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Why Teachers Are Migrating to Online Communities for PD

Elizabeth Stein

Ever since I can remember I have turned to writing to make the most of my passion for thinking and learning. Writing has always helped me to organize my thoughts and that inevitably led to taking positive actions. I never went anywhere without my writer's notebook (and still don't). 

But since joining online learning communities, the writing I jot down on discussion forums, blogs, and Twitter, for example, far extend my thinking beyond what's in my personal notebooks. My MiddleWeb blog, Two Teachers in the Room, keeps me connected with many educators like myself who are striving to strengthen their co-teaching practices in inclusion classrooms. I am taking charge of the kind of learning that can easily translate into best practices during my daily interactions with colleagues and students. I have learned to hear my voice, to share my voice, and to encourage others around me to share theirs.  For me this professional development in the truest sense.  

To my thinking there are three components that profession development must have to be effective:

  • PD must be job-embedded: Teachers must be able to link the learning experience to their instructional day--and it must be relevant.
  • PD must incorporate collaborative learning:  Teachers must have opportunities to listen and share what happens in one another's classrooms.
  • PD must provide deep knowledge and sustained learning over multiple days and weeks:  Teachers must challenge themselves to step out of their comfort zones.  They must try new ways of doing things. They must be willing to make mistakes, think in new ways, and reflect on their practice in ways that strengthens their abilities. 

In the right cirumstances, all of these all of these components (and so much more!) are easily achieved through online learning communities. This is why teachers are increasingly drawn to them, even as they freqently complain about the traditional PD offerings provided by their schools or districts.   

But there's a pedagogical component to this migration as well. In order to guide our students through a genuine learning process, we must be active learners ourselves. That's another reason why I participate in online courses and learning communities. I embrace my connections with the students and colleagues and administrators at my school--yet sometimes I hear the walls of my building just begging to be knocked down. My online connections offer such a wide range of perspectives and help me deepen and gain confidence in my learning. It's a given that I will apply my virtual learning into effective instructional strategies that will benefit my students. But it's much more than that. Online connections allow me to feed that spirited commitment to learning--and that's just plain contagious! Students feel the energy from a teacher who is an around the clock, across the world kind of learner.

In addition, I am applying the skills of communication that our students need to know for their futures. I share this knowledge of a powerful, individualized-learning approach, as well as modeling the fact that there are boundless resources at their fingertips. So why not just reach out and grab them! I guide my students to take charge of their learning process.  And I hope that they, too, will be seekers, receivers, and givers of knowledge.  

My online learning connections keep that insatiable learner in me satisfied. I am provided with an endless source of varied perspectives and resources that creates a constant sense of calm (which comes in very handy through the whirlwind of responsibilities I experience on any given school day).  I learn about who I am as a learner, which makes me a better teacher.  This learning process helps me to keep my ideas in perspective by participating in rich discussions that involve wrapping my mind around some big ideas that directly link to what is going on in my building and in my classroom.  

My online learning has become that cushion I fall back any time I need support. Professional development just doesn't get any better than that! By being an active learner, I know (and I live) the process it takes to involve my students in trusting their voice, in sharing their voice, and in taking charge of their learning--well into their futures.    

Elizabeth Stein is a middle school special education teacher and mentor-teacher program coordinator in Long Island's Smithtown Central School District. A National Board-certified teacher and CTQ Collaboratory member, Elizabeth is author of Comprehension Lessons for RTI Grades 3-5 (Scholastic, 2013). She blogs at Two Teachers in the Room.

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