Professional networks are essential to growing and maintaining one’s passion in any line of work. As teachers, we have traditionally found professional learning networks (PLNs) in our buildings, but in the digital age there are no boundaries: PLNs can exist on any social media platform, which creates endless possibilities for sharing, mentorship, and growth as teachers.
It’s now entirely possible to have a PLN that spreads out across this country and even around the world—people whose voices you’ve never heard and whose faces you’ve never seen. Although these digital relationships may not be personally close, they can be immensely powerful in terms of influencing pedagogy. And the fact that there isn’t always a personal relationship creates a nice amount of autonomy for both parties in these relationships—when you aren’t face to face on a regular basis, it’s easier to take the ideas you want from your network and make them your own, or to leave the network when you’re ready.
Building a Digital PLN
How can teachers create digital PLNs that are meaningful and powerful? Choosing a digital medium and connecting with other professionals can be overwhelming. It’s important to remember that, unlike with personal mentoring relationships, a PLN really doesn’t require a personal connection. You follow someone on Twitter who provides you with links to resources, inspiration, and advice through their tweets—they may not even realize how they’re helping you. And you can follow multiple role models for different purposes (e.g., one for subject-specific resources, another for general classroom management).
The first thing to consider when dipping your toe into a digital PLN is what you want out of it. Is a personal, reciprocal relationship important to you? Or are you happy quietly following a person or group online without much interaction? Are you seeking others to vent with and to share best practices and resources, or inspiration from innovative, cutting-edge teachers? You’ll also need to consider how you enjoy interacting online—do you lean toward visual, auditory, or textual learning and communication? This process may take some trial and error, but you’ll know once you’ve got the right fit.
There are a variety of social platforms you can use to create a PLN: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest.
Once you’ve determined your purpose and the platform that’s right for you, start seeking people to connect with and follow. I strongly suggest creating a professional account if you already have social media accounts. This will help you identify as a teacher seeking a PLN. Your username should reflect your purpose. For example, my teacher accounts use the name Teacherevolution, and my bio on these accounts clearly states my professional interests: English and literacy, secondary education, 21s-century learning, and inquiry-based learning. Many social media programs allow you to select interests or topics of interest to you, which will help you connect with other teachers.
Growing the PLN
The beautiful thing about social media programs is that once you start following or friending certain types of users (e.g., math teachers), the program will suggest other users with similar profiles. Moreover, when you begin following and interacting with certain types of users, you’ll also see comments and posts from other, similar users—and thus your personal PLN will begin to bloom.
This is the point where you need to make a decision about how invested you want to be in your digital PLN and what role you’ll play online. Are you strictly seeking resources and inspiration? Or do you also want to share your own ideas, practices, and resources with others? Many teachers on digital platforms start out as recipients of ideas and resources. As they begin to interact online and become comfortable doing so, they also begin sharing their own experience and resources, and before they know it, they’ve become an inspiration to others.
The more time you spend commenting and interacting on your social network, the stronger your digital relationships will become. This is when mentorship can get more personal and actual relationships can develop. Many teachers like the anonymity of digital PLNs and this isn’t for them, while others seek out small digital networks with a specific purpose like sharing resources and ideas about a particular grade level or subject.
Digital PLNs can seem complex at first, and they are multidimensional and dynamic. Social media platforms allow these relationships to grow on a variety of levels and for a wide variety of purposes. Regardless of an individual teacher’s personal preferences, the possibilities for professional growth are enormous.