Whenever I need to write out the words that comprise PLN I always pause because I can never remember if it is a personal learning network or a professional learning network. What even is the difference? My professional learning network is very personal to me. It includes people who began as friends and others who became friends through our professional association. Sure there are folks I have never met in person and will likely never meet for drinks or share a meal, but when I have asked those people for help or for comfort they have been there for me. That feels pretty personal to me. Maybe I don’t know what their house looks like or I might be hard-pressed to tell you where they work, but I know them at their core because I have witnessed their philosophy of teaching and learning at work and I have sheltered in the glow of their inspiration. That is what the term PLN means to me and why you need this multi-purpose tool in your life. I recommend that you slip your PLN multi-purpose tool into your shirt pocket or wear it on a chain around your neck so it is always at hand and near your heart. Teachers have always needed their Multi-Purpose Tool/PLN, but during a pandemic the PLN is essential equipment for survival.
This Moment Requires A PLN
We have heard it reported countless times during the COVID-19 pandemic: this global event has revealed the inequities and problems of our systems and society. Globally, nationally, and locally the pandemic has revealed the fragility of our healthcare system, the vulnerability of an economy built on the margin, and the devastating dysfunction of our politics. No nation has successfully weathered this storm of destruction, but no nation with the blessings possessed by the United States has offered such a disorganized and mismanaged response. But we shouldn’t be surprised. It is only our wealth, our capacity, and our resources that allowed us to muddle through (gutting the middle class and ignoring our crumbling infrastructure) as long as we did. The bill was always going to come due, it was just that COVID-19 called for the check sooner than expected and the long slow decline of the United States picked up speed.
I debated keeping this section, because I don’t want to make this blog post about COVID-19, I want to center the PLN. But I think it is necessary to address the elephant in the room because one reason too many educators don’t put time and energy into their PLN is rooted in the slick abusive relationship the United States calls its education system. “Heroic” teachers and support staff are expected to sacrifice their health, their personal lives, and their future for their love of children and learning while power-mongers in administration and political leadership allow rapacious corporations to divert an ever-dwindling funding stream to technology “systems” and unproven solutions even as powerful forces in our society seek to destroy the education system that is one of the greatest threats to their power. Even worse, these so-called leaders and innovators have diminished and destroyed teacher agency to focus time and energy based on their personal and professional judgment. Human teachers and their relationships with their students will always be at the heart of any solution so put the money and the power back in the classroom where it belongs.
One of the pandemic panics that infuriates me the most is the people bemoaning the “learning loss” caused by pandemic school closures and the shift to remote learning. Let’s be clear. The education system in the United States was broken long before the pandemic. The system was failing huge swathes of students long before the pandemic. The system was burning teachers out long before the pandemic. Too many Americans enjoyed a privileged relationship with a school system that allowed them to ignore the learning, funding, and disciplinary inequities that have been well documented for all of modern education’s history. I share this not to depress or frighten you because if you are a teacher you already know these things. I share this to remind you that your struggles are not your fault. You were set up to fail. But take heart from the fact that you are not alone — that you do not need to face these challenges alone. The challenges facing educators in the best of circumstances can be overwhelming which is exactly why, now more than ever, you need a robust personal/professional learning network to guide you through, to support you professionally and personally, to inspire you, and to console you. A PLN does all these things — that is why it is a multi-purpose tool!
What Can Your PLN Do For You?
In 2014, I wrote that My PLN is the Terminator and I still believe this metaphor is apt. As I noted at the time: “a robust PLN is always there for you because it never sleeps – one or more members is likely to be online and available during your hour of need and it is constantly working for you even when you ignore it (because you need to do things like eat, sleep, teach).” Every innovation or improvement in my teaching, looking at you #Ungrading and #HyperDoc and #NWP communities for example, has been inspired and informed by my PLN. In 2017, I wrote two more blog posts devoted to the PLN: 5 Reasons Why Teachers Need Their Own PLN and 3 Tips For Building Your PLN. Originally, my plan was to write an updated blog post about the importance of the PLN as it has been a few years since I wrote about that important tool in every teacher’s kit, but the more that I thought about my PLN in combination with the horrors I hear every day from educators plagued by pandemic teaching the more angry I become. It is hard to write a straight-forward blog post. Just like our healthcare workers and other front-line workers, teachers have been left too much on their own with unreasonable and unsustainable practices and requirements to further hamper efforts that were always destined to fail too many of our students.
What makes this more horrific is that it didn’t need to be this way. Other countries have more successfully controlled community spread so schools can resume classes, but instead not only is the virus raging out of control in the United States our national education system (which isn’t a system, just a loose collection of fiefdoms) has developed a series of stopgap measures since March. Why didn’t we just wrap up the school year early in the spring rather than exhausting resources and humans during a season traditionally focused on testing rather than learning anyway? Why didn’t we spend the summer or even early fall developing a robust pandemic plan to carry us through the 2020-2021 school year instead of, once again, wasting resources and exhausting humans on “plans” that relied heavily on wishful thinking and one-size-fits-all models replicating a system that was already failing before the pandemic. I know my PLN could have planned a better solution that might have led to innovations in education and solved problems to improve it for post-pandemic learning if given the power, but that’s not how America works. Instead we have endured yet another season of interrupted learning that left teachers, staff, and students facing unknown health challenges and, in some cases, death.
While we were not allowed to re-vision education, my PLN has creatively transformed our lessons and classroom structures to support ourselves and our students in this chaotic new educational universe. We have supported each other emotionally as we shared solutions and offered inspiration. Pandemic teaching is hard. My pandemic teaching situation is better than most and it is still terrible. But I know that without my PLN it would be devastating. You need to find your people. You need your people. If you are reading this blog post then you are likely one of my people so I recommend following me (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) and the folks I regularly interact with. Honestly, my PLN is rooted in Twitter although there are some overlaps on FB and LI so I recommend #NWP, #NCTE, #Ungrading, #HyperDocs for finding folks to connect. But more than that I recommend connecting personally with folks. As I note in We Need More Writing Marathons, my writing community has sustained me because that is such a personal and intimate connection, but at the core it is #NWP that is the heart of my PLN. If you are looking to build your own NWP-based PLN then I urge you to join me Dec. 14-Jan. 8 for the Morehead Writing Project’s Online Winter Institute! Come re-vision your pandemic teaching in a supportive community.