Better Together: The Power of the Professional Learning Network

One of the biggest shifts I struggled with when transitioning from the classroom to the principalship was moving from the support of a team of teachers to the solitude of a building leader. As leaders, we are entrusted to so much confidential, stressful, and often heart-wrenching information. In my early years in the principal position, I struggled to process it all mentally and emotionally. I hit a wall in the summer of 2014, and I considered leaving the profession. The punitive shift that education had taken, coupled with the loneliness of leadership, had me in a very bad place. Luckily, a co-worker and good friend of mine convinced me to go to a summer leadership conference, and it was just what I needed.

I realized two important things at this conference. First, as leaders, we must take time to engage in specific learning opportunities that help improve our craft. Second, I was introduced to the incredible power of the professional learning network (PLN) to combat the isolation I was feeling in my current role. I actually choose to use the term personal learning network because that is what it is to me—completely personalized to meet my needs.

A PLN is one of the most powerful resources you can build for yourself. Social media has knocked down the barriers of time and distance. Today, you can connect with other professionals across the street or across the globe. Your PLN can consist of other school leaders and educators, as well as people who are not in education. It is also important to connect to people who have both similar and contrasting views to your own so that you will be pushed to consider multiple viewpoints and contrasting ideas. A PLN also gives you the opportunity to take part in personalized learning whenever and wherever you want. It connects you to amazing educators, provides access to resources, and can help you keep up with the latest trends in education and leadership.

So how do you go about getting a PLN? My first go-to is Twitter. I once thought Twitter was just one more way to keep me updated on what celebrities were up to. I learned instead that it was a powerful tool that unlocked 24/7 access to unbelievable professional development opportunities as well as a support system that would turn out to be life-changing. I find hashtags that are of interest to me and then follow those that I find tweeting using those hashtags. I also find people on Twitter who are doing great things for education and then follow some of the people that they follow. I participate in educational chats and follow those who share and connect.

I also cannot say enough about bringing diverse voices into your PLN. The combination of many different people both in and out of the educational world have helped me to stretch my thinking and practice. There are also ways to grow your PLN outside of Twitter. There are many groups on Facebook and Instagram. A favorite of mine is The Principals’ Staff Appreciation and Motivation group run by Amber Teamann (@8Amber8) and Melinda Miller (@MMiller7571). The ideas shared in the group are top-notch, and the people that you meet there are supportive and helpful. Voxer is another great tool to help with connecting a group of people. I belong to groups like Principals in Action and Women in Leadership, and then our district principals also have our own group. You can use Voxer as a book study tool as well. It’s just one more resource that can be used to bring people together.

My final suggestion for developing a PLN is face-to-face opportunities. Make a standing appointment on your calendar to meet with the leaders in your district. Host or attend a #CoffeeEdu or #EdCamp. I used to feel that taking time out of my already busy schedule to connect with others was selfish. I now realize that I am so much more energized and effective when I make my own learning a priority.

Whichever way you choose to build your PLN, just know there are so many people out there ready to support you when times are tough as well as cheer you on with the celebrations. Being the organizational leader can be lonely and difficult. With technology, we no longer have to go it alone. By building your PLN, you can use the brains and experiences of all those brilliant minds out there to guide you and give you support.

Resources

Six People You Absolutely Want in Your PLF by Dr. Sarah Thomas (@SarahDaTeechur) https://medium.com/im37/six-people-you-absolutely-want-in-your-plf-f4b9866e2781

Getting Started with Twitter: The Power of the PLN
https://www.smore.com/27rx0-getting-started-with-twitter

Twitter 101 by Tara Martin (@TaraMartinEdu)
http://www.tarammartin.com/twitter-101-with-tmm/

The Complete Guide to Twitter Hashtags for Education (@TeachThought) https://www.teachthought.com/twitter-hashtags-for-teacher/

Twitter Education Chat List by Jerry Blumengarten (@Cybraryman) https://sites.google.com/site/twittereducationchats/education-chat-official-list

Hashtag Database by Shake Up Learning/Kasey Bell (@ShakeUpLearning): https://shakeuplearning.com/blog/educational-hashtag-database/

Beth Houf is principal of Fulton Middle School in Fulton, MO, and co-author of Lead Like a PIRATE: Make Schools Amazing for Students and Staff. She is a 2019 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. Connect with Houf on Twitter (@BethHouf), Voxer (@BHouf2026), and Instagram (@BHouf).

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