Why you should create a Professional Learning Network online

Hello again! Thanks for stopping by. In this post I’m going to be talking about why I think creating a Professional Learning Network is such a great idea at the moment.

Well, last week (or the week before?) the lovely Eirini sent me a message about taking part in some research for her postgraduate degree and, of course, I said yes! I absolutely love taking part in research. I think this started at the University of Sheffield because they used to give us incentives to take part in surveys – things like drinks or club tickets, Amazon vouchers or 10% off codes. At uni, it was a great way to get discounts and freebies, but it also made me realise how important it is for people to take part in research for students.

Anyway, Eirini’s topic is something that interests me so I was more than happy to oblige and it also really got me thinking about my professional learning network (PLN) and the wonderful people I have met through it.

Here I’m going to discuss a few things*:

How my PLN started
How I’ve grown it
What I’ve learnt
What I hope I’m sharing / giving
Why I’d recommend it
Any downsides?
If not Twitter, where else?
A summary

I’d love it if you read through it all, but I’m giving you the clickable overview in case there is just one part that you’re interested in and you can jump straight to it – which is absolutely fine!

I’ve been in a writing rut lately but this topic is something that I feel strongly about, and with Simply Red – Sunrise on in the background, I’m hoping this will be a useful post.

*Disclaimer: This blog post is not based on research. It is based on my own experiences and to take time to reflect on my own PLN. In the near future I may, however, do some research further into this matter and write a new post reflecting on my findings. Stay tuned!

  1. How did I start my PLN?

Although I have, and still enjoy using, LinkedIn, I am not ‘addicted’ to it in the way that we may find ourselves constantly scrolling through Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. I don’t use it to ‘chat’ or catch up on others’ lives, but simply to update my work experience and look for jobs. I worked with some amazing colleagues when I first started teaching and I never needed to reach out to people online for advice or materials (how narrow minded, Claire). But in 2019 the way I worked started changing.

In March 2020 I came back to the UK from a brief stint in Warsaw, Poland. I had a negative experience at a school and needed a quick exit. I had a job lined up (a funny story!) for when I came back and within 2 days of landing I was in a new flat and teaching again. It made me think about if I really wanted to continue my career in EFL. Things weren’t feeling too positive at the time and I couldn’t really see a future for me without a DELTA or a second MA, neither of which I could afford. 

So, I decided to apply (for the third time) for a PGCE. I had to re-write a personal statement, find references and decide where to apply to. The previous year I had been offered places at both Nottingham at Uni of Sheffield, but I turned them down for various reasons. I tried Sheffield again but they were full – in March! I knew Jonas and I would want to stay in Sheffield and felt that my only other choice was Sheffield Hallam. I was offered a place during my interview and accepted it the next day. 

A PGCE was my ticket to a lifelong career and a better salary, right?
I had held off creating a professional Twitter until I had chosen a place, but as soon as I came home from my interview I set one up. I was excited to start making new connections and listening to other peoples’ experiences. I was sceptical though, because I thought I would be seen as a ‘newbie’ or just a ‘backpacker teacher’. 

Pah! No one made me feel that way and I really enjoyed following new people both in the secondary school and TEFL fields. 

  1. How I’ve grown my PLN

When I started off I had no intention of setting goals or being ‘popular’ on Twitter. All I wanted to do was listen and learn. I wanted to be as fully prepared for my PGCE as possible and I felt that listening to others would be the best way of doing this. Well, aside from getting my folders ready and doing some background reading! 

I tried to connect with English only teachers at first, and tried not to follow EFL / ESOL teachers (why on Earth?!), because I really wanted to remain as focused as possible. However, I quickly realised that this was a ridiculous thing to do. EFL is my teaching background, and despite all of the advice I had had saying that I mustn’t mix my EFL experience with my new school experience (why??) I decided not to listen to it. I wanted to mix these experiences. Surely, using what I already knew and had experienced would only help me going forward?

So I started to follow other secondary school teachers around the country, and a few working abroad too. I decided that the more people I connected with, the more I would hear and learn about. I also followed other language teachers (MFL teachers in the UK and abroad) and started to follow my fellow EFL / ESOL teachers too. This was definitely the right thing to do.

In July or August I noticed a lot of teachers began to talk about preparing to return to school, creating schemes of work, sharing back to school tips and ideas and through these I noticed a few ‘follow trains’. Now, I’m not a fan of these ‘follow me / follow you’ things because I find them a little pointless. However, Mr G (@deputygrocott) has a fantastic network of people and so far I haven’t followed or had someone follow me that I haven’t found interesting or supportive in some way. I looked forward to meeting new people from the follow train each Wednesday and have made a few fantastic connections through it as well. 

And this is far less ‘creepy’ than someone messaging you on LinkedIn saying ‘Hey let’s connect and grow our followers’. 

At first, I refused to post anything personal on my Twitter. I didn’t want people to think I was just a silly girl, or someone who mixed my professional and personal life too much, but over time this changed. I noticed many people posting things about their family, pets, tv shows and other such things. I figured that now and again it wouldn’t hurt to show I had a life (really, Claire? Do you?) and this actually helped me to connect with my followers. 

I also use it to post my blogs. At first I only shared the blogs that were about teaching, but now I post all of my blogs on Twitter and it is where many of my readers come from. Okay, they’re from Sheffield and Bournemouth, Tokyo and Bangkok, not actually Twitter. Obviously.

I feel that through posting my blogs people can choose to learn more about me and my experiences without me flooding their timelines with things that a) they already know or b) aren’t interested in. 

Whilst growing my PLN took me a long time, I now have a network that I love connecting with. And yes, I did join the follow train (just the one though), but I have still been somewhat selective over who I follow and I’m glad about that. I would hate to have 10,000 followers that I couldn’t connect with or didn’t contribute in any way.  Now, after 18 months I have just over 3,000 followers who I believe in and I think they are all fantastic. 

If you feel daunted by having to, or not being able to, grow your network I’d recommend being as patient as possible. Don’t follow people who are irrelevant to you, post about things that might be useful / insightful to others and be as open minded as you can. Remember, the number of followers you have has no reflection on you as a teacher or professional, it simply means you have not been more widely recognised somehow.

  1. What I’ve learnt from my PLN

Wow, what haven’t I learnt?! First of all, let me point out that Twitter, and social media in general, has both positives and negatives. I have seen many, many people ‘leave’ Twitter or shut down their accounts completely due to bullying and I find this disgusting. As professionals, as educators and as adults I think this is unbelievable. I’m shocked that adults bully each other knowing full well how destructive it can be. 

On the other hand, as long as you are sensible and occasionally learn to hold your tongue, or make the very most of the block button, Twitter can thoroughly expand your PLN, offer many new experiences and a whole new world of knowledge. I sound like I’m promoting a paid version of PLNs, but I really do believe in the benefits of them.

I’ve learnt that there are some truly wonderful and genuine people in the world. There are people who were absolutely born to be teachers, but also some who shouldn’t be! I have learnt that as teachers, we stand up for each other, support each other and try our best to make the world a little bit better. And I honestly believe that.

Here is a list of things I have learnt through my own PLN:

a. Finding more teaching blogs

b. Gaining insight into the ELT publishing world

c. There are so many options for buying a property

d. Many Mandarin MFL teachers in the UK are English, and I think this is awesome!

e. The number of native speakers who believe that non-native speakers shouldn’t be teaching English disgusts me! (See @hughdellar for further discussions.

f. I am followed (on Twitter, obviously!) by Jim Scrivener and you can bet I fangirled over it when it happened.

g. There are so many amazing resources that have been handmade by teachers who are willing to share them. I love this and hope one day I’ll be sharing my materials too.

4. What I hope that I am sharing with others

Apart from my outspoken-ness and weird sense of humour, my love of football and the occasional scenery photo, what I really hope I’m sharing is my newbie knowledge of life and teaching. 

I used to enjoy sharing my experiences of travelling abroad and I found that people generally enjoyed them as well. I know reading a teaching blog isn’t as exciting as seeing the world, albeit through someone else’s eyes, but I thought it might offer some insight to someone who is also relatively new to the teaching world. I know I wish I had a new teacher’s point of view when I first started because I often found my colleagues’ knowledge intimidating and there was no way I was able to relate to their years of experiences and qualifications. Anyway!

In short, I do hope that my experiences (both good and bad) help others see a realistic view of the teaching world. The highs and lows, the funny and the inspiring moments as well as the things that make you want to curl up in a ball and hide for days. I want people to know that they’re not alone on their bad days and that they can also share their success stories with me as well.

By the way! If you’re reading this as one of my Twitter followers, I would be really keen to hear why you follow me. Even if your answer is ‘you were on the follow train’ – that’s okay!

Another thing* I hope to share with my followers is my blog posts about mental health. I used to write about it a lot, but not as often these days, and I think that this is more important than ever this year. I would like to think that I am able to share my experiences, advice and offer support to those who may need it.

*(not a great word, Claire!)

5. Why I’d recommend Twitter / PLNs

Well, I think I’ve made my arguments fairly clear throughout my post so far. To avoid any added waffling during this part I will try to summarise them as best as I can.

  1. You’re not alone! Your PLN should be a network of supportive people who you can share ideas with, ask for support or materials or just have a natter with.
  2. Friends! This is a wonderful opportunity to make friends with people who you may never have crossed paths with otherwise. Okay, so not everyone will become a friend, but there’s a good chance that many will!
  3. Make connections. You never know where your next job will come from, what project you might be asked to work on or events you could be invited to. They keep saying that it’s all about ‘who you know’ these days and I honestly believe this is true.
  4. For those of you who would like a support network but without revealing where you work or who you really are, you can absolutely do this online. In fact, it’s quite common amongst teachers due to the nature of our roles.

6. But are there any downsides*?

Now, unfortunately this part needs to be included. I don’t want to be accused of pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes or looking at PLNs through rose-tinted glasses. In life, there is often a negative side to most things, but online this is especially true. Why has bullying increased alongside the rise of social media? It’s fairly obvious. There are many people, children, teens and adults, that gain a level of confidence behind a computer screen that they don’t have face-to-face. This can be disastrous. 

I experienced this mostly as a young teenager, but also in my early 20s as well. When I was younger, my teachers and parents often told me that it would get better. That life gets better. In many ways, it does. However, what I never expected was that adults can be just as cruel as teenagers. Why?

Well, there are many reasons why people are unkind. Whether it’s jealousy, bitterness or just something else. My point is, PLNs are no exception to this unkindness. 

Like the naive, young Claire, I didn’t think that people would be bullies at university, I also didn’t think that adults would bully others through work either. Oh, how wrong I was. I have seen some truly horrible comments, tweets and messages, direct and indirect, about other people on the internet. I have seen many lovely teachers leave social media platforms because they have been bullied and it truly enrages me. 

Grown adults, men and women, who send abusive, sexist, racist, hate-filled messages to people who simply have a different *something* about them. Whether that’s a gender, an idea, a job role, or the colour of their skin. It’s disgusting, but it is still happening.

At this point, this is where you need to be careful. I strongly believe in standing up for what’s right, for people in trouble and for yourself, but sometimes this only adds fuel to the fire online. It’s up to you to decide which situations to become involved in as you will often receive part of the backlash. Sometimes it’s worth it and other times it will eat away at you.

However, on the whole, I have found Twitter to be a wonderful place to create and grow your PLN. I recommend it to my students, my colleagues and friends because I truly believe that it can be more beneficial than harmful. You simply need to use your common sense, be respectful and know when to take a break if it becomes too much.

*The downsides to Twitter is another blog post. Stay tuned. Once it’s live I’ll add the link here as well.

  1. If not Twitter, where else?

Okay, here’s a thought I’ll drop in. If you’re not a fan of Twitter, for whatever reason, where else could you create a PLN? From my experience, Facebook is not the place. Instagram would be suitable for the more creative people (artists, tattoo artists, independent businesses and so on) but many teachers are also thriving on there as well. I’d say Instagram is either a big hit, or a waste of time, depending on what you do and how well you do it.

LinkedIn is your most business-like platform and it enables you to connect with people on a strictly professional level. You can view their CVs, experience and connections without having to ask for that information (most of the time), whereas on Twitter people can be a little more reserved if they wish. 

In my opinion, LinkedIn is more professional and probably not the platform where you’d make friends. It is also great for sharing visual marketing posts like videos and images and you can also write your own ‘blog’ posts on there. It’s nice for those who wish to keep things more professional.

However, everyone’s experiences will be different and I’m only talking from my own.

“Don’t @ me” if I’m wrong, please.

And a summary…

Hey! Are you still here? Awesome. Let’s wrap this post up with some key points then, shall we?

  1. Anyone can grow their Professional Learning Network on any social media platform they wish. Which one will suit you best? That depends on what role you’re in, how you wish to portray yourself and which one offers the most exposure for what you need.
  2. Twitter is my personal favourite because it offers the chance for you to grow your PLN whilst making friends, sharing photos and blog posts without it feeling too formal.
  3. Don’t be afraid or ashamed of who you are or what you do. Be honest, share your ideas and try to stay open minded.
  4. Don’t share any information you don’t want to. There are plenty of people within my PLN who don’t have a profile picture or do not share information about their job or families. That’s absolutely fine, and in many ways it’s smart too! You have to feel comfortable within your PLN otherwise it will be counter-productive.
  5. Use your common sense. You will come across negative people, words or experiences online, but as adults we do have some control over how we react to these. My favourite options here are mute, unfollow and block #noshame
  6. And finally, whether you choose Twitter or another platform, growing your PLN is supposed to be a fun, engaging and knowledgeable experience for everyone. If it isn’t bringing you the positivity you’d hoped for, try logging off for a break or give another platform a go.

If you’re still reading, I can’t thank you enough! If you’ve zoomed over a few paragraphs, that’s alright too! I hope this blog post has been useful for you and would love to hear your thoughts on professional learning networks.

  • Do you have one? If so, what do you enjoy about it? What have you learnt so far?
  • If not, are you thinking about creating one and what do you hope to gain from it?

Drop me a comment or head over to my Twitter for further discussions about PLNs – chat soon!

4 thoughts on “Why you should create a Professional Learning Network online

Add yours

  1. So nice to read about your experiences of developing and cultivating a PLN. I started Twitter years ago and soon connected with other teachers and language learners away from my physical staff room. This was great to develop my confidence in my first few years once I had returned to the UK. I experienced poorly with some local private language schools and it took a fair knock on my confidence. I also started my blog/website 12 years ago when I commenced my MA in English Language Teaching. I would always urge any language teacher to develop a PLN via Twitter and/or LinkedIn.

  2. Good post! I love my PLN, some very very helpful people out there. Maybe one day, post covid, we can organise Northern drinks for Twitter people.

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