Find Me A Soulmate!

The surprising key to personalized learning FOR TEACHERS

“It doesn’t seem to matter where you are or what group you study, you get a very similar picture of informal adult learning. Informal learning just seems to be a very normal, very natural human activity… People are spending 15 hours a week at it on average, and yet it’s not talked about, it’s not recognized, it’s sort of ignored or invisible.”

– Dr. Allen Tough, The Iceberg of Informal Adult Learning

Teacher Learning: Formal Versus Informal

Dr. Tough’s work on informal learning had a profound influence on our mission to ensure that all teachers get the skill, confidence, and joy to be GREAT teachers–which is why each of us chose to become a teacher in the first place. Imagine dividing teacher education into two realms: formal and informal.

The formal side of teacher education includes some of the following:

  • Teacher preparation programs like a school of education, teacher residency, or other alternative route to licensure
  • Workshops or conferences, both district-sponsored/mandated and teacher-selected
  • Coursework for advanced degrees, licenses, and certificates

The informal side of teacher learning can include:

  • Conversations with other teachers in the hallway, at a party, or during a daily jog
  • Seeking an instructional resource on the Web
  • Participating in teacher meet-ups or online communities
  • Reading articles, blogs, and books

Recently I’ve been asking roomfuls of teachers to vote on whether their informal or formal teacher education played a bigger role in their achievement as teachers. Interestingly, most teachers hesitate before they “vote.” They really needed to think hard–and in general, it turns out to be a split room.

What does that tell us that we educators might not already realize? It tells us that Dr. Tough was right– we’re not paying enough attention to the power and potential of informal learning opportunities for teachers.

New technologies—and new teachers—have the potential to boost the power of informal learning forever.

TeachersConnect Uncovers Networking & Learning Trends

Two years ago, the TeachersConnect team embarked on a qualitative study to examine what teachers were seeking from the informal facets of their learning. We conducted extensive interviews with 25 teachers with a range of experience (prospective teachers to 30-year veterans). We started with two main questions and followed up with questions that helped us gain more insight into teachers’ informal networking and learning:

1. Why do you ask for help?

  • How does it feel to ask for help?
  • When do you turn to someone in your school versus going out into digital communities?
  • When would you prefer to be anonymous versus when are you okay with attribution?

2. Why do you offer help?

  • Why do you take a set of lessons you’ve created and share them out on Pinterest—or distribute them among your teacher team?
  • How does it feel to do this?
  • What do you expect to happen after you do this?

As former classroom teachers ourselves, there were plenty of responses we expected. But there were also some funny surprises. Specifically, we heard teachers using language that reflected the depth of emotions usually associated with DATING:

  • Teachers saying they were “lonely” despite the fact that it’s a “big sea out there”
  • Teachers seeking “soul mates” and “kindred spirits,” that—for a variety of reasons—they couldn’t find in their buildings. (By the way, we also heard teachers say, “No, I’m not interested in ‘going steady.’ I just need your ‘stuff’ for 2nd period on Wednesday, and then I want out.”)
  • Teachers feeling “isolation,” “desolation,” and the fear that they’d feel like this forever

We took the results, studied dating apps (where there’s dating language there must be a dating app), considered the goal of every teacher (I want to get better every day), factored in some pervasive conditions of teaching (e.g. children are complex; teaching can be isolating; teachers all over the country are doing amazing things that should be passed along), and we built a set of design principles for the online professional teacher community we’ve created.

Developing a Teacher-Centric Community

We started with a Mission:

Build an uncompromisingly teacher-centric community where teachers build the relationships, share the information, and collaborate on the resources they need to get a little better every day.

And followed with Design Principles—qualities that teachers told us were essential for their skill, confidence, joy, and growth as teachers. We see these principles as the keys to personalized learning–for TEACHERS. The occasional image-rich language comes directly from teachers’ mouths:

Find my pack. It’s easy to find and hold onto my special group of kindred spirits. I’m connected into a community of freaks like me. I’m no longer alone on an island.

Collide and Ignite. I’m collaborating with other teachers to invent and discover ways to light a fire in my students. I’m constantly growing and trying out new things; I hate falling into a teaching rut.

I matter. I feel valued as a person. They know me here; I get a response from others.

See my ripples. The work I do doesn’t end with what happens in my classroom; I can feel that I’m making a wider impact. I see that people are using my contributions; I can see how they’re using them; I can see what happens in their classrooms when they use it. I know I’m being useful; I know my work matters.

Make me stretch. Inspire me to venture beyond my comfort zone.

Mutual Gain. Sometimes I mentor you. Sometimes you mentor me. Each of us is listening, asking questions, pushing back, building together.

Deeply safe. I’m not lost in a sea of crazies; I can open up and be vulnerable without being judged; I’m eager to share the cool stuff I’ve got to offer.

Flat. Sometimes I mentor you; sometimes you mentor me. Each of us is listening, asking questions, pushing back, building together. Information flies in all directions, regardless of experience.

Trust it. I feel sure of the advice I’m getting; I trust the advisor I’m getting it from.

Low threshold. I can get over my fear that what I’ve got to share isn’t good enough.

Understand it at a glance. I get what you mean without a lot of explaining. I can tell right away if it’s right for me.

Grab n’ go. I can get what I need quickly, and put it to use right away.

This set of design principles has guided our team at every juncture in our work to make sure that teaching is never again a solo activity– and that informal, personalized learning for teachers gets the attention and space it deserves. The principles have forced us to stay deeply aligned and focused on the goals of the teachers. Teachers don’t just want “stuff” (e.g. lesson plans). They want stuff with soul. They want to know how teachers like them have bent, folded, and mutilated the lesson plan for their students. And if in doing so, teachers are using new technologies to feel deeply connected in a human way, we think teaching and learning will thrive (And, okay, secretly we’re looking forward for the first romantic relationship that stems from the TeachersConnect Community.).

What do you think? What resonates? What surprises you? I’d love to begin a conversation about how this information might impact your work on recruitment, induction, teacher learning, and retention.

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Dave Meyers is CEO and Co-founder of TeachersConnect, where the team builds online communities and tools that allow districts to fight the annual $2.2bn problem of teacher turnover.  He’s a former elementary and middle school teacher, union leader, and licensed principal. For over a decade, he’s designed products and learning experiences that give teachers the tools and techniques to get their students engaged with even the most complex tasks. Working together with teachers in their classrooms, he helps teachers ignite their students’ natural urge to communicate their ideas and experiences–clearly and convincingly, in speech and in writing. He’d love to learn about your goals for recruitment, induction, and retention. You can reach him at Dr. Daniel Coleman of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning also contributed to this article.