By Rachael George, Kourtney Ferrua, & Kate Barker
As the leader in your building, you have to balance being a boss and a colleague while navigating partnerships with the district office and your community. It is common to be guarded as you maneuver these relationships and to isolate yourself.
We urge leaders to fight this instinct, to reach out and find others who will inspire, guide, and support you. Creating a clearinghouse of collective wisdom will propel you forward as you navigate your leadership journey.
The three of us—Kate, Rachael, and Kourtney—are a great example of the potential power behind expanding your professional network. We connected one evening in a hotel lobby, after a state conference, and chatted about the challenges we were each facing in our respective buildings. While our individual experiences were different, one theme stood out above the rest: How do we navigate school change in communities that experience high rates of poverty and other challenges? As we talked, a synergy of ideas and a strong sense of connection fueled our conversations. We discussed a deep belief in our students and the need to help others propel a vision of student success. We shared our value of high expectations for teaching and learning, as well as a deep love and appreciation of educators. Our conversations continued over text messages, emails, and video conferencing. We found that collaborating and amplifying one another made us stronger and helped us to navigate our individual learning curves. We celebrated as each of our buildings rose in student achievement, knowing it was due to a combination of positive culture and rigor supported by the whole school community.
The replication of success is a powerful tool for administrators to harness. While leadership is both an art and a science, we can learn from others outside of our districts, regions, and states to expand our understanding of how others positively change outcomes for students. Growing your professional network from the ground up can feel intimidating at first, but it is worth the effort to gain insights you could never gain alone. Sometimes we may think that, as leaders, we need to shed our humanity at the door of our offices. In reality, human connection and professional growth are linked. We need to feel connected, supported, and as if we have a sense of purpose to fuel our happiness in the education field. Connecting with people outside of our typical network helps nourish us professionally, as well as personally.
Here’s how you can expand your professional network:
Summer is a great season to add local and national conferences (like ASCD’s and NASSP’s) to your calendar. These events are filled with energy and momentum to ignite planning for your building. Pay attention to upcoming speakers, new publications, and themes that will connect you to cutting-edge research and practices. While there, reach beyond your comfort zone and link with others from different districts and locations. While conferences may be virtual, networking can still happen in breakout rooms or in virtual hangouts and chat spaces. These conversations may provide the pivotal relationship that will change the trajectory of your work.
Reach out to other leaders in your state
Find others in your region who are doing similar work and give them a call or shoot them an email. Find out what structures and systems they are using to leverage their work, and identify areas of strength that you can replicate. In our profession, we frequently form silos where our ideas live in isolation. Make it a habit to intentionally reach out to others and experience the power of collaboration and the synergy of ideas.
Pay attention at the national level
There are a plethora of national organizations (like ASCD, NASSP, and NAESP) that bring thought leaders together. You may be receiving emails from these organizations, but may not have considered the benefit of more learning. National organizations help to illuminate the big picture of education and frequently highlight the stories of others who are doing the work in new and important ways. These organizations also have webinars and virtual events that offer a great foray into the larger discussion.
Follow others on Twitter
The professional power of social media is vast. Begin by following your favorite authors, speakers, and colleagues. Expand by delving into the people they follow, hashtags they are associated with, and ways they are bringing new voices into the mix. Notice your blind spots and respond by diversifying the perspectives you follow on social media. There are many scheduled chats (like Educational Leadership magazine’s monthly #ELMagChat) hosted by various groups that give you the opportunity to engage in live, global conversations.
Contact authors and thought leaders
Once you have been introduced to a publication or speaker that expands your thinking, don’t stop there! Find them on social media and continue the conversation. Their support throughout your implementation of ideas can be critical to your success.
Connect the old-fashioned way
While technology makes it easy to connect in new ways, never underestimate the power of networking face-to-face (safely of course, while COVID-19 is still a factor). Networking can occur with a person you see every day, with community members, or with other stakeholders. Begin these conversations with strategic questions that allow others to share something about themselves, their accomplishments, and their vision for your community. Be present and genuinely listen to what others have to offer. In an era of screens, there is power in eye contact and a warm smile.
You are not alone. In fact, leaders who create strong professional networks build systems that support their own happiness and fulfillment in this work. There is comfort in having someone listen who understands the complexity of the job without sharing the personalities of your own district. By building your professional network, you are giving yourself the greatest gift: The collective wisdom to propel your important work of changing outcomes for students.
Rachael George is the coauthor of PrincipalED: Navigating the Leadership Learning Curve and a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. Kourtney Ferrua is the coauthor of PrincipalED: Navigating the Leadership Learning Curve. In 2019, she was recognized as Oregon Elementary Principal of the Year and as a Nationally Distinguished Principal. Kate Barker is the coauthor of PrincipalED: Navigating the Leadership Learning Curve. She is a principal in Portland, Oregon, and active in her state association, COSA. Connect with them on Twitter @DrRachaelGeorge, @kourtneyferrua, and @Kate_S_Barker.