I have never had the option of having a single, tight-knit group of friends.
When I was growing up, my dad was in the army. We moved every 3 years, and so did all my classmates. That sounds kind of traumatic, but it was the only life I knew and I enjoyed the adventure of it all. I figured out how to be very independent and self-reliant, especially since I was an only child, and by necessity I developed the skills to make friends with different kinds of people from all types of backgrounds.
I learned that new people will always be entering your life, and it’s wise to welcome them rather than cling to your existing group of friends. The kids I saw who insisted on forming small cliques slowly ended up alone and friendless as our parents got stationed in other places. The lesson was obvious: If you only want to be friends with the new people when your old friends aren’t around, you’re probably going to end up lonely.
It’s only now that I am in my mid-thirties that I finally feel like I have found “my people.” I have my girls (and a handful of guys) that I can completely be myself with, and that I feel understand me on almost every level. There’s only one problem: they’re spread all over the globe. Okay, two problems: most of them don’t even know each other yet. It’s a true testament to the power of social media that we’ve even connected at all, and I’m constantly searching for ways to bring us together.
Education conferences are the obvious place to meet up, and my friends are one of the main reasons why I go. But conferences can be a strange experience because there are so many people from so many circles suddenly altogether. I hear a lot of people say that mingling at conferences makes them feel like a little fish in a big pond. They don’t realize that many of the “big fish” feel just as out of place: they’re used to being in an even larger pond and don’t identify as anyone of particular importance. Being recognized is a very surreal experience because 99.9% of educators have no measure of fame in their everyday lives.
Navigating all the different ponds of educators is tricky, both online and in person. I was very overwhelmed at most of the TeachersPayTeachers events this past weekend because I have spent years collaborating in Facebook groups with a lot of the attendees. I felt like I should recognize all 800 educators in the room but I didn’t, so I tried to smile at everyone and some people were looking at me like who is is this crazy lady, am I suppose to know her? And by smiling I created the same fear in them–that they should recognize me and they didn’t–so then THEY felt anxious and we were both staring trying to figure out whether to introduce ourselves. But then when I didn’t smile at strangers, I worried they might feel snubbed…and sometimes they would introduce themselves and it would turn out they’re one of my favorite people in the whole universe but I didn’t make the connection between the 3/4 inch Facebook profile photo they use and the person standing before me and I felt terrible.
So yeah, I’m a little awkward at conferences and it gets pretty draining.
The whole experience made me reflect a lot on the various “ponds” in education. There are people with tens of thousands of followers on Twitter who can’t walk three feet at an ed tech conference like ISTE without getting stopped for pictures and conversations. Those same people would have been completely invisible at the SDE and TPT conferences the following week in Las Vegas. And similarly, there were “big fish” getting mobbed by fans at TPT who probably wouldn’t have known a soul at ISTE.
So my question is, why do we have separate ponds? Everyone needs to find “their people” that they can connect with deeply and without pretense. But if we’re all working toward the same goal—to make school a better place for kids and teachers—why isn’t there more overlap in the groups?
The size of our ponds is constantly shifting. So are the people within them, with new arrivals every single day. And I think we are ALL big fish in our own separate ponds, whatever size those may be. Our pond may be just a group of 3 teachers within our own school, or through our online presence, it might stretch across the globe. But it’s still our pond, and it’s always little compared to how many educators we could potentially connect and collaborate with. So I think we need to continually ask ourselves:
Are we welcoming new fish and helping them find their school?
Have we supported the more established fish as they explore bigger waters?
Are we recognizing the fluidity of our environment and adapting to the changes within it?
Have we acknowledged our own need for growth without neglecting the pond where we started?
Are we interested in meeting fish from other ponds or too scared to leave the safety of what we know?
I am all too aware that I haven’t tackled these issues perfectly myself. There were people at both ISTE and TPT that I did not recognize, forgot to introduce myself to, or didn’t spend as much time with as I would have liked. And it was jarring for me to continually swim into other ponds. In some of them, I was a big fish (I believe the word “legend’ was tossed out on more than one occasion and I’m still wide-eyed at the thought of that.) In other ponds I ventured into, I was just a minnow and not one person in the group had ever connected with me online or even heard my name. Those two experiences often happened in the same room within minutes of each other.
Those experiences are empowering and humbling at the same time. They’re a reminder that I am impacting teachers’ lives and making a real difference on a large scale, but I’m far from the only one in that position. I have much to learn from others, and I need to be doing a lot more collaboration so that we can transform education on a larger scale. I need to also be helping others grow and move into their full potential.
Each one of us will always encounter both smaller AND larger fish than ourselves. Always. At the TPT conference, Deanna Jump advised those who are feeling like a little fish to “just keep swimming.” At the ISTE conference, Elvira Deyamport reflected on the importance of “finding your school of fish.”
I think both of those pieces of advice are terrific. I would add that as we keep swimming and seeking out our school, we need to rise to the challenge of welcoming new fish into our ponds and learn from those we haven’t yet met, both “bigger” and “littler” than us. We need to continue venturing into other ponds and making connections so that every fish can feel welcome wherever they go. And, if you’ll let me stretch the pond analogy here a little bit, one day I hope we can merge all these small bodies of water to create a great and powerful ocean of educators who are passionate about making school a place where kids fall in love with learning.