Find Mentors and Create Your Own PLN To Stay Fresh and Excited About Your Practice
A veteran teacher reflects on relationships that nurture us, encourage professional growth, and lifelong learning
I’ve been a teacher for over 15 years in both public and private high schools, while my daughter is in her first year as lead teacher in a fourth grade classroom. What’s interesting is that, despite our differences in experience, we have the same needs and complaints about professional development. Recently she told me, ‘When you are in a PD session in which you are being told how you should do things, like analyze data or lead a lesson, it isn’t very helpful. When we can all talk about an issue we have or a need our students have and how best to meet it, that’s what’s useful.’ Although I went through graduate school years ago, the way we teach teachers hasn’t changed much. How can we expect teachers to be innovative, if education classes and professional development are boring and ineffective? Through conversations with my daughter, I’ve shared some of the strategies I’ve learned over the years that have helped me stay engaged and current. Creating a culture of growth and trust, fostering relationships where we share best practices and support one another, these are, in my experience, the methods that work best for both life-long educators as well as those new to the classroom.
Throughout our teaching careers, we crave contacts and exchanges that nurture us and encourage professional growth and learning.
Creating your own personal learning network, or PLN, full of people who inspire is vital to staying engaged and uplifted in the day to day work in our classrooms. In my first year of teaching, I had such a relationship. I had taught my first year out of college before pursuing another career and went back to the classroom in my forties. I had little experience. My department chair became my mentor, which is unusual since someone who evaluates you isn’t often a likely candidate. Debbie was a remarkably caring person and genuinely wanted to help me become a better teacher. Because I trusted her and knew that she was trying to help, I was able to bounce ideas off her and ask for advice. Debbie modeled what a good mentor/mentee relationship should be: a place where you are comfortable enough to be vulnerable. I still hear her voice today as I work through crafting a lesson. She taught me about the importance of having someone in your life to help you work through ideas, improve your practice and reflect on lessons learned.
As educators, we know that students learn best when they feel safe and supported. Professional development is no different.
The current climate of distrust in education is counterproductive and thwarts teacher development and self improvement. Creating a culture where teachers feel they can ask for advice and help is imperative. Giving them choice in what they need and how they receive it is important. A former colleague and head of a middle school asked her faculty at the opening meeting to identify PD needs and design ways to deliver it. Then she made sure that she followed through during the year. Allowing teachers to identify their own shortcomings and then deciding what would help, empowers teachers and makes them feel heard.
Throughout my career I have consciously collected mentors and like-minded people, as I know I crave those relationships to stay enthusiastic and current in my practice. In essence, I have created my own personal learning network.
Personal connections matter and can make the difference between someone becoming a life-long learner or leaving the profession because they feel unsupported.
Here are some of the ideas I’ve shared with my daughter as she embarks on her career and looks for her own guides. First, a mentor has to be someone who shares your basic philosophy of teaching and learning, although connecting across disciplines or grades can give you an interesting perspective. Second, they have to be someone you trust and feel safe with when baring your soul: your weaknesses, questions, and confusion. They should be someone you can vent to when things aren’t going your way. Everyone who teaches knows that there are bad days in the classroom and having someone you can share with is imperative to getting through the tough times. Recently, a friend who is a veteran teacher stopped by to vent about one of her students and his apathy. I let her talk and then gently reminded her that she had a room filled with inspired and engaged students and that no one could always reach every student in the room. Beyond complaining, you need to surround yourself with people who support, push and validate you.
Connecting with others who share your passion is empowering.
When I went to my first “Maker” conference I discovered that others shared my philosophy and belief in the power of Making and it was energizing. The Teachers Guild is another way that I connect with like-minded educators, both online and in person through meetups. At my own school, I have many colleagues with whom I can write curriculum that is exciting and cutting edge. We enjoy playing with ideas until we have an innovative approach. When I am feeling overwhelmed or muddled, I turn to one of these resources to talk through an idea or finish crafting a lesson. And when exploring a new technology or an area of practice that is unfamiliar, I reach out to one of these mentors for support.
We all want to remain fresh and excited about our practice and personal learning networks and mentors can help. If we are going to change professional development, we need to share best practices and get the word out.
I’d love to hear how you find support and how you reflect on your own practice. Please share your stories here!