Loneliness is a Deadly Illusion

I was invited recently to respond to some questions about my PLN from the good folks who put together the Squad Goals Network.

I was invited recently to respond to some questions about my PLN (Professional Learning Network) from the good folks who put together the Squad Goals Network. The questions made me think deeper about the role my PLN has played in my work as an educator for the past 12 years. Ultimately, I believe learning is directly proportional to the depth and quality of one’s own PLN. Read further reflections to their questions below:

Access: Does regular access to other individuals from other institutions and institutional perspectives challenge your definition of access and what it means? If so, how?

Access itself is rooted in the concept of ownership. For instance, I am breathing air currently while sitting in a Wendy’s in Jackson, Michigan. The Wendy’s doesn’t own the air I am breathing, therefore I am not paying for it and I don’t think of it as something I have access to as much as I think of it something available to everyone at anytime and anywhere where our atmosphere reaches. Similarly, I don’t think of my connections to other people that work at other institutions as something I have access to so much as I think is something that I would have a very hard time living without.

I do have a difficult time with the concept of “institutional perspectives.” It simply doesn’t make very much sense to me outside of the context of a common set of values the individuals within an organization have collectively agreed to. How can an institution have a perspective outside of the multiple nuanced perspectives shared within the community of individuals within the institution? And what about the perspectives of those who have been a part of the institution in the past, but no longer officially are. Do they come into play somehow? I think of an institution as a construct that contains a culture of many different people sort-of how I think of my car as a construct that carries me and other passengers from one place to another. I wouldn’t say my car has a perspective so much as I would say it carries people with different perspectives. Does this make sense?

Faculty Satisfaction: How has your participation in the PLN benefitted faculty and colleagues at your home institution?

This might be an interesting question for me to ask of the faculty and colleagues around me. I would hope that my engagement in the PLN has directly benefited those around me by helping them to be connected to intellectual discourse around the ethos of the common work and goals we are all espousing to. If anything, it has challenged their thinking by giving them glimpses into perspectives, practices, failures and successes that can be directly informing our own work. Hopefully, we also have been in the continual practice of giving back in terms of sharing our own learning with our own broader professional learning networks.

Learning Effectiveness: When you reflect on your work, how has meeting and learning from individuals from other institutions and institutional perspectives helped you to clarify or re-define what it means for learning to be effective?

I’ve always understood learning to be a deeply social phenomenon. This is true even in critical aspects of learning that require independent study and reflection. The learning I’ve experienced with and from my PLN has served to clarify for me this truth. It has done so by reminding me of the power of shared experience and storytelling in the context of a community of inquiry as an essential component of my own ongoing professional growth and development. This is reminiscent of any meaningful learning experience I’ve ever encountered. Hopefully, this richly informs my work creating effective learning experience designs.

Scale: Is the PLN scalable and/or replicable by others at other institutions/organizations? If so, how? What challenges do you encounter?

Scalable and replicable are terms that make me queasy. I might reframe this in a way that describes the PLN as a reality encountered already in any effective educational entity. For instance, if someone were ask me if biodiversity is scalable and replicable, I might reply with a pinch of snark by encouraging the asker to open their eyes and look around them. A better question might be what the effects are of monocultures on ecosystem health? Similarly, I fundamentally believe that healthy learning environments are incapable of flourishing without the presence of a healthy community of inquiry being shepherded.

Most challenges I encounter around the concept of PLN development stem from common lethargy regarding the investments needed to make them a reality. You might think of this challenge similarly to how I encounter challenges with staying healthy, fit and in shape. Most of my challenges with these things stem from me lacking the will or discipline to carve out the time and resources needed to habitually be in the practice of various forms of exercise. Similarly, most of my PLN challenges are rooted in a lack of resources devoted to prioritizing my PLN appropriately in the juggling demands of life and work.

Student Satisfaction: Do you feel that your involvement and/or collaboration with the PLN has helped you create better student experiences at at your institution?

Undoubtedly, yes. In fact, if I didn’t benefit in the ways I do from my own PLN, I wouldn’t know the powerful effect it would have on my students. So, I try to encourage and cultivate PLNs for students in ways that are not formally mandated, but that can happen when the right kind of challenges are designed in ways that require learners to navigate them together rather than in isolation. I also try and be as transparent as I can about the positive things I glean on a daily basis from my PLN in terms of having mentors, mentees, sounding boards and critical dialog with folks around the things I am currently dealing with in my educative work or things I am trying to better understand.

It is extremely easy in this work of teaching and learning to fall under the illusive trap of feeling isolated and alone. There is nothing that threatens learning and life more than this deadly illusion. Similarly, there is nothing more opportunistic for learning than to recognize the deeply networked relationships that have always been a constant thread in all of human learning, growth and development. This truth runs deeply throughout history even to the point of a mysterious and little understood notion of collective consciousness.

How My Failure as a Teacher Began to Teach Me Lifelong Lessons.

I was a 2nd year teacher drop-out. I felt like a failure as a person and as a professional. Most of all, I felt like I had failed my high school science, biology and chemistry students.

photo-1453847668862-487637052f8aDropped out

I was a 2nd year teacher drop-out. I felt like a failure as a person and as a professional. Most of all, I felt like I had failed my high school science, biology and chemistry students.

It was November and I had been working long days trying to keep up the pace of lesson planning, grading and attempting to maintain some balance in my new professional life as a teacher.

I remember getting many warnings in my college days about the difficulties of being a teacher and especially in the first year, but I overestimated my abilities to keep pace with my own standards of perfectionism.

Burned out

Let’s be honest. I burnt out. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I had to resign half way through the year leaving my students stranded and the high school scrambling to find a replacement. I put my resume out to nearly any job I could find but the market was nearly as grim as my own outlook.

You know what the worst part of it was? I loved education and I loved my students. How would anyone hire me in the field when I resigned from a full-time teaching appointment? I figured I wouldn’t be able to ever work in education again.

Substitute teaching

So I decided to start subbing.

Yes, that’s right, I was a substitute teacher right after quitting a full-time teaching job. Being a substitute teacher is hard enough in and of itself, but being one after being a teacher drop-out is excruciatingly humiliating. But I knew I needed to swallow my pride, focus on my own health first and then re-build myself as a professional from the ground up.

Things I learned

It was difficult times, but I had amazing family, friends and professionals who supported me through the dark night. I wouldn’t wish the circumstances on anyone, but I also wouldn’t trade the lessons I learned at the earliest days of my career for the world.

I was blessed with hard life-lessons on understanding my own limitations, on developing a healthy work-life balance, on understanding myself on a fundamentally human level vs. viewing my own self-worth through the lens of an externally professional reputation.

Still learning

Do I still struggle with these things?


Have I arrived?


Am I making any progress?

Every day.

Silver linings

And you know what?

I still am an educator.

Mostly, I get to work every day as a human being helping other people through the difficult and important work of teaching and learning.

*I am forever grateful for the many people in my life who have believed in me even when I haven’t believed in myself. I wouldn’t be here without you and I stand on your shoulders as I do the meaningful work of believing in others around me. 

People Trump Technology

Image of Robin Williams, 1951-2014
Robin Williams, 1951-2014

“Before the internet there was just a man running around saying, ‘I know, I know” – Robin Williams

This morning, I came into work and was glad to see Dr. Leigh Graves Wolf using our new open office working space here in Wills House. Her recent campus open office working tour has been so fun to lurk behind to find new nooks to study and collaborate. Thanks, Leigh.

So, I walk in the door and she asks me if I know anything about birds. These are my favorite kinds of delightful questions.

I know a couple things here and there just due to personal interest. I have sat in on a college ornithology course once and I have met up with our Jackson Audubon Society on random occasions over the years.

Lucky for me, she had recorded the sound of the call that was distinct to her as she was walking to our building. She played it back for me. I thought it was an Eastern Towhee possibly, but I just had to get to the bottom of it.

Black-Capped Chickadee
Black-Capped Chickadee

So, I turned to my friend, Google. After grueling seconds of not getting anywhere due to having a hard time figuring out how to identify a bird on the internet with only the call sound in my head, I realized that a much more efficient searching rout would be to call up my friend Gary Mason who I used to work with at Spring Arbor University. Gary is heavily involved in the Jackson Audubon Society and knows more about Michigan Birds and other natural wonders than anyone I know.

So, I did what anyone frustrated with the limitations of technology would do. I used an older technology of the telephone land-line to give him a ring at his desk. He not only answered right away, but was able to identify the bird immediately even with my own botched attempt at trying to make the sound over the phone.

It was the Black-Capped Chickadee.

I was way off.

A funny looped scene from Dumb and Dumber where Loyd and Harry mistake the last name of the girl they are looking for with the brand of the suite case they are holding.

Preparing learners for the online environment

Cube, Online icon | Icon Search Engine | Iconfinder http://goo.gl/a1DWmThis was an interesting article supporting the need for preparing students for online instruction. A noteworthy quote: “Through well-developed orientation courses and other online student support services, we can equip students with no prior experience with the skills to learn online.”
Concerning Online Learning: Experience Matters « WCET Frontiers http://goo.gl/eCZRU

President to Seek $8-Billion for Job-Training Partnerships Involving Community Colleges – Government – The Chronicle of Higher Education

If enacted by Congress, the fund would “make for a huge positive impact,” said David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges. “Work-force-training programs are costly, and given sustained cuts from state and local sources, these proposals could greatly benefit local economies.”


Interview with Shane Hipps – The OAT Podcast

Check out my interview with Shane Hipps for the OAT Podcast!