirder when you’ve moved to a new country and are helping to open a school from the ground up. A terrifying, exciting, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Did I mention terrifying?

As the time ticks down to the end of August when I will meet my students for the first time – students that will likely be from all over the world, with experiences my younger self could only dream of having, with passport stamps to lands I’ve only seen in movies – sweat is beginning to bead upon my brow. My breathing has increased in pace and seems unlikely to slow until I get into a groove this fall and find some confidence and systems and routines. Sleep is unfulfilling and interrupted with bursts of 3:30 a.m. panic or inspiration or both.

See, I haven’t taught for the last year. I moved to The Netherlands in the summer of 2010 and spent months securing residency and trying to settle into my new home. I have had my head in the education world thanks to some other work and planning this new school, but as for teaching, I’ve not been in a room with students since June 2010. And really, I hadn’t spent too much time working with students before that. Still a “new” teacher, remember?

I am a new teacher. In a new school. In a new country. Doing so many new things, I feel like I’m learning with every turn. Nothing feels like something I’ve done before. This is a powerful and exhausting experience and I constantly find myself asking “is this right?” I try to see my newness as a positive and not as a disadvantage, but there are those days where you can’t help but feel like you will never measure up to the pros.

Thankfully I have that digital network of teachers behind me. It can feel, at times, like a sounding board in the form of a well-worn safety blanket – something to run to when you just don’t know where else to go. This metaphor could be perceived any number of ways – is it a way to feel “connected” in a profession prone to loneliness? Or a false sense of security in a job where, in the end, you really do it on your own every day?

But a strange thing has happened. As I feel the pressure of not disappointing my colleagues, parents, my new students, myself…I feel an even bigger pressure not to disappoint this network. See, when you surround yourself with people you consider experts – people you admire and learn from every day, sharing wowing ideas and experiences in education – you also have an even bigger cadre of people you can disappoint. This pushes me to try harder and do my best, but I know there will be mistakes. There will be days when I think “man, should I even BE a teacher?” I’m wondering if I’ll be confident enough to share those moments with these same teachers, or if I will bury them away in my notebook and keep the shame to myself. I find myself wondering if the “mistakes” shared by the educators I connect with online are akin to the “weaknesses” job applicants share in interviews – perceived downsides that really just beef up your strengths in the end. Do we really share the teaching skeletons in our closets? The moments we were so happy no one was observing that day? The strategies we used and think back on with the sort of stomach turning that only an embarrassing, high school moment can induce? And if we don’t share them, acknowledge them, and think about them, do we really learn from them?

I will be teaching Language A & B English and Technology in all years of the MYP* in addition to some other hats this year as our new school opens later this month. A new school necessitates many hats being worn by only a few teachers. I bounce between moments of feeling brave and proud of myself for tackling such a project, but as the days tick closer those wins are punctuated with “are you crazy? What makes you think you can do this? Leave this stuff up to the pros – you’re not there yet.'” My consolation is knowing that my colleagues are in this with me. We are heading into unfamiliar seas and it is scary, but we are together.

I know the path toward becoming a great teacher means walking that path as a teacher. I know at some point you have to leave behind consuming and reading and learning from your network – the theory – to do the thing you believe you were meant to do – teach. After a year of floating around, I may not feel completely ready to do that, but I am hoping when I do I can turn back to that same group of teachers and say “you were right. It wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was amazing. And damn, it feels good to be here again.”

*This equates to 6th through 10th grade in the U.S. As a small school, we will have some grouping of grades, which is yet another new and exciting experience for me.

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January and my month of free learning

January 18th, 2011 | Filed under: professional development

January seems to be the month for virtual and online professional development in the education world. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new year and everyone is hopeful and in need of new ideas to see it through, but I’ve been swamped with plenty of free opportunities (I ain’t complainin’.). I’ve signed up for two asynchronous workshops through EVO (Electronic Village Online) on digital storytelling and podcasting for ELL students. The workshops last for five weeks each and I’ll emerge on the other side with lots of new ideas for how to enhance learning for my future ELL students. If (ahem, when) I end up working at an international or bilingual school these skills will be crucial. While in America my work with ELL students was limited, in a foreign country it becomes the rule. I need more teaching strategies in my quiver and I jumped at this free bit of PD. I love conferences just as much as the next person, but when I’m far away on another continent with mere pennies in my bank account, I thank my lucky stars for the generosity of others online.

While those workshops are going on I also participated in the English Companion Ning winter webstitute “Work With Me,” which focused on collaboration. I’ve also registered to virtually attend EduCon 2.3 later this month, but for the moment I’d like to reflect on my experience with the ECN Webstitute. Photo by Mark Brannan.

I’ve been a member of the English Companion Ning since it’s inception. I was quite active in the beginning and relied on the encouragement and help of the educators there greatly during my student teaching. When I got my first teaching job I was swamped and struggling to stay afloat and I disappeared for a while. I’ve been slowly getting back in, reading posts, and thinking about how to help the teachers that meet there with ideas or just a pat on the back. I knew that the people I worked with in those spaces would welcome me back no matter how long it had been since I dropped off the grid. Such was the case last weekend when I dove into the Websitute.

The first session was with Penny Kittle. I’ve just started reading her book Write Beside Them, so I was stoked about this one. She shared a video of her students collaborating on a project focused on analyzing the craft of the author. Quite a few students who read The Hunger Games were working together and since I’ve read this book I can understand the excitement of the teens that came across in the video. But more important than the enthusiasm was the authentic analysis and discussion of the book bubbling forth at the table. A later interview with one of those students seemed like perfect justification of the hands-off, fellow learner/facilitator role I like to take in my classrooms and which I describe in my philosophy. The student, Amelia, said she was thankful Penny didn’t give her the answers – that she and her classmates were able to uncover meaning on their own, allowing them to delve deeper into those ideas and come to their own conclusions. She went on to say how difficult writing a paper about a book, or about anything, was if the ideas weren’t her own. (Yes!) The discussion that ensued in the forum included materials and pages from Penny’s writer’s notebook, questions about practical things like assessment and class time, and the general idea sharing I’ve come to love from the EC Ning.

The next session was about collaboration with colleagues and again the organizers posted a helpful video of one of their sessions, which didn’t focus on failures of students or behavior issues – the general bitching that can occur in meetings like this. Instead these educators were talking about what worked and the things they were stuck on – they were trying to figure out how to bridge gaps in their lessons and help students make deeper connections. They talked about what worked, what didn’t, and what they were going to try next. They trusted each other and felt safe tossing out any and every idea all with the goal of helping their students. I stuck around for a bit of the forum discussion, but around that time my coffee ran out and I had to go to bed. It’s an unfortunate side effect of living in a different time zone and trying to participate in U.S.-based PD. Next time I’ll take a midday nap.

Both Penny’s session and the collaboration group reminded me how important it is to document great things happening in your classroom and with colleagues. Sharing is crucial to the success of learning networks and professional spaces like the EC Ning. Lots of great things go on in classrooms and school buildings around the world, despite what talking heads and pundits say to fill 24-hour news cycles, so documenting it goes a long way to showing the greatness of teachers and helping others become great.

I was disappointed I couldn’t make the live Elluminate sessions later in the Webstitute, but I learned a great deal from the discussions I had on the EC Ning and simultaneously on Twitter. If I had a recommendation for the next webstitute it might be to hold the forum discussions asynchronously across a few days or a week. There was a mad dash to post and participate and respond (all great things!), but one could only keep up with constant browser refreshing. If the organizers wanted a live chat maybe a private chat room would have worked, but then we would lose the ability to upload and share documents in the context of the discussion (a great feature of Ning forums). Not sure what the answer will be, but my international time zone self would love a more aysnchronous workshop. Live events like Elluminate talks can never be asynchronous (though archives are available), but the forum discussions can be. The EC Ning has done this to great effect with its virtual bookclubs.

Over the course of the Webstitute I also joined the EngDo collaborative – a wikispace of document and resource sharing for educators. I’m still trying to piece together how this space will be different from the EC Ning, but my hope is it’s a more organized place for resources and collaborative documents while the EC Ning is mostly a forum where people post resources sometimes.

Lots to do and think about after just one weekend of real-time professional development. I’m off to work on assignments for my digital storytelling and podcasting workshops. I’m thankful to have such a great network of teachers on Twitter. I would have never heard about EVO if Larry Ferlazzo hadn’t posted about it one day.

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