Professional learning communities have limitless potential for today’s educators

learning-communitiesDuring my second year of teaching, I learned an invaluable lesson: learning communities have the power to enrich our professional and personal lives. I learned this lesson firsthand when I participated in a “critical friends” workshop sponsored by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Initially, I was excited for this opportunity. I was also intimidated, and that intimidation grew when, during one of the sessions, I had to share a “sample of work.”

My sample, a 20-question science quiz, could be described as lousy when compared to the work of veteran teachers. My anxiety grew as my turn to share approached. I wanted to go hide in the corner.

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However, when it was my turn, my peers, who could probably tell how I was feeling, gave me incredibly insightful and productive feedback. They asked really thoughtful questions like “What are you really trying to assess?” and “Is there a better way to measure what you expect from your students?”

That was the first time I remember truly reflecting on my practice. Until that point, I spent my days doing the best I knew how under everyone’s assumption that I was a “certified” expert who should have it all figured out by now. The reality is that classrooms, despite the ever-present energy of the students within them, can sometimes be lonely places for teachers.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

We have so many opportunities at our fingertips to engage with other educators and enrich our learning experiences. For me, active participation in learning communities, the most meaningful of which enrich both our professional and personal lives, is essential for several key reasons.

Modeling

My colleague Dean Shareski posed this question in a recent presentation: “Do your students know how you learn?” For students to truly embrace the idea that we want them to be lifelong learners, we need to model a love of learning. Our participation in learning communities demonstrates that learning transcends the classroom and is a collaborative, ongoing process. Take time to show your students how you learn and introduce them to some of your teachers.

Ownership

Many school systems encourage participation in learning communities. How this plays out, from mere compliance to meaningful engagement, varies. Membership in a learning community should be an intentional decision in which you receive benefits while contributing to the community. Your network will most likely be built through connections with other communities and your personal exploration of learning experiences blending the formal and informal, personal and professional. With all the communities that already exist and the powerful learning opportunities afforded through virtual conferences and Twitter chats, you can design and own your professional development.

Passion

Choice and ownership lead to differentiation. You are empowered to shape a learning environment that ignites, propels, or renews your passion for being an educator. This has been one of the most rewarding parts of my work with the Discovery Educator Network (DEN) – a global community of educators passionate about teaching with digital media, sharing resources, collaborating, and networking.

The DEN works under the singular mission of connecting educators to their most valuable resource – each other. Our role is to provide support and help facilitate connections between educators who share similar passions. Some educators want to deepen their understanding of inquiry-based instruction while others want to find colleagues who share their desire to collaborate on student projects. Learning communities like the DEN are the connective tissue that help you link to others who share your passion.

When my colleagues and I returned from our critical friends workshop, one of our goals was to sustain and extend our learning. Our idea? The Friday Night Pedagogical Society. Every Friday after work, we met, enjoyed a meal, and reflected on the week’s challenges and successes.

Soon, more teachers joined us. Our group was a wonderful combination of personal and professional, formal and informal learning. Our conversations were rich and full of laughter. We owned our learning community and modeled for our students the idea that learning doesn’t end at three o’clock on Friday afternoon.

Today thanks to technology, our choices in professional learning experiences are not limited by time or proximity. Social media allows us to join the group or groups that work for us and participate when and where we like. Take the first step and find a professional learning community that is right for you.

Lance Rougeux is Discovery Education’s Vice President of Learning Communities. Lance began his career as a teacher at Julia de Burgos Bilingual Middle School in the School District of Philadelphia. You can follow him on Twitter @lrougeux.