Why Teachers in International Language Schools Should Embrace Professional Learning Networks

Consider these two fictional teachers working at an international language school for young adults:

  • Teacher A, let’s call her ‘Mia’, has worked at the school for six months, is still becoming familiar with the content of the course but feels she has a good understanding of the concepts and skills which students need to learn. She is always looking for new learning experiences and resources to include in her class. Mia loves social media and has started connecting with other teachers via Twitter and Facebook. She doesn’t watch television very much and stays up to date with current affairs through the news app on her phone and social media.
  • Teacher B, let’s call him ‘Bob’, has worked at the school for ten years, feels he has a good understanding of the level he teaches, knows what’s in the textbook for each unit and has three folders of worksheets he has accumulated over time. He knows the level so well, he doesn’t really need to plan any more other than adapting the lessons to the learners’ needs. Bob doesn’t use the Internet much and gets his news from the television at night. He feels he is up to date with current issues.

If you were an international young-adult student learning English in Australia, which teacher would you prefer? In this post, I will explore some of the reasons why Mia’s connection with professional learning networks (PLNs) makes her the most valuable type of teacher for young people.

Who are the young adults in international language schools?

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.

Social media is for now; popular culture is forever.

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 because social media gives 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.

PLNs can help teachers stay in touch with popular culture and current affairs.

Teachers can strengthen their knowledge and understanding of popular culture by interacting with PLNs. This is important for teachers because to ignore popular culture is to ignore the world as it exists today. If teachers wish to prepare students for the real world, they should have an understanding of what that real-world actually is and how it will continue to change. A PLN is a network that helps its members to learn casually by connecting them with each other and useful assets (Oddone, Hughes, & Lupton, 2019) and can contain a number of 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. Now, I would like to examine how PLNs can 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 is perceived by some educators as a means of interacting with popular culture and its commentators. It is quite likely that teachers will interact in their PLN via platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and therefore be exposed to discussions around popular culture. Of course, conversations can also take place physically when teachers interact in the staffroom.

PLNs can help teachers choose relevant texts and learning activities.

Going back to our example, when planning the learning for the week ahead, let’s say the topic is technology, Bob and Mia are likely to plan vastly different learning experiences. Bob might flick through the school’s textbook to find the relevant unit, remember how he taught it last time, photocopy some worksheets and put his feet up. Mia will get to know the unit a bit better, ask people in her TESOL teachers’ Facebook group if anyone has any good activities, curate example activities from Twitter and look for interesting videos on YouTube that might be used to spark discussion. All the while, she will be consciously and unconsciously interacting with popular culture, keeping up to date with what is relevant to the topic today. As technology moves on so quickly, Bob’s reliance on the textbook with its photos of clunky technology from ten years ago is likely to draw a bit of a snigger from the students. Conversely, being influenced by popular culture, Mia’s lesson might be more relevant and useful to the students.

PLNs can be beneficial for mental health.

Teachers should develop their PLNs because connection with peers can be beneficial for 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 degrading 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 this feeling of belongingness. So, it stands to reason that this logic can also be applied to teachers. Suriano et al. (2018) state that sharing classroom experiences and discussing current events is very helpful for increasing the 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 mentally important conversations via PLNs must surely be positive.

Conclusion

PLNs can be so useful for the professional development of teachers. 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

Jenkins, H., Ito, M., & Boyd, D. (2016). Participatory culture in a networked era: A conversation on youth, learning, commerce, and politics. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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

 

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