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Professional Development: Your Circles of Connectedness

Jordan Catapano

If you’re a fisherman holding a small net, you’ll probably catch a small batch of fish. If you’re holding a medium-sized net, you’ll catch more fish. And if you’ve got a large net, you’ll catch a large amount of fish. So for a fisherman, the notion seems to be that the bigger the net, the more they’ll catch.

I’ve learned recently that the same is true for ideas. If we have a small “Idea catcher net,” then we’ll collect a small number of ideas. The larger our net, the more ideas we can capture. And of course, if we keep our net folded up in the closet, then you won’t be open to very many ideas at all.

The way we catch the ideas, resources, relationships, perspectives, and materials that we need is through our professional development circles of connectedness. Who are you connected to, and how far do those circles expand?

Professional Development: Who’s In Your Circle?

In the comedy “Meet the Parents,” Robert De Niro’s character explains to his future son-in-law the tenants of the “Circle of trust,” involving a tightly knit family circle where members trust one another, but distrust those outside the circle. Sometimes we develop our similar “Circle of trust” where we work, and this could hurt us in the long run.

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It makes sense for most teachers to have a few colleagues to whom they feel especially close. These are the colleagues you share questions and ideas with, and whom you trust at a deeper level. They are the first teachers you go to with problems, and you feel the most comfortable working with them. They are your circle of trust.

The problem arises, though, when year after year, decade after decade we rely on these same few folks as our professional development resources. We’re casting with a small net, and eventually will stop catching fish. The solution is to widen your net.

Imagine yourself as a bull’s eye in the middle of concentric circles. The first circle around you is your closely knit circle of trust. But beyond them are so many other circles that you can tap into as well to broaden your idea-catching. Consider how you connect yourself with each of the following expanding circles.

  • Your Department: Fellow teachers in the same grade and/or content area as you.
  • Your Building: All the teachers and administrators in your school.
  • Your District: All the teachers and administrators throughout all the schools in your district.
  • Your Local Education Community: Any teachers you know of from other local districts, whom you may have met at conferences or other education events.
  • Your Digital Personal Learning Network (PLN): Those associated with education whom you interact with using an online platform, such as blogs, forums, or social media.

Each successive circle expands our network connections, offering new avenues for us to learn and grow. Consider each of these questions as your think about how you’re connected to other educators at each level:

  • How easy is it to interact with others at each level of connectedness?
  • How often do you interact with others at each level of connectedness?
  • What methods do you use to stay in touch with them?
  • What do you gain for your own professional development when you interact with others at each level?

Like the fisherman with the big net, teachers are likely to catch the ideas and resources they need to succeed when they successfully tap into all the circles of connection around them.

The Value of the Digital PLN

If you answered the questions about connectedness above, you probably noticed a difference in the way you answered them regarding the PLN. That’s because, in most cases, keeping in touch with colleagues in our school, district, or community relies mostly on face-to-face interaction. We feel like we need to be near these individuals to communicate with them, but the opportunities to actually be around one another are rare. In some cases we manage to stay in touch via email and share thoughts occasionally that way, but this is more the exception than the rule.

When we’re able to connect to others digitally, however, then new opportunities arise. First, we can customize this network to suit our own professional demands. You can’t choose the other members of your department, but you can choose who to follow on Twitter or Pinterest, or whose blogs you subscribe to, or which forums you leave comments on or not.

The additional perk of these connections is that they are not restricted by time or place. Face-to-face conversations are dependent on synchronous communication, which means we’ve got to find the same time and location to collaborate with others. But asynchronous communication through social media or even Google Docs opens up the possibility that you can organize your connectedness activities when it’s convenient for you.

Connectedness at every level is important, but it’s especially beneficial for teachers when they take advantage of the customizability of digital platforms to bring the professional development connections they want on a schedule that suits them.

How To Expand Your Circles

So if you’re interested in expanding your circles of connectedness and giving yourself a bigger net of professional collaboration, then consider some of these suggestions:

Tap into your atypical colleagues: Yes, we have our circle of trust. But they’re not the only experienced teachers in your building. Try to think of those people who you don’t ordinarily talk to or maybe whom you’ve avoided in the past. Be brave and bring up your next question or topic with them. You’ll benefit from hearing a unique perspective, and they’ll feel flattered that you consulted them for their opinion.

Go for face-to-face: I know I contradict myself when I alternately recommend digital and face-to-face interactions. So here’s my advice: If you can talk to someone face-to-face, then make that your priority. When you can’t, then find a different way to stay in touch. Sometimes we hide behind our e-mail and fail to take the few paces down the hall that it takes to find a colleague. When you can, approach colleagues face-to-face and build your relationship that way.

Try Twitter on for size: I joined Twitter two years ago because I thought I would prove how stupid it was. I quickly discovered the opposite and have since connected with thousands of teachers across the nation. If you’re not already on Twitter or actively using it, give it a shot. It’s an easy social media platform to navigate, and gives you opportunity to find the ideas, people, and resources that might serve your professional development needs the best.

Take your relationships digital: You already have plenty of relationships, but it’s difficult to interact with everyone you know on a consistent basis. So try taking your relationships digital and interacting with colleagues from your building, district, and region in new electronic ways. That might involve just exchanging emails more often, or you can step it up and collaborate using Google tools or social media to more consistently interact.

When we want to get better, we rely on others to share their ideas and experiences with us. There are plenty of traditional ways to improve our practice – such as taking classes, subscribing to journals and newsletters, using district-provided professional development, and so on. These methods are still extremely viable and should be taken advantage of. But we as teachers want to be actively involved in expanding our nets and building more and more connections to fellow professionals, all in the name of bringing back the best materials and methods for our students.

How do you like to expand your circles of connectedness? Tell us how you connect in the comments below. (When you comment, you’re connecting with our TeachHUB community, too!)

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.

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