Can Being A Connected Educator Distract From Meaningful Work?

I don’t want more friends or connections. What I want is to strengthen relationships with inspiring colleagues I’ve already met online or know in person.

As connected educators, we get a positive jolt when our ideas are retweeted. When we come across an inspiring blog post, we feel great about our engagement in self-directed professional growth. After attending a worthwhile conference, we often feel as if we’ve finally met dozens of our long-lost cousins from the pedagogy family tree.

This past weekend, I attended a wonderful event: The Kentucky ECET2 convening. My Jefferson County (Louisville, KY) colleague and fellow CTQ Collaboratory member Robin “MeMe” Ratliff played a pivotal role in organizing the event, for which I’m grateful.

Fired-up educators shared best practice, critiqued each others’ work plans, and attended breakout sessions. For many, it was an amazing opportunity to network and meet kindred spirits.

But not for me. I spent most of my time cultivating relationships with colleagues I’d already interacted with.

I don’t want more friends or connections. What I want is to strengthen relationships with inspiring colleagues I’ve already met online or know in person. I’ve reached my own connection saturation; it’s now time to transfer the energy of networking and idea swapping into more substanial action.

It’s all about the law of diminishing returns. Too many inputs–the ideas and connections we make online and in person–can encroach on our ability to reflect, to collaborate, and act. Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “Small Change,” in which he argues that social media movements will never be as impactful as activism spawned by face-to-face relationships.

Gladwell’s words spoke to me, as I considered my own most dynamic professional learning experiences. The Bread Loaf School of English, a residential summer graduate program with participating educators from around the world. Center for Teaching Quality’s own VOICE training, in which a cohort of folks meets regularly to learn skills in virtual collaboration and organizing. While the former experience was “in the flesh” and the latter virtual, both relied on sustained interaction with a fixed number of people.

The sustained, professional give and take and build and grow with smaller numbers of colleagues–whether it be in-person, digitally, or a blend of both–is where I want to focus my energy.

For me, this means leading 14 Louisville teachers in the CTEPS (Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions) cohort through June and hopefully beyond. We meet in virtual and face-to-face settings to build teacher efficacy in leadership and online collaborative skills, designing solutions to local challenges. The project is modeled after fellow teacherpreneur Lauren Hill’s statewide CTEPS cohort of National Board Certified Teachers here in Kentucky. Working with her, I’m seeing the connection between fostering relationships and sustaining real work.

Because my role as a teacherpreneur provides with me time to engage in this type of cohort-based work, I know I’m in a unique position to critique the phenomenon of connection saturation. And significant networking, admittedly, is part of my job. But it could be the job, one that doesn’t feel particularly productive or fulfilling.

We’re all at different points in our journeys as educators; some of us benefit from a kickstart by interacting with others at conferences, leading us to reflect and implement new ideas in the classroom. Others feed off the energy of social media, grateful to engage with positive, solutions-oriented folks in the digital realm, a respite from frustrating colleagues or suffocating school cultures.

As for me, I’d rather reflect on the year 2015 not as the year in which my social media feeds and followers reached new heights, but as a year in which I truly got to know others, collaborating over time and seeing tangible products emerge from our efforts.

  • wjtolley

    Everything in moderation. 

    Everything in moderation. 

    You make good points, Paul, and it’s great that you are standing up for everyone who may feel that trendy PLNs aren’t satisfying, but different strokes for different folks, and circumstances. 

    As an international school educator I have had to adapt to a professional situation in which diverse face to face options are limited, but I have developed some of my most rewarding professional experiences in that environment. Obvious case in point: I have never met anyone at CTQ. Lauren Stephenson dropped out of the sky one day after reading one of my blog posts and then next thing you know I am connected to CTQ, writing blog posts publishing in practioner’s journals…and working with a bunch of great people who I only “really” know by their thumbnails. 

    I think the way the world is moving, we are going to have to nurture both local and distance professional relationships.

    I’d be happy to chat with you more about it over a Skype-beer sometime. 

    • PaulBarnwell

      You are adapting well!

      Skype-beer sounds good, as you’ve got a great perspective regarding the benefits of connecting digitally to enhance and energize your practice.  

      This past fall I felt really fragmented, with too many “sips” of information, messaging, and whatnot. It was stressful. It felt a little like a hamster wheel. So I realized I needed to reevaluate how and why I engaged digitally on a professional level.  

      I’m curious to hear from others, because we all obviously have different needs and goals with our learning and engagement. 


  • robinratliff

    Vantage Points

    I’ve read this post several times.  I’ve often wondered on the topic of connection saturation (never had a term for it though) and think that connections must be looked at from different angles.  There are many people in rural school districts, not only in Kentucky, that are not as fortunate as those in larger, urban districts, to develop a meaningful PLN/PLC, and at times, those that are ‘mandated’ by districts don’t offer the quality opportunities for pedagogical growth some educators need.  The desire to meet new colleagues that stimulate growth and challenge me professionally is strong.  I can admit that there are many people that I’ve met in my social media forays and state and national level professional developments do not fall into this category, however I continue the search.

    When I joined Twitter in early 2011, my sole intent was to learn from amazing physical educators around the world.  I quickly found that there weren’t a multitude of American PE teachers out there yet.  I made some wonderful connections and have networked with them virtually quite often.  It was almost 18 months or so before I began to connect with American physical educators.  Those connections were more meaningful because we shared the same national standards and government.  Their teaching styles and activities melded more with mine, and our sharing was more beneficial.  I still had very few, if any, quality PE tweeters from my state.  

    As I began my ECETexperience in Lexington last January, my initial goal was to laud the #physed network that existed and bring more into the fold.  What I didn’t realize was that I was looking at the problem from the wrong aspect.  I was so focused on bringing Kentucky phys ed teachers to a global network, I had missed out on the powerful network that already existing network that existed in my own state of general education.  I was hooked.  I joined CTQ and took part in #KYEDCHAT on Thursday nights.  My Kentucky network became more of a focal point than my content area.  The educators in KY and I all share a common goal – help the learners in Kentucky. 

    At some point, I realized I was off task.  I’ll redirect now…

    You make a valid point, Paul.  It is possible for connection saturation, but at different levels for each individual.  It’s important in the process of meeting and networking to continually assess and refocus.  Maybe the saturation comes from connections that need to be ‘unhooked’ or replaced to give you more room to soak in knowledge.

    Thanks for the Small Change article.  Very interesting read:)


    • PaulBarnwell

      Your response is worthy of a blog!

      Thanks for adding to the discussion MeMe: it’s certainly a nuanced issue since we all need and seek out various levels of connection.

      Your journey as a connected educator is instructive–joining Twitter with a certain expectation but going along for the ride and finding a different group of motivated folks speaks to the power of social networking and learning.

      Catch ya later,


  • Carol Skyring

    Dunbar’s Number

    Yes Paul – I think we all hit saturation point at some stage. I think we need more research into how Dunbar's number applies to social media – a topic I've been interested in since my research into the use of Twitter as a professional learning tool. (Let me know if you want to read my thesis & I'll give you the eprint link.) I'll be doing some spring cleaning of my social media platforms & contacts this year.

    • PaulBarnwell

      Alright, I’m intrigued:)

      Alright, I’m intrigued:) Going to look into this Dunbar’s number.

  • DeidraGammill

    A virtual smorgasbord of learning


    Thanks so much for giving voice to something I’ve struggled with since last fall – I just didn’t know what to call it, and I certainly didn’t think anyone else had experienced it.

    My introduction to virtual PLN/PLCs came the fall of 2013 as a result of the Teacher Leadership Initiative (Year 1), which connected me to the CTQ Collaboratory. I learned how to use Twitter to share ideas with learn from other teachers (although the 140 character thing is still a challenge for this word-lover). I learned how to participate in webinars and Zoom sessions. And I fell in love with the experience of connecting with educators all across the country (and in some instances, around the globe) that had a similar passion to improve the profession and provide authentic, meaningful learning opportunities for their students. I felt like Templeton the rat (Charlotte’s Web) when he arrived at the county fair with Wilbur – I was faced with a virtual smorgasbord of learning opportunities and I wanted to try all of them. Templeton’s night of gorging culminates with him dragging himself, bloated and beyond sated, back to Wilbur’s stall and passing out. My year of sampling every learning opportunity I came across left me overwhelmed and stressed. There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing, even in the world of professional learning and connectedness.

    Do one thing and do it well used to be my mantra. Your blog post reminded me that it’s far better to go a mile deep and an inch wide, to cultivate stronger ties with a few than to simply have many connections without any sense of real community (kind of like having 1000s of “friends” on Facebook and not a single friend to talk to when you really need one).

    Being a connected educator doesn’t mean I have to be connected with everything; it means I purposefully choose my learning opportunities and make the very most of them. I don’t have to sample everything on the buffet to get my money’s worth for dinner 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.


  • TammyBerlin

    Less Is More

    I, too, have been going through a phase of reducing my contacts and paring down my interactions, especially online.  With less quantity and frequency, I hope to increase the meaningfulness of my interactions.

    Thanks, Carol, for the link to the info on Dunbar’s number.  That study has interesting implications for those of us who are high school teachers and have 150 student load.  I’ve long thought that 150 student load precludes any possibility of having meaningful relationships, or meaningful interactions for that matter, with all of our students.  The “Pack ’em deep & teach ’em cheap” philosophy that we’ve adopted over the years does our students a disservice in more ways than one.

  • BillIvey

    I think it’s different for everybody (as you imply).

    In my case, for the moment, I’m meeting several different needs through my social media edu-connections. For one, I manage my school’s twitter account, and need to harvest at least two (and preferably more) good solid “thought leadership” pieces a day. I try to share a variety of resources that may be purely educational, feminist, anti-racist, and/or oriented to other social justice perspectives.

    I’m also trying to push my thinking in each of the above domains.

    I’m also trying to share out resources in each of the above domains that might interest, stimulate, and/or stretch my PLN.

    I’m also trying to participate in Twitter chats, again, to build connections and to push my thinking.

    And finally, I’m also trying to feel not quite so alone during the times of year when my wife and I work in different locations and my son is away at college.

    I have a “daily glimpse” list (private) of about 55 names that includes the people to whom I feel closest and/or that represent a broad range of viewpoints in all the domains in which I’m interested. When I’m rushed, or wanting to go more in depth, I mine this list for interesting resources and/or conversational possibilities.

    But I also have approximately 1650 connections beyond this list, which I may sift through if I find I need to work harder to meet my school quota for the day or if I just want to see what random gems I may stumble on. I know and recognize that I’m missing out on hundreds if not thousands of tweets a day from the people that I follow. I’m okay with that, because all of those accounts actually periodically bring something to my life (when I hit 2000 people I was following and Twitter capped me, I dug deep to delete the accounts that truly didn’t matter to me and who weren’t following me any more – and only went down to 1500 or so. Believe it or not!).

    I can’t imagine this system would be even close to what most people would want. And maybe when my wife and I are living together year round again (some day!!!), I’ll want something different. But for now, this is what works for me.

    • PaulBarnwell



      It’s really interesting to learn about how and why various educators engage and connect; thanks for sharing your perspective.  

      I’m also realizing that for many of us busy educators, the edu-connections online may be the only positive adult interactions we get during the day, especially if we’re with students all day!