Summer-Wisc-560

I just finished participating in an #educoach chat. Topic for the evening: How to work with reluctant teachers from an instructional coach perspective. A large number of educators participated, included an author on the topic.

What did I gain from it? I discovered an excellent post on the topic of paraphrasing and reframing when listening, as well as a possible book study on John Hattie’s newest release.

This evening of professional learning took place one week after my annual contract as an elementary principal expired. I have every right to sit back and enjoy my time off until mid-August, when my contract for next year begins.

And I have taken time for myself: my family and I visited friends over the weekend in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We’ve been to the lake and enjoyed some water-squirter target practice in the yard. Yet here I am, getting involved in conversations about how to be the best coach and leader for the teachers in our school.

I think this is a dilemma that many professional educators face. Do we get away from all things school-related for the summer? Or should we stay connected to and continue to develop our personal learning networks and nurture our professional growth?

I can understand the arguments made for the former. Educators work incredibly hard during the school year; we need the break. This time away allows us to recharge and rejuvenate. The personal experiences we have – through travel, our hobbies, and spending time with family and friends – make us more well-rounded and interesting individuals. We need to have a life beyond school. Staying connected to school, in whatever capacity, can prevent us from ever getting away in the first place.

Reflecting on Experience

The dilemma around how best to use our summer time became evident to me last year. Our leadership team and I engaged in a digital book study around the title Building a Professional Learning Community at Work by Bill Ferriter and Parry Graham. I created a Google+ Community, and we started our conversation on Chapters 4 and 5.

Then reality set in. Back in March, we had made the decision (mostly prompted by me) to extend our dialogue around this book over June, July and August. Now it was summer. One of the teachers was already at a cabin in the Wisconsin Northwoods.

Yet we continued on. One of the topics from the book was about using digital tools to communicate beyond the school day. “What are your thoughts on this?” I posted. The responses were across the board, from “I like being able to learn whenever I have time and access” to “My time with my family should come before online conversations.” Valid points, all of them. I did my best to just listen and not respond, except for lots of “+1″s on their thoughtful reflections.

Modern Learners

This phrase, “modern learners,” was coined (or re-coined) by Will Richardson in a March 2013 Educational Leadership article “Students First, Not Stuff.” Richardson describes students in the 21st century who “see growing availability of computers and access as a means to learn deeply and passionately in ways the current system of schooling was never built for.” Aren’t we students too? We are learners of practice, of each other, of our own students. This is the only way we can improve ourselves. Richardson also notes that

Learning is now truly participatory in real-world contexts. The transformation occurs in that participation, that connection with other learners outside school walls with whom we can converse, create, and publish authentic, meaningful, beautiful work.

Being connected has become an essential part of this always-learning mindset. But it can also be all-consuming. I have worked to improve my own balance between connectedness and distance, through no/low-tech days once a week, as an example. But even when offline, my brain is still online, composing the next thing. “After reading that post,…”

Digital Student Portfolios

So where is that fine line between that much needed time to recharge and my equally important desire to be a lifelong learner? Is there truly an off switch? I am still trying to figure it out.

Curt Rees, who co-wrote the foreword for my upcoming book Digital Student Portfolios along with Jessica Johnson, has a blog titled I Know This Much Is True. The title very much reflects what it means to me to have a learner’s mindset.

We don’t know anything deeply until we have had time to wrestle with ideas that pique our interests and provide possible answers to our questions. These understandings can only be found by garnering as many perspectives on the topic as possible. That comes about through broad and deep connections. My personal learning network is a big part of it.

What I Know Right Now

 ● I would not be half the educator I am if it weren’t for those that I have met online. My universe has expanded. The level and diversity of connections I have made with others is amazing. I feel twice as smart because I have resources only a tweet or post away. I did not attend ISTE this past weekend, but I did follow the #ISTE2014 hashtag and my PLN colleagues who were there. Just because I am not physically present doesn’t mean I have no access to these kinds of learning events.

 ● I have to build in time to disconnect. This not only refers to spending time with family and friends but spending unconnected time with myself. While my PLN is important, it is only one part of my learning life. I read, I reflect, I write, and I interact face-to-face with others, all without wireless connection. In fact, I purposefully sought out establishments that did not have wireless while writing parts of my book. I found I needed to disconnect in order to write about digital tools and being connected.

 ● Finding balance requires intention. So I am aware that I like to be connected, but I also need time away. What helps is emulating other wise practitioners’ learning habits. Are they tweeting out every hour? How do they utilize bookmarking tools such as Pinterest and Diigo to take control of their information feed? We need to take control and manage the flood.

Most importantly, I know I could be a good, even a very good educator without being connected. But in our pursuit for excellence, in our now connected world, I believe it is essential that we have a healthy personal learning network. So my learning doesn’t stop when June arrives. To be a modern learner demands nothing less.

So what do you know right now?

[Photo: With my kids at the lake, the day after school ended]

About the author
Matt Renwick is a 15-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he did time as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book about digital portfolios will be published by Powerful Learning Press this spring.