Networking

by Mary Bridget Burns @MaryBridgetEdu

Networking. It's a concept that has gained significance in recent years, but often associated with bankers and business leaders, politicians or pundits. Rarely do educators come to mind when networking is discussed. Rather, teachers and building leaders are encouraged to consider how to participate actively in their in-school Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) or to consider ways to get involved with the school or district's Instructional Learning Teams (ILTs).

These are valuable experiences which offer opportunities for growth and influence, but such Communities of Practice (COPs) may not elicit new ideas or challenge educators to grow.

I suggested Networking for the @WomenEd_US December Twitter chat for precisely these reasons. All types of educators--be they teachers, leaders, advocates, policymakers or researchers--need to actively engage in networking for their own personal and professional growth. Education is not a stale profession any more than banking, manufacturing, or medicine, so why do we as US educators not find ways to learn from our colleagues? I think there are three possibilities, which I will discuss in turn:

1. Educators are not considered professionals in the United States
2. Teaching and leading schools are considered acts of management, not innovation.
3. Education is a feminine and feminized profession in the United States.

Educators are not considered professionals in the United States
The standards of professionalism in the US context have never quite been applied to teaching, as numerous articles and books have discussed (see Ingersoll & Collins, 2018 for example). The is no single board exam to become a teacher such as a lawyer or medical physician must pass. While advanced degrees and certifications are often needed, this is not always the case, and the pay of many teachers is not comparable to peers with similar educations. Compensation itself has long been an issue as pay and benefits vary widely and are dependent on the geographic area, funding at the municipal level, and political will. Socially, teaching does not hold the same status or prestige as other professions, such as engineering or architecture. All of these aspects of education are exacerbated depending on the age of the child taught; a preschool teacher tends to receive even less compensation, respect, or recognition than that of a high school teacher. If teachers and educators are not professionals, what need have they to network? Networking to what end?

Teaching and leading schools are considered acts of management, not innovation
Classroom instruction is also hindered by arcane practices and assumptions regarding its purpose and procedures. Desks in a row, a teacher in the front of the room, and books read quietly between the months of August and June are still characteristics that many Americans consider hallmarks of schooling. Children between the ages of 5 and 18 need somewhere to be and some preparation for adulthood, so school serves those needs. However, what those outside education fail to understand is the complexity of pedagogy and care-giving. Classroom Management, School Budgets, and School Calendars seem accessible to all citizens, who often have opinions, but in reality, the school day is complicated and requires finesse. Teachers are frequently innovating in their lessons, whether that is realized and lauded or not. Yet, when their creativity, ingenuity, and forward-thinking is not appreciated, teachers are not encouraged to share their ideas. So why bother networking?

Education is a feminine and feminized profession in the United States.
At its core, networking in the US context is a male-dominated activity (see Forret & Dougherty, 2004). The traditional spaces for networking--bars, golf courses, conferences--have tended to be male-dominated realms and the process of mentoring and making connections have been policed by men for other men. In education, mentoring certainly does take place, but the impact of intentional, purposeful networking has not taken hold as a beneficial practice. The rhythm of the teaching day and the realities of many teachers as women who are the primary caregivers for their own families have not lent themselves to networking--who has the time? Additionally, the hiring process for teachers and the lack of promotional opportunities have not encouraged networking. If teaching positions are posted publicly, and there are few roles of supervision or responsibility besides the building leadership, what is the point of networking?

In the December twitter chat, #WomenEd leaders and participants worked to disrupt these three aspects of education in the US by asking:

1. Who do you consider to be part of your educator network?

2. Teachers have always shared ideas and instruction is strengthened by new ideas. In what ways have you built and sustained your personal, professional network?

3. Growing as a professional is an essential component of being an educator. How have you effectively built your professional path with support from your network?

4. Networking might not be something our colleagues actively choose to do. What advice would you give for those educators who are interested in finding a professional network or community?

5. What tools or ideas have helped you overcome challenges in being an active participant in/maintaining your network?

Dr. Mary Bridget Burns, @WomenEd_US co-founder and national leader, challenged participants to rethink how they connected with fellow educators, to care for their professional growth through building their own network: 'I think networking should be purposeful, intentional. It is surrounding yourself with those who will help you grow, not to maintain the status quo.'

In addition to her work with #WomenEd, Dr. Burns is a researcher with the American Institutes for Research. She is also the co-chair of the Worcester County Commission on the Status of Women & Girls in Worcester County, Massachusetts. 

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