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Making the most of professional learning networks

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

If you’re an English language teacher, or any kind of teacher for that matter, you’ve probably participated in some kind of professional learning network (PLN), or community of practice (COP), at some point or other. If you’re a member of TESOL International or of a local TESOL organization, yes, that counts as a PLN, albeit a large one. Hopping on Zoom twice a month with teachers from different departments in your institution to support each other in using technology for learning is a PLN. Heck, even setting up a WhatsApp chat with colleagues to share successes and challenges and to cheer each other on could count as one. PLNs take many forms.

Simply put, a PLN is a community of individuals who come together to support each other and exchange ideas with the goal of enhancing their teaching practices and growing as professionals and as individuals.

PLNs are more than just showing up at a conference or attending a one-time workshop. While both workshops and conferences are valuable forms of professional development (PD) and can be linked to a PLN, they often can feel one-directional and don’t always involve the kind of collaboration and mutual support that makes PLNs valuable. It’s easy to just check those off a list, process the information, and move on, without making the connections that will sustain our development over time.

The power of PLNs comes from the human connection they foster.

Because of the exchange that happens within PLNs, these groups abound in opportunities for individual and collective reflection—which is why we, as proponents of reflective practice, love PLNs.

Just within the field of TESOL, there are countless PLNs to choose from, from small, local groups to vast international organizations. A few examples include:

  • Regular meetups between teachers in the same institution to discuss challenges, successes, and strategies for improvement or to address a specific area of need within their institution.

  • Collaborations between faculty at two or more institutions.

  • Book clubs or study groups focused on specific topics of mutual interest, in person or through online video conferencing.

  • Special interest sections or regional chapters of large teacher associations, such as TESOL International’s Interest Sections.

  • Social media-based groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, or chat apps (e.g. WhatsApp), where participants can participate digitally and/or through organized events.

  • Online communities hosted by EdWeb, where you can join groups based on your area of interest.

  • Twitter chats, such as #Edchat, using hashtags (#) to aggregate conversations on a given topic.

Yes, it’s a lot of options. So how can we make the most of the PLNs available to us?

The first rule of thumb is to start with you. What are your areas of interest? What are you curious about? What is your teaching context? In what direction would you like to grow? As our recent guest, Ramin Yazdanpanah said in Episode 28, “It's a lot easier to build onto a neural network that's there already.” In other words, start with your interests and strengths, and find PLNs that will invigorate you and allow you to share and learn simultaneously. There’s a reason the “P” in PLN is understood to mean both personal and professional.

If you don’t know where to look, tap into your immediate circle. What people in your life do you admire and enjoy talking about teaching with? What networks and communities are they a part of? Ask about what they’re doing to foster their own learning. You might be surprised by the connections you'll find.

The next step is to narrow it down. If you’re like us, you have a plethora of interests and would be exhilarated to participate in any number of PLNs. But there’s only so much time in a day. You’re just one person. No time-turner for you (dang Hermione!). One mistake we made when we first discovered TESOL International’s Interest Sections was to sign up for six of them at once and then never really become a part of them. So experiment with a few groups, decide what format works best for you (in-person, asynchronous, a mix of formats…?), and focus your energy on one or two PLNs that inspire you.

Breadth is not necessarily the goal of PLNs. Depth is.

Which leads to our next point: participate actively. Once you’ve found your people, having an active presence in the group will help you make deeper connections and develop more fully as an educator. It may seem daunting when you first join, but once you’ve taken the time to observe and get a feel for the community, engaging directly with the topics of conversation and the people involved will be much more beneficial than sitting back. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to take a position of leadership (though that is one way to do it). Asking questions, seeking help, offering mentorship, sharing resources, listening openly to what others are saying…all of these things will enrich your experience and the experience of other group members.

Finally, push yourself a little. No matter your level of expertise or number of years in your field, there’s always something to learn. Is your current PLN not fostering growth? Have you exhausted this topic? Have your interests shifted? Challenge yourself to go out of your comfort zone. Join a new PLN. Start your own PLN!

And that’s what we’ve gone and done. Our goal with the Teacher Think-Aloud PLN is to promote exchange and conversation across continents and educational contexts so that educators can find opportunities for collaboration and reflect on the topics in English language teaching that matter most to them. We hope you’ll join us for one of our upcoming synchronous events on Zoom and/or for our asynchronous conversations on Facebook.

Additional Resources:

Prenger, R, Poortman, C.L., & Handelzalts, A. (2021). "Professional learning networks: From teacher learning to school improvement?" Journal of Educational Change, 22, 13-52.

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