Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

The Evolution of the Networked Educator

By Paul Barnwell — November 29, 2017 6 min read
—Students and educators collaborate at the Bread Loaf Teacher Network’s launch of the Next Generation Leadership Network in Ripton, Vt., in July. Photo by Teddy Anderson.

I am sitting in an apartment in Tbilisi, Georgia. Out the window is a bright blue sky interrupted by the concrete skeletons of building projects sprouting up around this fascinating city. I’m thousands of miles from home, yet I’m able to help design and facilitate professional learning for my former school district in Louisville, Ky., and for national organizations like the Center for Teaching Quality; support blended learning experiences; and work on education journalism, among other projects. It’s often tricky to define what I’m doing, thanks to technology and an ever-expanding web of connected educators, students, and communities. Welcome to my life as a networked educator.

This past summer, I made the decision to resign from my teaching position in Louisville, Ky., and travel globally with my wife Rebecca. We decided to go without an itinerary, with the dual goals of personal exploration and testing out remote work. I was both excited and a bit apprehensive. But what allowed me to make the leap was, in part, knowing I would stay an active participant in the education community I was leaving behind. When I first began teaching a little more than 13 years ago, I never would have thought it was possible to be where I am now.

At a time when teachers now have more opportunities than ever to connect through evolving networks, both digitally and face to face, at home and abroad, it is possible for both us and our students to engage with people and ideas from around the world, no matter where we are. But we also don’t have to leave our classrooms to do so: Every teacher has the power to become a networked educator and foster a networked classroom. The power is in knowing where to find opportunities to connect—and being aware that those opportunities continue to change and grow.

Moving Beyond Relative Isolation

Despite having the ability to connect with other teachers via the internet and email, my first few years of teaching were mainly bolstered by in-person collaboration. Professional learning communities were still four to five years away from emerging as common practice in the Kentucky school where I taught, so unstructured strategizing with colleagues was crucial for us to make positive strides.

Mrs. Daugherty and Mr. Martell were right down the hall, ready to discuss the latest YA novels our students were devouring or how to structure a thematic project focused on heroism. This informal network had its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, it was small, limiting the range of ideas I could learn directly from other people. On the other hand, my colleagues were supportive and available.

But I found myself isolated when it came to classroom experimentation. I devoured human-behavior author Alfie Kohn’s books by night, then tested out his notions about student motivation during class. I worked toward minimizing and even eliminating traditional grades, but I couldn’t discuss my process comfortably with others—it was far too radical. A colleague even lambasted me in the hallway over the issue. I was ready to interact with some like-minded educators and learned about a summer fellowship opportunity with Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network.

I had been told that Bread Loaf was like a summer camp of imaginative graduate work for English teachers focused on culturally sensitive literacy. Little did I know that my six weeks there would launch over a decade of evolving work as a networked educator.

During consecutive summer graduate programs in Asheville, N.C., Santa Fe, N.M., and Vermont, I met teachers from around the country and world. Some of our ideas aligned, and we were encouraged to design projects for our students to work on with each other remotely.

For one project, my high school students collaborated with a colleague’s students in Miami. Through Google, Skype, and other tools, we combined writing, audio, and digital photography to tell stories about the power of place. There was little doubt that my new network was deeply impacting my classroom instruction. Student engagement rose; I remember students excitedly logging on to Skype in order to communicate with their Florida partners. The challenge of using multiple digital tools over time to create a finished product required a healthy dose of problem-solving and critical thinking.

An Expanding Virtual World

I soon learned about other networks. There was the Center for Teaching Quality, a nonprofit professional-learning network that allows teachers to share their ideas by participating in trainings to lead virtual-learning communities, blogging about classroom practices, and leading video chats and webinars. There was Twitter, where a huge number of educators now follow each other, share resources, and lead Twitter chats.

And professional learning communities in my own school district grew. JCPSForward has catalyzed numerous projects, including face-to-face “meet ups,” Twitter chats, and EdCamp conferences. According to our district’s numbers, roughly 30 percent of our 6,000 teachers have engaged in networked learning opportunities. Collaborating with school colleagues—just like when I first began my career—has remained essential, with various virtual networks on “stand by” to provide inspiration or alternative professional learning.

A few months before my departure to travel abroad, I visited Middlebury College in Vermont with a colleague and several students for one of my most powerful collaborative experiences yet. We were there to participate in the Bread Loaf Teacher Network’s launch of a special project—the Next Generation Leadership Network. Several days spent working together with students and teachers from across the country to tackle education’s challenges—by putting youth voices at the center of discussions—indicated the possibilities ahead.

All of us were connected in one way or another to an international web of educators who were part of both networks. I remember thinking just how extraordinary it was to be able to begin a collaboration that spans distance and difference, with the goal that over time, through a combination of face-to-face and online interaction, this wildly diverse group would be able to learn from another about how to effectively advocate for change in their communities.

It was a peek into what I hoped my travels would continue to provide.

Finding Balance

Admittedly, there have been times during my professional journey when being part of so many networks has led to too many Tweets, emails, and communications to keep up with. But I’d rather have the challenge of balancing the amount of connections versus working in isolation. It takes discipline, and it’s OK to say no when new opportunities appear.

While I’m not sure if I’ll be back in a traditional classroom in the near future, I keep my head and heart engaged with education-related projects. It’s nearly impossible to recreate the best “lightbulb” moments from the classroom. Face-to-face interaction with students spurs new insights, inspiration, and joy in ways the digital world cannot replicate.

But we now have the capacity to be valuable contributors and team members from potentially anywhere in the world. We should continually revise and reimagine what it means to be an educator in the 21st century. There’s no roadmap toward meaningful, remote work from a Soviet-era apartment in Tbilisi, but as educators with open minds and adventurous spirits, let’s remember that our learning can take us anywhere.

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