Every Monday my students ask me, “What did you talk to your teacher friends about last night?” When I first told them that I spend an hour on Twitter every Sunday evening, talking to other teachers about teaching, they looked at me like I was crazy — and this response hasn’t been limited to students.
At the high school where I teach English, other teachers have also been incredulous that after spending so many hours outside of school reading essays and planning curriculum, I would spend a precious hour of my weekend talking teaching to a group of people from across the world. But it’s this group of educators — amazing people I’ve connected with through Twitter and the social media app Voxer — that have reignited my passion for a career that can beat down and exhaust even the most motivated, caring teachers.
Teaching Is Hard
This revelation wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone in our fine profession, but when I entered the gates of Bell Middle School in San Diego 18 years ago, fresh out of a teacher credential program, I was the epitome of clueless.
My 7th and 9th grade English classes had been through one “permanent” teacher and three substitutes before I showed up enthusing about poetry and Shakespeare; classroom management was only the first of many learning curves. There were many times I sat down at my desk and cried after saying a cheerful “Have a great day!” to my students at the end of class — not just because of the behaviors that I had little idea how to deal with, but also because I was ill-equipped to address the myriad needs of my students.
I had to figure out how to help students reading significantly below grade level; students who could not write a complete sentence; students whose families were living in a car… it was so much more than I’d anticipated when I imagined my days would be spent discussing sonnets and short stories. And I was lucky. The district was willing to send me to trainings and pay for any professional development materials I requested. But what actually helped me survive that first year of teaching and what has made me thrive as a teacher 18 years later was not stuff — it was a person.
A Never-ending Source of Reassurance
Back then, Joe Corr was the department head at Bell Middle School and he’s one of the reasons I didn’t quit teaching that first year. I recently emailed him to thank him for being a shoulder to cry on, a font of lesson ideas, and a never-ending source of reassurance that if I persevered, I would eventually figure out this teaching thing and maybe even come to love it. That first year of teaching I discovered a crucial fact that all effective teachers know: the best professional development comes from working with other teachers.
This isn’t to say that we can’t learn from other resources, but to actually internalize and apply any professional development, we need colleagues to sound out ideas, troubleshoot problems, and cheer each other on in this difficult and wondrous experiment of helping students learn. There are many ways to make these connections, from formal structures such as Professional Learning Communities, to the informal chats teachers have in the mail room while waiting for the copier.
The trick is to build a network of people who are excited about learning new things and sharing their ideas with others. I’m fortunate to have people like that at my school site, but a little over a year ago, I also discovered a whole new community in one of the places I least expected to: Twitter.
Positive, Reflective Educators
On the College Board AP Literature listserv, Brian Sztabnik, who authors the Talks with Teachers blog and podcast and has blogged here at Teaching Channel, mentioned a weekly Twitter chat, #aplitchat, where AP Literature and Composition teachers discuss different topics related to teaching their courses. Although I’d never been on Twitter, I jumped into the chat one Sunday and was introduced to a group of the most positive, reflective educators I’d ever met.
It was more than just a forum for sharing ideas for teaching different concepts. It was an innovative community that supported each other and provided a collaborative environment for improving instruction in their classrooms. We meet once a week on Twitter at #aplitchat, and we also talk throughout the week on social media via the walkie-talkie app Voxer, sending each other text and audio messages about successes and struggles we have in the classroom, sharing ideas for lessons and, each Friday, the highlight of our week.
Below are some actual Voxer responses from a couple of my colleagues, talking about how being a part of this group has affected them:
- Ruth Arseneault: English teacher in New Brunswick, Canada
- Mark Barnes: Publisher at Times 10 Books and creator of the bestselling Hack Learning Series
Being a part of this group has had an incredible impact on me. The effect on my teaching was immediate, but the transformation of my concept of education has been so much more far reaching.
In the year and a half I’ve been involved with the Talks With Teachers community — on Twitter and Voxer, as well as at a conference in New York where I was able to meet these incredible educators face to face — I’ve begun writing blogs about my classroom for the site APLitHelp.com, and even had my work published in a chapter of the book The Best Lessons Series: Literature: 15 Master Teachers Share What Works.
This group has expanded my view of education’s possibilities profoundly. It’s made me confident enough to step out of my comfort zone and experiment in the classroom. It’s made me excited to see my students every day. And it’s made me determined to bring this support to other teachers.
There are hundreds of chats out there for all subjects and grade levels. Teachers across the world are jumping online to talk to other teachers about improving student learning. Here’s one schedule of some of the chats offered, but new ones are being created every day.
With all of the efforts directed at reforming our educational system, one foundational fact of effective teaching and learning mustn’t be ignored: to survive and thrive, teachers must connect with other teachers. Social media has opened up new opportunities for making these connections in what can be a profoundly isolating profession. It’s an important reminder that we’re not alone.
How have you built your professional learning network?