Is There an Echo in Your Hallway? Finding Professional Networks That Truly Help You Grow

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Educators love educators. We love to chat with each other during hall duty and catch up at the copy machine. But here's the question—are your conversations with colleagues an echo chamber?

Consider this statement: "If parents just cared, they'd show up to parent-teacher conferences." Have you heard a teacher say this? Have you said it? I'll admit I once made that exact statement in a class during my undergraduate years.

In some ways, that was the beginning of my own education as a teacher. A thoughtful and sensitive professor heard that statement and pulled me aside after class to ask me purposeful questions and coach me through my own bias and privilege. She helped me think more carefully and remember that at the end of the day, all parents and communities really want what's best for their kids.

But I have to acknowledge that even 10 years into my teaching career, I still sometimes catch myself echoing my former misconceptions about students and their families. It's hard work to turn off the echo that often surrounds us.

Recently, I had a student—I'll call him Eric—who refused to read out loud in class during his turn. Instead, he always wanted to put his head down and sleep. Initially, I watched Eric with pity for his lack of commitment to his education, but also with some frustration that he was so uncooperative. I found myself thinking, "If only his parents had read to him as a child, he would be reading at grade level." And if I talked with another teacher about Eric, sometimes we would commiserate about how Eric was so unsuccessful, a lost case even.

I had an echo chamber that was filled with colleagues who shared my laments—and this was holding back not only me, but my students. Thankfully, I've been taking some steps to change that.

For me, the first step is to remind myself that my personal childhood experiences will influence my first instincts. For example, since my father went to college, I grew up knowing that I too would go to college. For many of my students, the idea of college may not have been as ingrained, but with encouragement, college could become a reality for them as well. Once I own this truth, I can choose to surround myself with people who have had different experiences. Since I grew up, went to college, and have taught only in metropolitan North Carolina, I have a limited set of experiences. I need to be surrounded, for example, by friends who run charter schools in Baton Rouge, La., or who support early childhood education in Omaha, Neb. Having a diverse professional network allows me to see beyond my own background, school community, culture, and geographical region.

I propose that our obligation as educators is to broaden our own lenses. I'm lucky to have built a genuinely diverse network of educators—from Arizona to Vermont, Hawaii to Wyoming—who serve as my thought-partners. My association with groups like America Achieves, The National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education, Hope Street Group, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards have introduced me to brilliant educators who willingly share their own experiences, some of which were vitally important to help me truly understand my students.

Have you ever heard a first-hand account of child abuse and/or neglect? Have you ever listened to an adult recount how she was ignored as a student because she didn't have enough money to buy school supplies for a project? Have you ever heard a principal describe what it was like to comfort a child whose parents didn't come home the night before?

Some students have circumstances that many of us cannot even fathom experiencing. Students may not be willing to divulge their family struggles, so many teachers are left guessing about why a student doesn't have his homework completed or why the student keeps falling asleep in class. In these situations, it’s easy for educators to jump to false assumptions. However, if your professional network is filled with diverse voices, your colleagues can help you see the deeper cause of a student's actions—and discover new possibilities for helping the student be successful.

The great thing about professional networks is that now social media and virtual communities make it just as easy to connect with educators who live 4,500 miles away from you as it is to connect with those who live five blocks away. And you don't have to be an official member of a fellowship like Hope Street Group to actually interact with a diverse set of educators. Try following @HopeStreetGroup, @NNSTOY, @BMECFellowship, @BuffetECI, or @ECET2Ntl on Twitter. These are just some examples of networks that share strategies and resources for helping educators see different perspectives.

After hearing the stories of adults who struggled to find their own place in a school setting, I have realized I want to focus less on placing blame and more on how to help students overcome their challenges. Instead of being an extra obstacle in their lives, I want to take the time to help them.

What happened to Eric? I changed the way I interacted with him. Each day he walked into my classroom, I asked him to pick a time of day that he'd be willing to participate. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes it didn't. And each day that he fell asleep, I wrote him a little sticky note to say, "We missed your voice in class." One day, Eric finally wrote me a note back. He wrote that he was so tired because he works two jobs after school, and he was constantly worried about paying his family’s bills since his dad was in prison. After I connected Eric with some resources to help his family make ends meet through the school guidance department, Eric and I worked out a plan to gradually increase his ability to pay attention in class. It was a slow journey for Eric to stop worrying about his family obligations during school time, but day by day, Eric started raising his hand and volunteering to participate. My heart swelled with happiness every time Eric took that leap to volunteer, and I know Eric could read my emotions.

Many of our students are like Eric, who just need an adult to see beyond his struggle and help him find his own success story. When I see a student "misbehaving" in class now, I tune out the voices judging that student. Instead, I tune in to hear the voices encouraging me to take the time to get to know my student. I carry my professional network in my heart and at my fingertips, and my colleagues often get phone calls and messages from me asking for advice.

I encourage you to take a moment to consider: What does your professional network "sound" like? Does it echo with your own experiences? Or is it more of a symphony of different voices that build something stronger when they all work together?

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