Leading Your Own Learning through Personal Learning Networks

By: Ryan M. Rich

As an educator, you feel each day the endless demands of your time, attention, and effort. And in the midst of all that is required of you for your students, parents, and others, you still need to find the time to recharge your batteries, grow professionally, and hone your craft.

As a committed educator, you probably know well that regardless of how it happens, you must find a way to carve time out of your busy days to engage in at least some personal professional development if you are to reach your full potential and continuously meet the needs of your students.

Taking one's own professional learning and development seriously, and finding the most effective and efficient ways to engage in it, is critical to the success of today's educator. As food for thought, consider the following from Ken Blanchard's The Heart of a Leader: Insights on the Art of Influence. He says:

"The only three things we can count on are death, taxes, and change. Since organizations are being bombarded with change, you would be wise to make learning a top priority and constantly strive to adapt to new circumstances."

So how do you commit to growing professionally in this fast-paced, high demand world? How do you refresh, maintain relevance, and provide the best possible learning experiences for yourself to in turn provide high quality learning experiences for your students? How do you lead by example to foster a love of learning among those who you teach?

Recently, our faculty has been focused on developing our areas of need by building and growing our own personal learning networks (PLNs). For those not familiar with this term, PLNs help each of us to tailor our professional learning to our own individually unique needs in a manner that helps us learn in and on our own time, in our own way that honors our own work flow and day-to-day schedules. And with the advent of new technologies, PLNs can be used in a way that helps you maximize and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Here are some practical suggestions for building your own PLN:

  1. Create a learning community
    Whether professional organizations, informal co-worker groups, or more formal PLCs or disciplinary teams, connecting with the people that are producing the ideas and thinking that can help you grow is key. As they say, isolation is the enemy of improvement. So find at least one group generating material or eliciting your thinking in a way that supports, grows, and improves your own practice.
  2. Curate content
    There has been no easier time to be able to curate the content you consume in a way that is easily accessible at any moment you may need. Find an article you like? Drop it in Google Drive. Land a website with great ideas? Bookmark it in Evernote. Come across an infographic that helps you connect your ideas? Save a screenshot. There are endless tools you can use to create a "digital filing cabinet" that gives you access anytime you need it.
  3. Engage in social media
    This may go without saying, but the possibilities here are endless. Whether Pinterest, Twitter, or Facebook, you can build a social network of connections providing anytime PD on topics relevant to you. For me, Twitter is the way to go. I follow researchers, organizations, and leaders that shape my thinking and grow my understanding each day. Now that I use Twitter, it has become the single greatest source of ongoing, daily PD for me.
  4. Buy in to blogging
    Whether you create or consume, find at least one way a blog can positively contribute to your professional growth. For me, I follow just a handful of blogs that put out content relevant to my role as a principal and give me great ideas for leading others and developing my organization. I have recently started blogging as well, which I'm finding helps me clarify and refine my own thinking, understanding, and beliefs. Each time I write, I learn and I make new connections.

The beauty of these suggestions is that they can be modified to meet your needs depending on your schedule. For example, I curate content in Evernote and Google Drive, all of which are accessible through my devices that also allow access to Twitter, blogs, and the web. All these tools work together, and allow me to be more efficient in my own learning.

Remember, your students are watching you. You are an important leader in their life. Showing your love of learning and engagement in the learning process is one of the most powerful and important skills you can model to help your students be prepared for the future!

As Blanchard goes on to say, "When you stop learning, you stop growing." I'm not sure about you, but I certainly want to grow and thrive. Use the amazing tools available now, and you can find ways to make professional learning work for you!

Ryan M. Rich is principal of Noblesville East Middle School, Noblesville, Indiana

Published February 2018.

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