Find Your Tribe: A Powerful PLN

This post is written by Amy Heavin. She is the principal/lead learner at Ryan Park Elementary School, MSD of Steuben County in Angola, Indiana

Find Your Tribe.

Three simple words, but profound in their call to action. Three words that 6 months ago would not have meant anything to me, but today, are three words I tell other educators that they must fulfill. So what do these three words mean?

For a few years, I have been a connected educator. I have formed my professional learning network (PLN) and continue to let it grow. My PLN is predominantly on Twitter, comprising of a network of passionate educators around the globe, who share ideas and resources. For those educators on Twitter, whether they are active or lurking, they know the power found in this social media platform, and continually build and share within their own network. My PLN is continuous, personalized professional learning, anytime and anywhere I want it. I carve the time daily because it is important to always grow and connect, in addition to soaking in the daily inspiration and positivity.

My goal has always been to grow my PLN, as there are so many amazing educators out there to connect with. During professional conferences, I share my connected journey, the power found within my PLN, and how I continue to build it. I always follow at least 10 new educators each week and participate in at least one education Twitter chat, but many weeks it is more than that. Using the hashtags that interest me, I jump into these weekly chats to meet new people, share ideas, and learn. No matter what chat topic, I always find inspiring educators to learn from and grow with. This pattern of weekly inspiration has made me a better educator.

But, then something changed.

Through my exploration of different hashtags, I found a group of educators who pushed me more than before. It was a weekly chat, like most others, but the questions were different, and the conversation was philosophically profound for me. I had not followed most of the educators in this group very long. In fact, I met most of the for the first time in this Twitter chat. Once I joined the Voxer chat, I knew I had found a group that would be with me for quite some time. This group, the #leadupchat tribe, has transformed my thinking of not just leadership, but also of the power of connectedness. It is within this hashtag and chat that I have found my tribe.

A connected tribe is my PLN on steroids. Everybody’s tribe will be different. Your tribe will be your go-to group of educators, based on your interests, passions, and areas you would like to grow.

Your connected tribe will:

  • push your thinking
  • share resources and ideas
  • support and uplift your ideas
  • be your daily dose of inspiration, positivity, and humor
  • take you outside your comfort zone in order to grow professionally
  • ask questions that push you to dig deep into your philosophy of education, and
  • share not just professional dialogue, but build relationships on a personal level.

My connected tribe is on Twitter and Voxer. On Twitter, we share resources, blog posts, #CelebrateMonday and #FF shout-outs, and chat during the weekly chat time. We tag each other in photos and share our thinking. We welcome each other into other state Twitter chats we often moderate, adding new dimensions of thinking to the answers that stream through the chat.

Through Voxer, a walkie-talkie app, the #leadupchat tribe has conversations, listening to each other’s voice, sharing pictures of our school and our families, and discussing topics of leadership and instruction. We support one another in all our endeavors, and lean on each other when we need each other’s support. I listen to their ideas and inspiration every morning as I get ready for the day. We validate each other’s thinking, but I also glean new insight from them. Many times, the tribe shares great books they have read, inspiring videos, or other resources that contribute to our growth and learning. More than that, we reach out to each other individually through Voxer as well, having side conversations on related topics, offering support or ideas on a personal level.

All of these educators have transformed my career, making me better than I was the day before, all the while accepting my view points as well. We push each other to become better.

While we have never met face-to-face, I have found educators with whom I have a profound connection with philosophically. When we do finally have the opportunity to meet, there will be no hand-shaking in this group; we will embrace as if we connected as long-lost friends.

A tribe sticks together through thick and thin, supporting one another through it all.

Every educator must have a PLN today. There is no excuse not to anymore. But once you have your PLN, it is time to take it to a new level and find your tribe. Be a part of many Twitter and Voxer chats, learning and growing with the amazing educators in the world. When you find the group that pushes your thinking, supports you personally and professionally, and transforms your philosophy, you have found your tribe. Find the connected tribe that will not just be a dose of inspiration and ideas, but a group of people that will embrace your passion and take it to new heights.
Find your tribe. You will know it when you find it.

Lean Out a Little Farther

Today’s post is by Sandy King, an innovative master teacher in South Jordan, Utah. 

The climb to the top of the cliff had been exhilarating. I ascended without fear. As long as I looked up, with my site on the goal, I knew that I could make it up to the landing. Going down was another story. I couldn’t go back down that way that I’d climbed. I’d have to rappel. I had my safety gear on, and I had instructors that I trusted. I felt reasonably safe considering that I was standing on a cliff. But walking closer to the edge made my heart pound! I listened intently to my instructor. My safety gear was checked once more and then I walked backward to the ledge. My life flashed before me. “On rappel!” I shouted.

“Lean out!” I heard my instructor say. I looked down with trepidation and leaned out farther. “Lean out a little farther!” he repeated.  I took a deep breath and leaned out a bit more.

I took my first step over the ledge and pulled my right hand up to brake. One step led to another step. It was awkward at first, but I kept going. My confidence grew as I took each successive step down the rock face. Words of encouragement motivated me to keep going. Before I knew it, I was at the bottom being congratulated by others in my group. I was excited by the thrill of this personal victory. I had conquered a fear!

“Lean out! Lean out a little farther!” often echoes in my mind. Take a risk! Challenge yourself! Raise the bar!

But trying something new is scary. Feelings of being vulnerable, inadequate, and incapable are common. You no longer feel safe. The human body responds physically by initiating the “flight or fight response” that causes the heart to beat faster, breathing to quicken, and palms to sweat among other things. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a risk.

The choice isn’t between success and failure; it’s between choosing risk and striving for greatness, or risking nothing and being certain of mediocrity. –Keith Farazzis

In the quiet white space of self-reflection over the years, I’ve asked, “What can I do to improve my practice?” And I’ve heard the words, “Lean out a little farther!”

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received as a new teacher was to model lifelong learning by consistently acquiring new knowledge, but more specifically, to learn new skills. The difference between gaining knowledge and learning a skill is that learning a skill requires practice.

Name a skill that you’ve started to develop within the past month. Are you learning to play a musical instrument? Paint? Skateboard? Knit? Ski? Speak another language? Maybe you’re finding yourself in an all too familiar state of continually learning new information, but not necessarily new skills. Reading a book, attending a professional development class, conference, or even an edcamp facilitates gaining knowledge, but it doesn’t require practicing new skills. We ask our students to learn multiple skills every day. How long has it been since you have walked in their shoes?

In your mind’s eye, take a moment to envision yourself learning a new skill. How did you choose to learn? (book, video, teacher) Describe your level of success on your first attempt? Do you need to be shown how to do this skill more than once? Twice? What kind of feedback helps you learn best? How often do you need feedback? What motivates you to struggle, learn, practice, and improve? How important is growth mindset? How does “coaching” help you? What would make the learning of this new skill easier for you to learn? Describe the “zone” where you feel challenged but not frustrated.

Reflecting on teaching practices from the perspective of a learner opens the mind to possibilities. It cultivates empathy and compassion. Questions such as, “How will the reflections about my own learning impact or change my instructional practices?” brings metacognitive thinking to the next level. The reflection in the mirror may not be the most flattering. Do you need more patience? A change of tone? An ability to break down a skill into smaller parts? To be more encouraging? To give specific feedback? Being humble and owning what we know we need to improve is sometimes the most difficult. It requires action and accountability.

 The mediocre teacher or administrator will use any number of excuses like lack of time to avoid this step. But excellence takes effort! Great educators rise above the excuses, make an action plan, and have others (such as a PLN) hold them accountable. The status quo is not acceptable. If there’s room for improvement, the great educators welcome the challenge. They embrace the fear of being vulnerable with a positive attitude and courageously move forward.

So, I challenge you to “Lean out a little farther!” Get completely out of your comfort zone! Learn a new skill during the next few weeks. Put yourself in the position of a learner. Start a blog, record video of your attempts, or keep a journal of your progress. Share your mistakes, your learning, and your reflections. Let those that you lead see you as a beginner with all of the mistakes you’re bound to make. Lean into the discomfort.

Are you truly a life long learner? Will you walk the talk? Maslow said, “You will either step forward into growth or back into safety.” Will you accept this challenge as an opportunity to stretch, risk, and grow? You have a choice. Greatness or Mediocrity.

You’re on the edge.
“Lean out a little farther!” 

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#BetterTogether: Leverage The Power of Group Capital

Today’s Blog is by an incredible lead learner/Elem. Principal, Paul Erickson, in Hutchingson, KS. making a difference! 

In our fifth grade hallway, there is a poster that states, “Real heroes don’t wear capes.” The purpose of this poster is to encourage students to look beyond stereotypical role models–professional athletes and pop icons–and consider the real difference-makers in their lives–teachers, coaches, and parents.  I love the mantra and the idea it promotes, but it has me thinking about my own job as an elementary school principal.  I’m viewed as a leader (not a hero, but a leader), but how much impact do I really have?

Qualitatively speaking, I know I support, serve, and influence our students and staff daily in ways that improve what they do–learn and teach.  However, quantitatively speaking, I don’t have much impact.  According to Hattie (2012), the effect size of a principal’s impact on student learning is .39.  Not bad, but not all that good.  In comparison, a student aging one year and attending an average public school results in an effect size/impact of .40.

When I first came across this statistic, I admittedly felt disappointed, maybe even a little defeated.  If you’re a principal coming across this finding for the first time, you, too, may be feeling disappointed and defeated.  However, the good news is that we don’t have to transform students’ lives on our own.  In fact, the more we do AS individuals or the more we do TO individuals, the worse the results are.

The Myth of the Transformative Leader

Transformative Leaders are those that embrace the moral imperative of raising the bar for teacher performance and closing the achievement gap by inspiring (or intimidating)  teachers to new levels of energy and commitment.  They do this through their own heroic efforts.  Think of the Joe Clark story captured in Lean on Me.  The transformative Model asserts that declaring a vision and motivating teachers to “join the cause” are enough to flip schools to achieve unprecedented results.  The reality, as research shows, is transformative leadership rings in at a paltry .11 in terms of effect size.  (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).  Teaching test-taking has an effect size of .22 (Hattie, 2012), which means we’d be better off teaching students how to highlight key words in standardized questions than spending time proclaiming visions and motivating teachers.

The Mediocrity of the Instructional Leader

Okay.  So principals should keep the cape in the closet (or the baseball bat if you’re Joe Clark), and, instead, step into the impactful shoes of the instructional leader, right? Most building leadership programs are built around the model of instructional leadership where the principal supervises individual teachers’ implementation of curriculum and instruction initiatives.  This results in the principal asking for lesson plans, studying them carefully, administering formal observations, and then debriefing with individual teachers on their performance.  The impact of this type of instructional leadership rings in at a stable .42 (Robinson, Lloyd, & Rowe, 2008).  This is a slightly better result than what Hattie found among “average” principals, but when you think of .40 being what we get when kids age one year and just come to school, .42 is far from desirable.

What Truly Impacts Learning?

The problem with the aforementioned models of leadership is that they are individualistic.  They assume that if we have better principals (transformative leaders), then we have a better school.  They assume that if we have better teachers (courtesy the supervision of the instructional leader), we have a better school. The reality is…..individuals (be it  principals or teachers) don’t change schools.  Groups change schools, and to utilize the power of the group, you have to CHANGE the GROUP.

When principals focus on changing the group and utilizing its power, they are, in effect, building group capital. Building group capital has an effect size of .84 (Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe, 2008), making it the undisputed heavyweight champ of leadership influences.  Within this construct of building group capital there are two critical factors:

1. The principal makes the progress of the school a collective endeavor.  One-on-one appraisals take a back seat to Professional Learning Communities.  Teachers don’t comply in order to achieve better results in their own classrooms, rather they COMMIT to improving the school as a whole.  They do this because they are a part of a team, a bona-fide PLC.

Example–Organize opportunities for teachers to observe other teachers in action. Through peer observations, teachers not only pick up tricks of the trade, they also see how every team member is contributing to student learning, thus generating an all-hands-on-deck approach.  Principals, please don’t expect teachers to do this on their planning period! Arrange for a sub to spend the day, relieving teachers for 45-minute increments so that teachers can do this during the regular day.

2. The principal leads professional learning among staff.  The principal does less supervising and facilitates more LEARNING.  Principals build professional learning into each school day and use teacher observation, not to appraise or evaluate, but to supplement and strengthen professional learning.

Example–Create and habitually contribute to a hashtag to promote best practices among colleagues.  Check out #313teach and #448teach and see what our district in Buhler Schools and a neighboring district Inman Schools have done with their best practices hashtags.  Through tweeting, retweeting, and favoriting you are facilitating continuous learning opportunities that are accessible to your PLC and a global audience!

We are better together.  That’s the undeniable reality of leadership.  Let’s keep the group capital ideas rolling!  If you have an outstanding idea for building group capital among staff, please use the #bettertogether.  With something as simple as #bettertogether, we can build our own capital as a global group of lead learners!

References

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. New York, NY: Routledge.

Robinson, V., Lloyd, C., & Rowe, K. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes.

Education Administration Quarterly, 44, 635–674.

**In addition, I must give a ton of credit to Michael Fullan, specifically the leadership genius he shares in The Principal.  This is a book SO GOOD I read it twice this summer!**

To read more great insights by Paul