Island Hopping

There’s an old saw in education about teaching being a solitary profession. The notion is that as often as not teachers close the doors of their classrooms and do their own thing, independent of what might be happening on other classroom islands.

When I started as a teacher back in the 1990s this was true. I could go weeks without seeing another adult in my classroom, and the times I watched others teach could be counted on one hand. Things changed a bit when I switched schools and found myself teaching in the same English Department as one of my best friends. Pure fun had us collaborating and combining classes, talking shop, and visiting each other’s rooms.

photo (2)When I moved to California and a new school, boom, back to the island.

Today, while it’s possible to isolate oneself from colleagues, the climate of education has changed. Administration, once relegated to offices and hidden behind serious countenances and striped neckties, is increasingly committed to visiting classrooms and engaging in conversation about teaching and learning. Teachers, still masters of their own islands, are less Robinson Crusoe and more sturdy paddlers of outrigger canoes. Island hopping abounds, both at school and online, some formal and encouraged by district and school leadership, some driven by teachers who hunger to connect with colleagues at their own school and beyond.

Here in my district Professional Learning Communities are de rigueur, teachers meeting with colleagues to discuss best practices, student performance, and all aspects of teaching and learning (and reteaching and understanding). Seeing teachers connecting with each other, supporting each other, and celebrating the good work going on in classes inspires me. Truth be told, it makes me wish I’d been a teacher now, not back when classroom felt as accessible as bank vaults.

Great teachers often take this connectivity beyond the confines of the classroom, going online to learn and share, joining communities on Twitter or other social media as they build a Professional Learning Network of educators without the boundaries of geography. Sometimes these PLNs manifest themselves in collective celebrations of curiosity like EdCamps, and broaden in experiences like Twitter chats.

I’m happy that I’m in education today, when teachers (and even administrators like me) see the work we do as interconnected. I love that I see teachers flocking to Twitter to share strategies and resources, and that I see departments take advantage of the collaborative time built into our bell schedule to connect with each other about how best to help kids learn.

So here’s to accessible archipelagos, where teachers know they have the freedom to bring their own vision to their work with students, and know that they’re not alone in the grand adventure of education.

Another point of view is just a short hop across the narrow water.

Creative Council

Lincoln did it right, surrounding himself with people who would question his opinion and provide passionate and sometimes contrary perspectives of their own. He didn’t call it a “mastermind group,” as Andrew Carnegie would a few decades later, or a “creative council” as Thomas Edison would dub the diverse personalities in his inner circle. Many of us have our own group of people we bounce ideas off, either publicly through social media, formally in a professional learning community, or informally through phone calls, emails, or meetings over coffee. I’m blessed to have all three, and use them weekly as I navigate the waters of being a middle school principal.

plnMy Professional Learning Network (PLN) isn’t anything formal or particularly unified. Not unlike the ragtag fugitive fleet of the 1978 Battlestar Galactica show, it’s the Twitter feeds and blogs of educators from across the globe that I travel with …in pursuit of that glittering planet of progress. As different as we all are (some working in small schools, some big, some without brick and mortar schools at all), the educators I follow and interact with online each provide me with perspective that helps me be the best I can be. Some I’ve met only a time or two, at an EdCamp or conference; some are people I work with every week, colleagues from other schools and our district office; and some I’ve never met in person, but consider professional colleagues (and even kindred spirits) who I hope to sit down with someday face to face.

There’s a saying that PLNs are like friends and PLCs are like family. We choose our Professional Learning Network, but our Professional Learning Community is usually the result of proximity with others at our school. At Diegueño, I’m fortunate to have a great professional family. Creative, collaborative, and curious, the teachers and others who make up my PLC have the courage to speak honestly, disagree with respect, and stay focused on finding solutions. I’m a fellow of discretion, so I won’t name names, but when “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” the voices I seek out for advice always give me much to think about. The common denominator of my onsite creative council isn’t credentialing or position; it’s a passion for helping kids and a commitment to speaking the truth …even if the boss doesn’t share that opinion. Maybe especially then.

Three GoonsAnd for the times I need advice, consolation, or just an ear to hear, a constellation of educators fill my night sky, always pointing true north. Some have never been in the same room: the teacher from Richmond, the assistant principal from LA, the EL Coordinator from San Rafael. Some know each other well: my first admin team consisted of me, Lars, and Justin, and while we can’t see each other every day as we once did, I still lean on them when it matters. Physical distance doesn’t mean as much as it once did, and I know that someone to talk with is just a text, phone call, or email away.

I’m thankful for this interconnected world. Unlike Lincoln, Carnegie, or Edison, my creative council is always there. My mistakes are my own, and I try to use every one to get better, but my potential to succeed is improved by the many, many people and perspectives I have the privilege to know and draw wisdom from every day.