Cheers to Lifelong Learning—and the Communities That Help You Lean Into It

As a person who leads professional learning for educators, how do you ensure that you yourself continue to learn?

Anyone who has moved from classroom- and school-level roles to a position focused on promoting adult professional learning can tell you that this question recurs throughout a career, and often feels daunting. Education, after all, is a protean field. New learnings, innovations and daily challenges continually emerge, and it’s inevitable—I might even say productive—to have moments where you worry that you’re not keeping up.

As someone who has spent the last 30 years as a leader of professional learning, I’ve found that the best way to counter these fears—to ensure that you continue learning and growing—is to affiliate with a community that consistently and proactively expands your horizons. New ideas and people have always deepened my thinking and energized my practice, and the value of a group that exposes you to these things—that promotes lifelong learning through a culture of connecting to others—truly cannot be overstated.

For me, this community has been Learning Forward, formerly the National Staff Development Council, which just held its 49th-annual conference in Dallas, Texas.

I attended my first Learning Forward conference in 1976, when I was a young fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. Back then there were only about 60 participants in the room, but the conference nonetheless had a certain energy and sense of purpose that captivated me. It was obvious that this community was eager to confront tough questions head on—to lean into the ambiguities and dilemmas that come with helping schools and school districts improve learning.

This year’s Dallas conference had over 3,500 attendees, representing 38 states and 15 countries. Still, though, the conference norms—all of which push you to talk and eat with strangers—remain the same, and these norms have preserved the same urgency and open-mindedness that hooked me in so long ago. Learning Forward recognizes that, no matter your age or where you are in your career, learning is social, and interaction with other educators—especially those who can both affirm and challenge your ideas—is vital to reflecting, redesigning and re-energizing yourself and your practice.

As I look ahead to retirement, I’ve decided that the 2018 Learning Forward Conference will be my last. It’s time to turn my attention to family, learning in new spaces and slowing down the pace at which I’ve worked the past 46 years. It’s also time, however, to pay it forward, and with that in mind, I’d like to conclude this piece with three tips for any young (or maturing) leader of professional learning.

First: Make it your modus operandi to venture outside your usual orbit, continually exploring innovative ideas.

Second: Take full advantage of the learning opportunities available to you, be they conferences, institutes, academies, workshops, coaching or online courses. You can never know what moment will change your whole path.

Third: Find a community that helps you do this, and expands your learning network.

I’d like to thank Learning Forward and all of the amazing colleagues I’ve met there. The organization has been an irreplaceable professional home for me over the years. In the movement to deliver high-quality learning—and, through it, equity—we often say that we’re all in this together, and Learning Forward is a living embodiment of this truth. When we connect, critique and collaborate, everyone improves.

Though I suppose I should also warn you—once you find a community that helps you do all this, saying goodbye may be more difficult than you expect.

Al is a former teacher, school leader, district administrator, college professor and leadership consultant. He’ll be leading the winter session of “Exploring the Why and What of Personalized Learning,” our course with ISTE U. Sign up by Jan. 15!