Jimmy Casas, principal of Bettendorf High School in Iowa, and Jeff Zoul, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in Deerfield, IL, credit their friendship to Twitter. Both can attest that the social media platform has changed their lives personally and professionally — and it can do the same for other educators.
But there's also more to being connected than social media alone.
Together with Todd Whitaker, Casas and Zoul co-authored the book, "What Connected Educators Do Differently," an examination of how connecting with peers nationwide and even globally can help educators boost success in their own schools. At the National Association of Secondary School Principals' 2016 Ignite conference last week in Orlando, the duo broke down characteristics and practices that set connected educators apart from their peers.
1. They lead with passion
Casas, Zoul, and Whitaker have defined a connected educator as "any educator who is actively and continuously seeking new opportunities, people, and resources outside of their own school or district to grow as a professional."
Connected educators, Zoul also noted, are leaders among their peers, citing five exemplary leadership practices from James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s "The Leadership Challenge." According to those practices, good leaders:
Model the way: Create standards of excellence and then set an example for others. If you ask staff to do something, such as being connected to stakeholders via social media, you must be willing to do it yourself.
Inspire a shared vision: Envision the future, creating an ideal and unique image of what the organization can become — but it has to be real, even if there are different ways to get there. The vision must also be promoted and seen by parents, students, the community, and other stakeholders.
Challenge the process: Search for opportunities to change the status quo. Being connected helps educators continue pushing themselves with new challenges, providing examples of how to do that.
Enable others to act: Foster collaboration and build spirited teams, actively involving others. Some schools accomplish this via staff-led or self-directed professional development, and being connected can add new layers.
Encourage the heart: Accomplish extraordinary things in organizations by working hard, keeping hope and determination alive by recognizing contributions made by those in the organization. Casas suggested, for example, starting a faculty meeting by having everyone take time to write a note to a student, faculty, staff, or someone else in the school.
Being connected starts with a mindset, not a workshop, said Casas, challenging attendees to reinvest in themselves in terms of how they view becoming a connected educator.
"I think we need to be careful as well. I think that very often, right now, in the world we're living in, we think 'connected educator' and go right to Twitter," he said. "I don't know about you, but I've been a connected educator all my life, all my career."
There are ways beyond social media of being a connected educator, but, Casas added, "I'm not going to ignore the tools that are available to me that could, perhaps help me become more of a connected educator and broaden that neck because I'm 44 years old and I can't see myself changing."
2. They give and take ... and give some more
"We're all in the giving profession as educators," Zoul said. Citing Adam Grant's "Give and Take," he noted the need for balance between giving and taking, as people who are "total givers" fall on the bottom of the career spectrum alongside "total takers."
Givers, he said, respond. They promote people and ideas, and connect people to their peers. But those at the top also take — and that they do so by stealing, not borrowing, and by looking out and not just in.
The "stealing," he explained, is a result of leaders taking what others have done and making it unique to their own situation and scale. It's still, however, the original creator's idea and is used with their blessing.
3. They know it's all about the 3 R's (and the 3 C's)
Being a connected educator is all about relationships, relationships, relationships, Casas said. He cited the Ed Camp that kicked off the conference as an example of a great opportunity for educators to step outside of their comfort zones and invest in their peers. "It doesn't take seven years, five years, one year to build culture," he said. "Sometimes it does in certain things, but guess what? You can build culture one minute at a time, too."
When he started at Bettendorf High School in Iowa 14 years ago, his only support system to help him that first year was the building's secretary. The profession is isolated, but at the end of the day, trading in those "islands of isolation" and moving beyond "pockets of excellence" to "networks of excellence" is on educators themselves.
An key part in getting there is by building personalized, professional learning networks (P2LNs) — and that's an area where educators can thrive by embracing the 3 C's (communication, collaboration, and community) via social media, weekly memos, EdCamps, FedEx Days, teacher exchanges, Google Hangouts, Skype, Voxer, and other outlets.
"The only barrier to our own learning is our own willingness to learn," said Casas.
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