George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

The Power of Finding a Thought Partner

Teaching can be isolating, and finding a like-minded colleague to talk things over with has a lot of benefits.

May 16, 2024
JLco - Julia Amaral / iStock

Despite working among dozens, hundreds, sometimes even thousands of people, teachers face an unusually high degree of isolation, which is a key contributor to burnout. Daily interactions with students don’t provide the same fuel as active collaboration (and commiseration) with colleagues. This literal isolation is compounded by closed doors, distance learning classrooms, and class schedules that don’t align with their colleagues.

For rural teachers, who frequently serve as the only educators of their discipline, subject, or grade level, the isolated feeling causes compounding problems, as there’s no one else to help carry the load, co-plan, or exchange ideas with.

Beyond professional development (also a vital tool in the burnout fight), educators need opportunities to connect and collaborate with like-minded colleagues in open, honest, and even vulnerable ways. Whether the connection is in your building, district, state, country, or beyond, the power of connecting with another educator who gets it provides immeasurable benefits and is wildly cost-effective. This connection is your thought partner.

Finding the Right Thought Partner

While some educators are lucky to work next door to the ideal thought partner, for many, those connections must be cultivated in other places and even across time zones.

We, Darcy Bakkegard and Dr. Jennifer Carlson, met by chance. A mutual friend suggested we connect. A 20-minute Zoom call became 30 minutes, then 45, and led to a second call, followed by ongoing connections to exchange ideas, solve problems, and collaborate. Each talk left us uplifted and energized, giving us the stamina and focus to tackle hard things.

Here are some keys to finding great thought partners: Be open to possibility, but trust your gut. Only give your time to connections that energize and fuel you. While some connections will spark and ignite instantaneously, as happened for us, some will take time. More will likely never go anywhere. That’s OK. You want authentic connections with people you can grow with and respect. You’re looking for individuals you can go to when you’re at your worst and know they’ve got your back. You can bring them your greatest joys, and they will cheer for and celebrate with you.

Here are some ideas for seeking out thought partners.

Other educators: Ask, “Who else should I know?” “Can you introduce me?” As you build your web of connections, it’s amazing who starts to stick and how your circle widens by the links you make.

LinkedIn: Have you explored the resources that a social networking site like LinkedIn has to offer? There are educators across the globe to discover and connect with. A site like LinkedIn also provides access to interest-based groups where you can seek ideas by posting a question or engaging in a group discussion with people you may not have had the chance to meet in person.

Conferences: Have you attended your regional or state association for English teachers? Attended the local kindergarten teachers convention? From STEAM to play, project-based learning to content-specific conferences, highly specialized forums exist for almost every educational interest and present a rich environment in which to find some like-minded educators.

Benefits of a Thought Partner

Given how busy educators are, why would you take the time to find more people to talk with? Because the benefits of a great thought partner far exceed the small time investment.

Validation: From “You’re on the right track” to “You’re not crazy for trying (or doing or wanting) that!” and everything in between, a strategic thought partner helps to validate the emotions and experiences of teaching.

Perspective: Thought partners can also give us perspective, helping us stay grounded. When we’re in the thick of it, our fight-or-flight response kicks in, raising us to high alert. That can make situations feel dire. But someone else can help us regulate that fight-or-flight response, giving us perspective and helping us calm down. Often what feels like a big deal can be reframed; conversely, a thought partner can further validate the stress, helping us process it and take action.

Energy: Planning, teaching, and assessing expend energy in the mind, body, and soul. A thought partner can energize and reenergize your internal battery by helping you think through situations, brainstorm new and fresh ways of doing, and reflect on the outcomes. Minds coming together to problem-solve and celebrate successes is like a match to a wick.

Inspiration: Taking risks with teaching strategies, resources, and assessments can be frightening. A thought partner can encourage and challenge your thinking, help you set goals, and support you as you work to achieve them. They can provide insight and feedback that feels safe and encouraging.

All of these elements are powerful burnout fighters and can help you keep the fire for education. From this perspective, you cannot afford to not have a trusted thought partner.

The role of school leaders in supporting Thought Partnerships

A great thought partner can be revitalizing and empowering and could literally keep an educator in the profession. How can district leaders leverage this (basically) free resource?

Honor thought partner time: Provide this as an option for professional development. Create a PD menu board and include thought partners as an option for growing skills. You can build accountability with a simple reflection log.

Host masterminds: An education mastermind is a small group of educators who talk about teaching, solve problems together, learn from one another, and share resources and ideas. Another PD option, monthly group masterminds is a wonderful way to connect with like-minded educators.

Encourage educators to attend PD outside the district: Provide substitutes, stipends, and resources to find the best PD. While qualified subs are always hard to find, having to replace a burned-out teacher is even harder.

Highlight the power of thought partners: When staff attend PD, ask them who they met and what they learned. A way to do this could be to host a brown bag lunch where staff are invited to formally or informally share their experience and reflect on their learning.

As part of your PD system, provide opportunities for staff to share PD inspiration with colleagues, including identifying thought partners who helped. This adds further accountability while also offering inspiration. Model this as a district or building leader by speaking openly about the people who fuel you as an educator, highlighting the inspiration you garner from those in your building and the thought partners you encounter or have connected with via readings, trainings, meetings, and other learning opportunities.

Educators are stronger together, and when they grow together, it can be a powerful influence on teaching and learning. We know the value of building relationships with and among students. How could we not benefit from building relationships with other educators? Seeking out a thought partner is a great way to stoke your fire for teaching and can fend off isolation and burnout. Energizing and inspiring each other can be the most valuable and most powerful professional development experience you can create.

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