For my first year of teaching, I was the only self-contained teacher for students with significant emotional/behavioral disabilities in a middle school. Our classroom was located at the end of a long hallway at the back of the building with few other classrooms nearby. I was on my own most of the time with a large class of really disconnected learners with little time or reason to collaborate with my colleagues. There were four of us that started that year in similar programs each at different schools. I was the only one who didn’t quit before the second semester. My learners and I had an amazing year, but they were tough, and it wasn’t always easy to figure out what to do all on my own. I was missing the opportunity to network with other teachers, share ideas, celebrate successes, and occasionally vent about a challenging day. I gave that feedback to my director, and we moved my program the next year to another building where two of us in one location working together. We spent that year working on how to be more inclusionary and collaborative within our special education team and between our regular education and special education staff. Although I still served a similar population of learners who had historically been unsuccessful in school and started the year in a fully self-contained placement, it was a lot easier as I had a team of colleagues working together to best serve and empower them.
Since then, I have always made creating a professional network a priority for me as an educator. I have had opportunities to co-teach with content specialists and related service providers that have made me a better teacher. We shared a vision for what we wanted for our learners and were not trying to do our work in isolation. Once I moved into a leadership role, continuing to have a strong network was essential. Leadership jobs are far more lonely than most people think. You are often the only principal in the building or the sole coordinator for that subject in a district. Having a network of other professionals who do similar roles in other districts or communities has been such an asset to my work and has made me even better as I get to listen to the excellent ideas of others or share some of what we do in our district. We are starting to take that a step further and do some cross-district programming with other districts in our area. We are all trying to do the same work- to create opportunities for all learners that mean that they are ready to live life on their own terms when they finish public school. Why we try to do that work independently does not really make any sense. We have joined or created some new collaborative networks with other districts in our area that are powerful and are giving us the chance to share ideas and resources in a whole new way.
In recent years, my online networks have become a great source of inspiration. I never quite understood the power of Twitter until a few years ago. Now, I would struggle without it. My ability to connect with other people doing work from a similar lens across our country and our world helps me every day. I get tons of ideas on which blogs to read, which resources others are accessing, and new ways to create authentic learning experiences for all learners. In a class I teach at a local university for pre-service teachers, one of the assignments I gave was to get networked. I gave them a list of people to choose from to follow online. They had to reflect on why that collaboration can be so impactful as an educator. It was an interesting discussion when we got back to class on who they agreed with and who they did not. I encouraged them to consider following someone who had opposing views to their own as I often follow people who present a different perspective than mine. It helps me to grow when my ideas get challenged. Either I am ready to defend my belief because I really stand behind it, or the new perspective helps me to shape the belief into a new version of itself. While my core beliefs never change, I get a new lens on an idea that gives me a chance to reflect. That constant support and challenge of an online community, which I have found on Twitter, allows me opportunities to think and grow all the time.
I am seeing a new kind of connection and networking on Twitter that has been absolutely amazing. We now have teachers across our district collaborating on authentic, learner-driven projects via Twitter. It has been so fantastic to watch a kindergarten class connect to another kindergarten class in another school around a project or a way to increase our involvement with our greater community. We have a class of high school students working with a class of second graders turning their comics into movies. They wrote a letter to the high school students that said, “We heard that you know how to make movies. Will you help us turn our stories into movies? We can’t do it alone- we need your help.” How incredible is it that young learners will have the model of our high school students in understanding plot and theme and that our high school students will get to practice what they have learned about those same ideas by teaching them to others? Another class of third and fourth graders has “contracted” math students at one of our high schools to make them a cart for their coffee business after seeing them build real furniture out of scale models for their math class on Twitter. The power of becoming collaborative across grade levels and schools is incredible, and it can come from something as simple as a Twitter post about the cool work you are doing in class.
I am not 100% sure if it started with him, but Rex Chapman often posts inspirational things he sees on Twitter with the tagline, “This is the Twitter content I’m here for.” The videos he posts are often stories of kindness or examples of humanity that are touching. The Twitter content I’m here for is the power of connection between classrooms, schools, district, leaders and learners as well as my opportunities to see, learn and grow. That content makes the work we do together more real and far more impactful on our entire community.