What’s the Value of Your Network?

“Ideas are in fact manifestations of a complex network of neurons firing in the brain and new ideas are only possible when new connections are formed.” – Steven Johnson

New ideas and connections are the basis for creativity and innovation.  If we want to continue to evolve and create schools that meet the needs of all learners, which is not a simple task, it important that educators connect with diverse people in business, their community, other schools and districts to build networks that inspire these new ideas. While networks are critical to idea generation, networking is sometimes seen as “sleazy” in traditional education circles.  In fact, I have had many colleagues say, “I don’t care about developing a network, I just want to be a good teacher.” or “That’s not me, I prefer to just do my thing alone.” Many have built personal and professional identities around being educators, which has been in some ways categorized as opposite of business.  In education, we pride ourselves on being about learning and growing people, serving others not ourselves.  While so many educators have characterized business to be about sales and the individual rewards and thus, we shun the ideas in many education circles.

Although I see this changing more with social media and more access to people, still an overwhelming majority of educators remain in their isolated silos. Networking for too long has had this connotation as being a “business thing” that is self serving and not necessary for educators.  I’ll admit that I saw these worlds as opposite too until I read To Sell is Human by Dan Pink, which helped me see that whether it’s ideas or products, we are in the business of sales. He argues that, “The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness.” When we build a network and create connections between divergent ideas, we have more opportunities to connect, learn, and evolve in our practice. Most educators may not like the idea of “networking” but would have a hard time arguing against something that makes us better and happier in the work that we do.  Tim Sanders, former Yahoo! director, says, “Your network is your net worth.” We grow when open ourselves up to learning from others, share our ideas and work together to create something better.

Here are three ways to connect with people to help you move forward.

Communities of Practice

The tools and the resources won’t improve education, it’s the new and better ideas that we create and share with one another that will be the levers that change schools now and in the future. Communities of practice are like-minded groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and interact regularly to learn how to do it better.  There are not necessarily set outcomes or deliverables required to be communities of practice but they go beyond a community that coexists and have three defining characteristics: a domain, community, and practice.

The Innovator’s Mindset Massive Online Open Course (IMMOOC) is an example of a Community of Practice where like-minded educators around the world have connected based on the book but built a community on the connections and ideas that have shifted mindsets and practice. Learning communities are built over time with sustained interactions and shared spaces to connect. Whether it is online or in person, communities of practice are about developing new and better ideas. These interconnected networks of people come together because of shared interests or goals.

Critical Friends

Just like you never want to buy the nicest house on the street, if you are always the smartest person in the room, you may need to start pushing yourself to seek out people who push your thinking and challenge you. According to Jim Rohn, “You are the average of  the five people you spend the most time with.”  It matters who you surround yourself with and who is pushing you (or not) to be better. You want to surround yourself with people who will raise your average, not bring it down.

You need a diverse network who will challenge you and make you better. In a world where you can find “facts” to support your opinion or point of view and the information that we get coming into our lives via social media and social circles is often curated to fit our perspectives, it more important than ever to seek out opposing perspectives. The power in engaging with critical friends is not just spending time together or finding people who will support you.  While that is important, true learning and growth requires being pushed out of your comfort zone.

Although you might not be able to surround yourself with the top educators and thinkers regularly, choose to spend time with those who elevate you and when you can’t, ensure that you seek out points of view that push your thinking.  For example, I used to only read books on education, but I once I started reading books on leadership, business and entrepreneurship, I began to see so many connections to the world of education, as well as blind spots that I had.  I began to see the conversations in the world that were not happening in my close knit education circles, which pushed my thinking and practice. This won’t only help us in education but in life too.  As the United States is becoming increasingly polarized, I find myself seeking out divergent viewpoints to try and better understand counter arguments and think about perspectives that I may be missing when I only talk with those who share my same point of view.

Accountability Partners

Brady Venables and Shawn Clark are prime examples of people who push each other to be better. They take this a step further to rely on one another as accountability partners- you know like the friend that you make plans to go to the gym with so that you actually go because you don’t want to let them down.  Shawn wrote about the power of their partnership on the blog where they write together regularly,

Finding your accountability partner requires you to know yourself first and identify your own strengths and weaknesses.  Allowing yourself to own your growth areas allows you to begin the journey to find a partner who complements your practice and who can help fine tune competency in your role.  I admit there are times when I am scared to pick up the phone or text Brady because I really don’t want to face what she has to say to me. Her incessant questioning sometimes hurts my head and my heart but I absolutely come out the other side a better and brighter and more thoughtful person who is never allowed to not put students first.

When you find a person that encourages and challenges you to always be better, you can’t help but grow.  In a world that is changing rapidly, many are digging their heels in the ground.  It’s easy to maintain the status quo and find people who will make you feel at ease taking this path.  Finding those who will invest the time in to help you become the best version of yourself, is not as common. Taking risks ensures that there will be challenges along the way, seek partners who will pick you up and help you learn from the experience, while keeping you on your path to achieve your goals.

Do you have people who challenge your thinking and push you to do better?  Do you challenge others or maintain the status quo?   If the answer is no to either of these questions, I challenge you to think about finding a critical friend, accountability buddy or community of practice to push your thinking and help you create something better.

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