It isn’t until someone asks you to articulate why or how an event changed your life that you realize it is really hard to do. Maybe, for me, it’s because it’s been three years since my professional life changed and it’s hard to recall where I was in my thinking at that time. Or maybe it’s because the change was so rapid that I didn’t fully grasp its meaning as it was happening.

Or maybe it’s because life now is so much more fulfilling that I don’t reflect enough on the journey that brought me to the here and now. If that’s the case, it’s time to do so.

Recently my good friend, mentor and co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach asked me to think about that journey, thus forcing me (rightfully so) to reflect upon the three days that changed my professional life. In July of 2009 I attended PLP’s Leadership Bootcamp in Philadelphia. While I have written about this before (here and here), nearly 3 years later it’s worth considering once again the lessons learned during those three days and how they still affect me.

Before Attending Bootcamp . . .

I was really good at giving my opinion, among a very close circle of confidants.

I was really good at being a friend, to a few people.

I was very good at attending conferences and pulling meaning out of those conferences, by myself.

I was a pretty good teacher and administrator, but rarely shared my experiences (both good and bad) with others.

I was a pretty good educator in general, but I was an even better independent contractor.

While I am not going to suggest that I have made a full 180-degree turn as I work to become the educational leader I want to be, I’m convinced more than ever that the following big ideas that I first started thinking deeply about at PLP Leadership Bootcamp have helped me move in the right direction.

Big Idea #1 – Transparency

This shouldn’t be a surprise considering the name of my blog: TransLeadership. I still recall Will Richardson’s presentation the very first day of Bootcamp when he said school leaders “have to begin to teach and learn transparently, through digital networks.”

We weren’t an hour into this leadership experience, and I’d already realized what needed to change. Primarily I needed¬†to let the world know what I was thinking, what I was struggling with, what I was learning, what my values are, and the experiences along the way that have helped shaped those values. I needed to be transparent about who I was as a learner in order to be the educational leader I so wanted to be.

So I immediately began to increase my digital presence. I started my blog, opened a flickr account (a tool modeled at Bootcamp), increased my activity on Twitter, started using social bookmarking tools like delicious and diigo more, became familiar with Evernote, and enhanced my presence on Linked In. I began to spend much of my personal reflection and growth time in these spaces. I became a public producer of information, instead of just a private consumer. I stopped lurking and started participating.

Sure, I was cautious at first, in part because of my position at the time and in part because I wanted to take baby steps. But I have to tell you, it wasn’t so much that these steps were small or perhaps safe, it was the fact that they were public that was most important. Slowly and carefully, I was becoming transparent.

Today I don’t hold back. (These posts here, here and here about local school issues have earned a critical eye at times.) I don’t have many regrets (although I do feel remorse over singling out the practices of individual teachers in one of those posts above) because my participation in these spaces represents who I am as a person and as an educator. I have come to a point in my life where I am very comfortable with that.

Big Idea #2 – Vulnerability

One of the realizations I had to cope with early in the process was that being transparent meant making myself and my ideas (is there a difference?) vulnerable to detractors. Questions like “What if no one likes my ideas?,” “What if I alienate people?,” “What if people think my ideas are dumb?” kept creeping into my head. It goes back to the greatest fear of school administrators: What if they find out I don’t know as much as they think I do? Now, not only were they going to find out, I was going to give them all the ammunition they needed to shoot back. People were not going to have to look very hard to find things to laugh at me about, because all they had to do was Google my name. I was going to serve it up to them on a digital platter.

While some people have criticized and pushed back (and maybe even laughed) at times, the overwhelming response has been positive. By that, I don’t mean that most everyone has agreed with everything that I have written. More often than not people have taken the ideas I have shared and either expanded upon them or provided a perspective I had yet to consider. But they have almost always been respectful, and the result for me has been real growth.

By making my thinking transparent and vulnerable, I have been fortunate enough to learn and gain the perspective of educators all around the world who collectively have helped me find my voice as a 21st century educational leader. As I wrote on the first anniversary of my blog:

[My blog] has become a sandbox of sorts, a place where I can share my thinking, express my concerns, offer praise and reach out to a community which has embraced my presence so much that I regret not doing this earlier in my career. Combined with Twitter, this blog has afforded me the opportunity to cultivate my thinking more than any formal graduate class ever did and to connect with similarly passionate learners. Moreover, it has allowed me to find my voice and I am incredibly humbled and indebted to all of you who have pushed me to do so.

Big Idea #3 – Connecting

My wife and I are much different people. If we spent an hour in a room filled with 50 strangers, she would leave with 50 new friends. I would leave with the same 50 strangers. Making small talk and connecting face to face is very difficult for me. Put me on stage in front of a room full of people and ask me to present and I will do fine. Ask me to mingle and I feel uncomfortable and out of place. As a presenter there is a context to who I am and what I believe. As one person in a crowd, that context is missing and I struggle to create it.

Yet online I feel incredibly comfortable “mingling” in a virtual room, whether it be a Twitter #edchat session, an Elluminate webinar, or simply commenting on a fellow blogger’s recent post. I have remarked recently during my presentations that five years ago I didn’t understand how someone could date online, but today I totally get it. Not that I am interested in dating online, but I am very interested in making connections, both personal and professional.

For me, connecting online is a lot like presenting to a group of people. Much like the talks I present offer a context (otherwise people would not be there), the digital footprint I have been cultivating since the 2009 Bootcamp has provided a global presence and identity through which I can connect and communicate with others. It’s my context, one that I have digitally and diligently created over the past three years.

Likewise, I have the opportunity to learn from those who connect with me through my context. In a way, our digital footprints become the professional version of our online dating profile. When we commit to build relationships with others online, we are doing so with a solid understanding of who they are, what they bring to the relationship, and what each of us is hoping to gain through the relationship.

John Spencer has written about his life as an introvert living in a digitally extroverted context. I did my best to channel him in this post when I reflected upon my growth as a connected learner:

Some describe me as being “distant” [at] times and while I assure them that I am here (and that nothing is wrong) it’s a time that fulfills a deep rooted need inside of me to be introverted… to be mentally alone. As John describes, I need “silence”– and by that I don’t mean quiet. I need the unclutteredness that solitude brings. It’s not always fair to those that want me to share and I recognize that, but that time heals me. From what, I’m not sure, but I know that when I emerge I am better for it.

 

Yet, even when I am introspective, I crave the interactions I have with my growing network of friends. Twitter has become my faculty room, Google Reader and Delicious have become my library, and my blog has become the window into my professional soul. Again, I defer to John when he writes,

 

I blog because I write. I write because it’s not an option. Like silence and solitude, it’s a part of what keeps me sane.

 

Dean Shareski wrote a piece about the professional growth he and other teachers have realized through blogging and while I agree that I have benefited professionally from the transparent reflection that blogging provides, it has been much more personal to me. It has afforded me the opportunity to be someone who I am not normally. It has provided me with the means to share my voice in a more comfortable, yet transparent way. As a result, I have developed relationships, both personal and professional that I would have not otherwise done. To re-engineer the final paragraph of John’s post, this network that has evolved over time has not only allowed me to share who I am, but in many ways it has helped me develop a sense of who I am as a person.

PLP Leadership Bootcamp

It would be presumptuous of me to announce that I am fully the leader I strive to be, but I am getting there, and I can point to the three days I spent in Philly with Sheryl and Will as the starting line. I’m pretty sure that I will never reach a finish line — this is much more about the journey than it is about being done. But, that’s okay because I’m enjoying the ride and getting a chance to connect with all of those who have been considerate enough to join me along the way.

So, when I see that PLP will be offering a Leadership Bootcamp eCourse, I can’t help but offer my sincerest gratitude to PLP for getting me started, and to give my unconditional support to those of you thinking about being a part of this year’s Bootcamp cohort. If you decide to become one of the 25 participants, the journey for you will begin in earnest in June, and many of us are ready to provide whatever supports are needed along the way.

In July of 2009 my professional life changed. In July of 2011, yours could too.

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