As an educator, one of my primary goals is to help others grow and develop. I am constantly searching for new ways to support students in their learning journey and help other teachers in the work they are doing. But this wasn’t always the case.
When I first began, I was more about the content – what I was teaching was where I began. Along with this, I was focused on myself. For me, content was where it was at. Teach the content. Growth was focused on strategies and methods to present content. However, no matter how good I was at the content presentation, I still struggled with other areas of teaching like classroom management, assessment, and things like pacing and transitions. I eventually realized that content was only part of teaching. I came to understand that the connections that I had with students, their parents, my colleagues, and other people in the community were, in some ways, more important than the content.
It’s about Development
Don’t get me wrong, content is important. However, the content is changing. It’s not so much about knowing all the nuances of the subject you are teaching but knowing how content connects with the lives of students and helping students develop skills to engage with content to infuse it into their lives, to see meaning and making connections, and then be able to demonstrate what they have learned with that engagement with content. Finding the content has become much easier for everyone. The shift in teaching is about helping students question and begin to critically evaluate the content. In some cases, they may even find the content they are encountering to be lacking in details or missing a whole perspective like much of the history of the Western world.
When I began teaching, I often felt lost. Like, totally didn’t know where to go or what to do at times. I felt inadequate to the challenges I was facing. I didn’t feel prepared for the work I was begin asked to do. So focusing on content gave me a sense of place. It was something to ground the teaching. Assess based on content. Come up with more engaging ways to present the content. Seek out professional development that helped me to find, organize, present, and assess the content. And I did get better at that.
However, I was still struggling. I was unable figure out what I needed to do to overcome the struggles I still had in the classroom. And no matter who I asked or where I turned, it seemed no one could help me. There was gap between what I wanted to be as a teacher and what was happening each day in my classroom. It was here the path to daily development began. It was messy. It was rife with failures and bad decisions, missteps and fiery balls of crash and burns! And there were times I wanted to quit. In fact, after one particular period of feeling totally lost and inadequate, I did quit. I went back to school to peruse a PhD. At this point, I was filled with self-doubt, self-criticism, and felt lost once again. And I had been in education for 23 years!
Fast-forward to today. I am currently teaching grade 7/8 online. I no longer feel inadequate. I feel empowered to be able to meet the different challenges that I face each day. I know that no matter what issues present themselves, I will be able to meet them. So what changed?
What changed was my approach to what I was doing. Through the long and drawn-out process of working on my PhD, I came to realize the deep importance of daily PD where “Every day is a PD day”. Where personal and professional development isn’t about a conference or a book or a webinar, although it can include those different learning options. Instead, daily development is a mindset of looking at ourselves as a whole person and developing all aspects of that person. It isn’t about a new book or some system but a continual progression of changes and growth interspersed with reflection, connection, and renewal.
The image on the left is the model that came out of my research into social media use by teachers and the perceived effects on teachers’ classroom practices. This is the first time I’ve shared this model with anyone but my committee. For me, this is a huge step because it means putting myself and my work out in the world. For anyone who has done this, you know the trepidation that comes with such a step.
The essence of the model is the bottom where Professional Development leads to changes in classroom practices. It is here, through daily professional development, that teachers’ growth and development takes on a deeply profound meaning in the lives of teachers. Teachers, through their connections, begin to experience daily growth that begins to touch all aspects of their teaching and, in some cases, their lives.
Connections Truly Matter
Through my research, it became apparent that connections were incredibly important for teachers to make changes. Through the research of people like Fullan, Bandura, Little and others, it has been demonstrated that teacher self-efficacy, the belief that one can be successful in changing and persevering to see that change take place, is critical when teachers make changes. Yet, despite knowing this, a great many efforts to bring about change in teaching have been unsuccessful as they miss out on the underlying importance of this to efforts for change.
My research about teachers’ making changes to their classroom practices looked at how social media, and their connections, played a significant role in making changes in their classroom practices. The connections these teachers had with other teachers and the effect this had on their willingness to try new things and persevere in making those changes was foundational to the change process they undertook. These connections were part of the Professional Learning Network the teachers had developed over time. They could reach out when they had a question, issue, idea, or were looking for support and interact with one of their connections. It wasn’t attending a conference or reading a book, although this were also part of the daily learning process that took place, that supported changes but the daily connection and support these teachers received. “Every day is a PD day” was how these teachers began to approach their work. For myself, it became a way to approach all areas of my life. Every day is a day of learning and growth; physical, spiritual, emotional, mental, and social.
Daily Personal & Professional Development
One of my most recent learning explorations has been the inclusion of MineCraft EE as an opportunity for students to explore what they were learning and develop their understanding of different ecosystems. Now, I’ve seen MCEE used for learning by various educators but I hadn’t had the opportunity to delve into it or use it within my own teaching.
Now, I have very little experience using MineCraft of any sort. My children are quite well versed in how it works but I had, up until recently, only watched them build, amazed at the worlds they were able to create. I knew there was a place within learning for such a powerful experience but I wasn’t sure where. With an opportunity for my students to take part in free learning opportunity supported by Microsoft Education, my students and I were introduced to using MineCraft for a math lesson – area, perimeter, surface area, and volume. They were able to incorporate all of these and demonstrate their understanding all while building parts of a farm. Seeing the possibilities, I then reached out to a colleague of mine, Dean Venderamin who I know used MCEE in his teaching, to support my students for an assignment in social studies.
The point of this is that, if I waited to do something until I was a content expert, I might not have used MCEE. By relying on my connections and reaching out, I was able to tap into the expertise of someone who had the experience. It allowed students to see that learning takes place for all of us and, like them, I was still learning. I have a number of students who are very well versed in the use of MC and have been able to help other students as they do their work. This helped to build our classroom community which is completely online. The tool, MCEE, was a good pedagogical fit for the learning outcomes and provided a greater opportunity for social interaction, sharing of ideas, support for questions and the development of new skills while also establishing the expertise of particular students within the group. Very similar to what I had encountered in my research with teachers and change.
Daily Growth and Reflection
When I began teaching, there were many changes taking place. Curriculum was being renewed. New technologies were just beginning to make their way into classrooms. New ideas about assessment were being proposed. And, most important of all, students were being seen as having a role in their own learning – no longer just passive recipients but active learners needing to be involved in their own learning. However, until recently, teachers were not seen as active learners because, well, they were teachers. And when teacher learning was discussed, it was usually in the form of some sort of conference or book study where teachers gathered to get ideas from “experts” so they could go back and add these ideas to their teaching repertoire.
In my research, and my experience as a teacher, administrator, university lecturer, and PD presenter, much of what passes as PD could be classified as “inspirational” or “motivational”, positive stories and anecdotes that inspire teachers, often implying a sort of “superhero” image which I believe does not help teachers and may be doing more harm than good. Not all mind you. There is some great PD that is having positive effects on teachers and students. Although motivational PD is important, a steady diet of it doesn’t help when it comes to the day-to-day work of teaching, which is undergoing continual change in the current social environment in which we find ourselves.
Daily PD, the little moments of reflection, connection, support, and affirmation by other teachers is so important for teacher self-efficacy and growth. As teachers deal with a myriad of new issues in education including online learning, teachers are often isolated from their colleagues, missing out on the daily interactions that have been an essential part of their lives as teachers. For many teachers without a thriving and robust PLN, isolation has become a critical factor in their emotional and mental wellbeing. They often feel detached from their work and the interactions from which they usually draw strength and comfort. And the online connections they do have do not adequately provide the connections they need.
Today is the Perfect Day to Start
Developing a robust and diverse online PLN takes time but is necessary in a world that is going through tectonic changes on many levels. Connections with other humans face-to-face is still critically important. However, there are many teachers who have successfully developed an online PLN that allowed them to thrive and grow before our current situation. These teachers experienced isolation, both physically because of their geographic location, and pedagogically and philosophically because of their approach to teaching and learning. In my research, these teachers were able to cultivate deep and supportive relationships with other teachers via online interactions. With tools like Voxer and Clubhouse and the ability to connect live with others, there is the opportunity to connect in a deep and meaningful way with others. No, it isn’t how many of us are use to connecting and it doesn’t totally replace face-to-face but there is power in connecting with people online. From personal experience, I can attest to how meaningful and deep these relationships can grow. David Truss, is an educator from BC. I have known David for years. We have shared coffee together, had many deep discussions and helped each other out from time to time with editing and just reading each others work. I have never met David face-to-face. When we do, it will be a great experience I am sure but for now, I’ve grown to know David and his family over the years. Maybe not the same as face-to-face, but definitely in a way that is personal and meaningful.
Daily learning is indeed a shift in mindset as is how we view our interactions online. It does require seeing opportunities where sometimes we see problems. It does require looking for ways to be positive when it is just as easy to be negative. No, it is not easy. It will not change things in a day or week or even a month. But then again, learning is really the accumulation of connections we make over time, whether it is content or with other people. It is connecting the messages from a variety of sources across time and reshaping how we see things with new information. It is being open to new ways of doing things that are unfamiliar and look different. It is messy. It is frustrating. It can cause us to question what we are doing and why we are doing it. “I didn’t sign up for this” is definitely part of the process.
When I began teaching, I often felt lost. It wasn’t what I had signed up to do. I was frustrated and struggled. There were times I wanted to quit. I didn’t feel up to the task ahead of me. At one point, I stepped away because I couldn’t see a clear path before me and the frustration was overwhelming. I saw that there was so many more opportunities to serve student needs than education and educators were willing to explore. I felt ignored.
Looking back, it was part of my journey to see daily learning as a necessary part of being human. It is humbling. The exciting part is that each day I have to opportunity to continue this journey of life long learning through the many connections I have. “Every day is a PD day”!