In the fall of 2005, I was two months into my first teaching position. Two months into the uncertainty, triumphs, and struggles of my chosen profession. I was also on the verge of connecting with a network of teacher leaders who would significantly shape my career and impact, although I would rarely meet any of them in person.

Beginning that year, with the recommendation and encouragement of my principal, I took part in a three-year, grant-funded initiative to develop Professional Learning Communities, a relatively new practice at that time. The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) facilitated this initiative and immediately broadened my understanding of collaboration, colleagues, and leadership.

I began to find my voice as a young teacher leader, both in my school community and among my virtual peers in the Teacher Leaders Network (TLN), a precursor community to CTQ’s Collaboratory. It was the early days of people leveraging technology and the internet for professional growth, and TLN brought teachers from across the country together to share with, learn from, and galvanize each other. I began to watch these teachers and noticed the work they were doing, both in and out of their classrooms. I asked questions. I listened. I shared my experiences. I learned. I grew.

Bolstered by this new network of colleagues and mentors, my confidence in the classroom developed, and I began to expand my teaching practices. I now had a network of educators from across the country to ask how to manage cooperative learning, how to effectively facilitate a Socratic Seminar, how to better involve parents and families. In 2008, when I sought National Board Certification, I benefited from the wisdom and encouragement of so many who had certified before me.

In 2009, I was invited to serve as a VOICE (Virtual Organizers Inspiring Communities of Educators) facilitator. This intense training prepares teacher leaders for the unique needs and challenges of leading in a virtual space. What does it mean to build trust among those who are states away from each other? How do we establish norms and hold one another accountable? When do we need to meet on a webinar to talk and when will asynchronous work be more effective?  

Facilitating this complex learning in the virtual world shaped my leadership and collaboration values. Specifically, I discovered the importance of:

  • Consensus-building: Leaving space for disagreement and productive struggle is essential, but where’s the point of shared ground from which to build?
  • Product-focused discourse: How can our language center on moving the product, project, or action forward, thus allowing potentially sensitive conversations to remain in neutral space?
  • Diplomatic transparency: How can the culture promote clarity and remove illusions of shared understandings in thoughtful and responsible ways?

These lessons prepared me well for the years I spent mentoring student teachers, leading within my building and district, and serving as a CTQ Teacher Leader in Residence. With practice, I began to internalize the collaborative values I learned from my virtual networks and use them in all my interactions.

After the close of the 2013-2014 school year, I decided to take the knowledge and skills I’d gained and apply them in more non-traditional settings. I set off into the world of contracting, using my side-work of tutoring, curriculum writing, and virtual training to fill my work days.

As the years have passed, I have shifted into the outskirts of the educational world. Although my days differ from those in the classrooms, the practices I began developing during that time do not. I still use Bill from North Carolina’s collaborative reflection tools. Renee from Mississippi’s language still reminds me to speak clearly and strongly for students’ needs. I still channel Lori from Colorado when I need to ask probing questions and then truly listen to the answers.

These leaders, as well as countless others, have mentored and shaped the teacher leadership advocate I am today. They have shown me how change can be sparked across time zones and state lines, and how that change can grow into movements that improve our students’ lives and futures.

As I look back on the past 14 years, I see how networking beyond my classroom walls shaped my growth and leadership path. We all need communities to stretch our thinking, and very few of these tribes are located in our backyards. I was fortunate enough to find mine at my fingertips, offering the flexibility of time and space and range of experiences that are essential for teacher leaders.

Sarah’s post is part of CTQ’s latest blogging roundtable: It’s a network, not a clique – A CTQ retrospective. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on the roundtable landing page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

To learn more about how CTQ can help your team build virtual community click here or contact us here.

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