Why Teachers in International Language Schools Should Embrace Professional Learning Networks

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If you were an international young-adult student learning English in Australia, which teacher would you prefer: one who recycles the same lessons again and again or one who integrates popular culture into their lessons? In this post, I will investigate whether teachers who engage with professional learning networks (PLNs) provide more relevant learning experiences for young people.

Students in Australian international language schools come from many different countries and have diverse personalities and interests. Many of these young people stay connected to their family and friends via social media, which they then also use to connect with new people they meet during their stay. Young people are used to sharing and exploring their interests through social media (Ito et al., 2010; Takacs, 2015), and this gives them a constant connection to popular culture in its ever-changing state.

Popular culture affects many aspects of our lives. It encompasses the things that people commonly choose to do as well as the things they interact with (Takacs, 2015). It is entwined in social media, an ever-changing set of platforms through which popular culture can be reflected. In some ways, social media is popular culture (at least for now) because social media is a thing that many people are interested in. Popular culture existed before electronic social media and is likely to continue once social media in its current form evolves into whatever comes next.

Teachers can strengthen their knowledge and understanding of popular culture by interacting with PLNs. These are networks that help members to learn by connecting them with each other and useful assets (Oddone, Hughes, & Lupton, 2019). Networks can contain several different strands, for example, face-to-face interactions and online ones. In this previous post, I described how interacting with my own PLN helped me to feel more connected to people in my profession in terms of finding resources and professional development. PLNs can also help teachers to stay up to date with popular culture.

According to Oddone et al. (2019), social technology can be an important element of a PLN because it can facilitate interaction with popular culture and its commentators. Teachers often interact in PLNs via platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and so might be exposed to news and discussions related to popular culture. These types of conversations can also take place physically when teachers interact in the staffroom.

Teachers who interact with their PLN when planning a syllabus can access the latest and most relevant materials and teaching methods. They might ask people in their TESOL teachers’ Facebook group for ideas, curate example activities from Twitter or look for interesting videos on YouTube that might be used to spark discussion. All the while, they will be consciously and unconsciously interacting with popular culture, keeping up to date with events and ideas that are relevant to the unit topic. Being influenced by popular culture, the resulting lessons are likely to be more relevant and useful to the students.

Another benefit of interacting with a PLN is the positive effect interaction with peers can have on mental health. Teachers often experience feelings of isolation and uncertainty. A perceived lack of support from peers and leaders is one of the key reasons for teacher attrition (Suriano, Ohlson, Norton, & Durham, 2018). Similarly, international students often feel isolated and are vulnerable to deteriorating mental health (Taliaferro, Muehlenkamp, & Jeevanba, 2019). However, connecting with others is not enough on its own. For people to really thrive, they must feel they belong to a group. According to Glass and Westmont (2014), being part of events, mentoring and providing a service to a community can help students to develop a feeling of belonging. It stands to reason that this could also apply to teachers. Suriano et al. (2018) state that sharing classroom experiences and discussing current events is very helpful for increasing a sense of belonging in teachers. While schools have a responsibility to ensure they support their teachers’ mental health and professional development, the fact that teachers can make their own connections and have constructive conversations via PLNs must surely be positive.

PLNs can be invaluable for teachers’ professional development. Not only can they help teachers find relevant content that will align with students’ knowledge of popular culture, but they can also ensure that teachers have the vital conversations they need if they are to feel like they belong to their teaching communities.

References

Glass, C. R., & Westmont, C. M. (2014). Comparative effects of belongingness on the academic success and cross-cultural interactions of domestic and international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 38, 106-119. Retrieved from http://sites.bxmc.poly.edu/~chengyangyin/Thesis/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/1-s2.0-S0147176713000564-main.pdf

Ito, M., Horst, H., Law, A., Manion, A., Mitnick, S., Schlossberg, D., … Antin, J. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Retrieved from http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=1004025

Oddone, K., Hughes, H., & Lupton, M. (2019). Teachers as connected professionals: A model to support professional learning through personal learning networks. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 20(3), 102–120. Retrieved from https://web-a-ebscohost-com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=8f2cc198-7414-442c-853f-568cfeca36dc%40sessionmgr4007

Suriano, K., Ohlson, M., Norton, L., & Durham, L. (2018). Here to stay: A case study in supporting and empowering teachers. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 54(3), 127–129. https://doi.org/10.1080/00228958.2018.1481659

Takacs, S. (2015). Interrogating popular culture key questions. Retrieved from https://www-taylorfrancis-com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/books/e/9780203766583

Taliaferro, L., Muehlenkamp, J., & Jeevanba, S. (2019). Factors associated with emotional distress and suicide ideation among international college students. Journal of American College Health, 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2019.1583655

Image credit: Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

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