Before the end of the year, I experienced a perfect day for a hike. It was breezy and cool. The air had that sweet smell and the sky was cloudless. I had driven for about an hour to reach my destination, and upon my arrival, stepped out of my car, took a deep breath of fresh air, hoisted my bags onto my shoulders, and walked down a paved pathway to sit inside for the next four hours. The Bigelow Mountains would have to wait. This day was for networking.*
Teaching is like hiking. Preparation helps to ensure an enjoyable experience, but you can’t anticipate all the obstacles which may arise. You have to stay on course to reach the summit, and it’s easy to lose sight of the way sometimes. You may even have to follow your own trail from time to time, or cut away dead wood blocking the way. Your pace will have to be adjusted to meet the needs of your fellow hikers. And like working toward any goal or target, a hike is not all about reaching the summit; it’s also about the journey. Stopping along the way for interesting diversions is a worthwhile use of time.
When taking on a new, challenging hike, you need a support team. In teaching, that support comes from networks. On this perfect day, my network was nine other teachers, driving for hours to attend a work-session at Thomas College in Waterville, Maine in order to continue developing our state NBCT network. Like me, these teachers have busy lives with spouses, children, houses full of chores, gardens to be harvested, wood to put up, and a variety of commitments including campaigning, writing grants, and serving on boards. Yet we all made time for this work.
I used to think of networking as something business people did to get ahead. Networking for teachers isn’t about getting ahead. It’s a lifeline. The teachers in my networks help me solve everyday problems; they encourage me to follow my dreams; they help me to be brave when standing up for my students or when bringing controversial subjects into my classroom; they inspire me to apply best practices. The teachers in my networks are not slogging through life, counting down the years to retirement. My networks remind me that I am part of a profession of creators, innovators, scholars, researchers, nurturers, optimists, and daredevils. In these ways my networks are my lifelines. When I fail–I lose my cool, a lesson flops, my request is denied–my networks pull me to safety, out of reach of feelings of defeat and self-doubt. I have several networks, and each fulfills a different need. Some networks are formal organizations, while others are informal.
As a Maine Writing Project Teaching Consultant, I belong to the Maine Writing Project network. This group is founded on the ideas that the most effective professional development occurs when best practices are delivered teacher to teacher, and that writing teachers are writers. My fellow MWP Teaching Consultants are the colleagues I share my soul with because I share my writing with them. Also, this is the network that ushered me into presenting writing strategies to other teachers at conferences. The Maine Writing Project helped me to grow as a person and a professional.
The most influential network I belong to is made of three teachers who work in my building, Lisa, Lesa and Priscilla. They are my school network. I go to them with pedagogical questions, but also to tell them about the awesome spectacle I saw on the way to work, or, just to make them laugh, to share the crazy-embarrassing dream I had the night before. Unlike with other coworkers, our complaining is usually followed by one of us asking, “What if…” We share our frustrations and seek solutions. We support one another in our endeavors to improve our classroom management and to engage our middle school students. Most recently, we’ve been working on using effective praise in our classrooms. We check in from time to time to ask how it’s working.
Perhaps most importantly, Pricilla, Lesa, Lisa and I are witnesses to one another’s development. I know their teacher voices, disappointments, challenges, and triumphs. Teachers often fail to notice our own triumphs–who has time? When my students say, “Mrs. Ellis taught us…” I always report this back to Priscilla. I ask my little school network, “What worked this week?” This gives me a minute to reflect upon a success too. We need to hear that we were effective, even if the tests don’t always reflect that.
And finally, I belong to a network of NBCTs. If I need inspiration to dig deep, roll up my sleeves, and be the best possible teacher I can be, I call forth the power of this group of professionals. No excuses. No simple solutions. Just get busy. Know your students, know your curriculum, make smart choices. The level of expertise of the Maine Network of NBCTs empower me to speak out for my students, dig deep and do the work of being a teacher leader. With this network of professionals by my side, I could climb any mountain.
*Meenoo Rami, NBCT, talks about networking as one of the five ways to reinvigorate one’s profession in her book, Thrive.