The Educator's PLN

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Finding Our Digital Native Leaders (DNL's)

I was taking part in a phone conference a while back, a rather dull one, when one of the elementary school principals in the room furtively motioned for me to take a look at one of her young teachers who was also participating in the phone conference. I casually looked over in the teacher’s direction (who I’ll call Jessica because there seem to be so many young Jessica’s out there!), and I saw that she was sitting in her chair, her brightly colored phone in her hands, quickly texting and seriously watching her phone screen while the person on the other end of our phone conference droned on about some trivial point.

There were a dozen people in our room and Jessica, at around twenty-five years of age, was the youngest. I knew she was a fine teacher, because I’ve visited her classroom and I’ve seen her in action. She’s already an educational leader in the district, and she’ll be one of the teachers to whom we’ll turn in the future for more leadership. I noticed she was paying attention to the conversation, because she would nod her head in agreement from time to time as certain points arose, or she might frown and slightly shake her head if she disagreed ― all as her fingers furiously worked their way over her phone’s keyboard. There were a few times she would stop, in mid text, and voice an opinion. Then she would go back to her texting. She texted for well over an hour, sending messages and reading the replies.

Jessica wasn’t being disrespectful; she was just being young, and she was doing what young people do. They text. And multi-task. And don’t see anything wrong with whipping out the latest version of a cell phone in almost any environment, regardless of the professional or social decorum, and firing off a few messages to their connected friends.

As I watched her, I was reminded again of how young our new teachers are (and how old they make me feel!), and that they are often of a different sort (and I thank God they are). They are the digital natives who are seeping into our workforce, entering the classrooms as members of the same tribe as the students they are teaching. The rest of us will spend the rest of our lives catching up with how they use technology, view technology, and adapt to technology.

Jessica brings a new perspective to some of our problems, and we need to hear more from the teachers in her age group. I mentioned Jessica has already assumed a leadership role, one to whom others turn routinely for advice, but it’s a type of informal leadership. She is not an official grade level leader or department head or administrator. She’s a solid educator who is bright and willing to work.

We have moved into an era of constant change in which educators must adapt quickly to the shifting characteristics of our students, and as I think of Jessica I wonder if education will adapt more quickly when people in her age group become older and begin to assume more influential positions. There’s always a bit of a generation gap between our more mature educational leaders and our young teachers, but the advent of technology has reshaped our young teachers’ brains, given them experiences at an early age that many mature educators have never had, and given them an advantage over many of our present leaders in understanding their students. The typical generation gap has become a digital generation gap.

The next decade will be one in which a new turbulence will enter our profession, an era when the young digital natives begin to acquire experience, wisdom, and maturity and begin to assert themselves. As they populate our classrooms and move toward leadership positions, we must find answers to several questions.

• What must our mentor teachers know and be able to do as they work with first-year teachers who have just left universities where they were connected through social media and used technology extensively in their lives?
• Will our mentors give them the freedom they need to bring the digital universe into their classrooms?
• If they are given the opportunity, will these digital natives be courageous enough to apply their intuitive talents and to use technology creatively with their students, or will they retreat into the same teaching practices as their peers and to the practices which were employed with them (or done to them!) when they were students, which are practices often not centered around technology usage?
• Will these digital natives have the technology available to them to use in their teaching, or will their teaching be stymied by their lack of hardware and software in their classrooms?
• What must our informal and formal leaders do to support the digital native leaders (DNL’s) and the transition?

I’ve begun to seek the answers to the last question, to find out what we must do to promote our DNL’s. First, we must recognize that today’s young teachers have some of the same altruistic characteristics as their predecessors: they want to help kids; they want to make their part of the world a better place; and perhaps more than ever, they want to give significant meaning to their lives. These young people will sit in grade level, department, and staff meetings, and they will have some of the same thoughts as the senior members of the group as issues are discussed, but there will be times when their thoughts will naturally travel down a different path shaped by their experiences with technology, especially when the topic pertains to teaching, learning, and assessment in the classroom. When this happens, how will we tap into their ideas?

We must make conscience efforts to find our most creative young teachers and draw them into the conversation. Our youngest teachers will often sit passively out of respect for their mentors and leave the conversation and decision making to them. This has been the model for many decades, but we must now make concerted efforts to invite our young teachers into the inner circle of decision making. If they are not speaking, we should turn to them and ask how they would teach a certain lesson or unit and how they would assess learning. If they offer an idea, we should encourage them to elaborate. We must take them seriously and not be too quick to dismiss their input.

Most importantly, we must give them the freedom to explore and to be unique. Today’s young teachers represent a generation that wants more choices than ever before and has been raised to express its individuality. They don’t always wish to conform, and when they choose their path, we should observe them, support them, and learn from them. They will make mistakes like all of us, especially in a profession as tough as teaching, but they will also carve new trails on which we might follow and might never have found. The experienced teachers can always share their stories of success and failure and then let the young teachers apply them to their own journey. Each year I address the new teachers on their first day of inservice in our district, and I tell them what I consider to be some of the most important words I can say to them: Maybe you will be the one to find a critical breakthrough in how we teach, how students learn, and how we assess them.

There will come a day in the future when our entire teaching ranks will be populated by digital natives, and the entire education establishment will adapt much more rapidly because the entire group will have known rapid change throughout its life. Until we reach this point, we must seek out the Jessica’s, the ones who can bring their digital native traits with them, who can multi-task, offer insight, and grow into DNL’s. The next two decades will be periods in which we must push our young stars to grow. If we are going to have a smooth transition into the era of digital educators, we must give today’s DNL’s platforms from which to lead.

Questions for Reflection and Implementation:
1. What will I do to find the DNL’s?
2. When I find them, how will I support them?
3. How will I provide a platform from which the DNL’s may share and lead?
4. How will I apply their ideas to myself and to the system?

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