Face (to Face) Time: The Power of Vibes and Group Dynamics in a Digital World

There is so much power in a strong professional learning network (PLN) that it actually has the ability to drag teachers out of bed for some seriously early positive chatting with groups such as #bfc530, which actually converses at 5:30 am. Other PLNs have the ability to draw exhausted educators into late night discussions of project based learning and reading strategies.
Personally, I love communicating with educators on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, and just recently I’m looking for my hive on beBee.com. As a teacher whose district hasn’t had the budget for conferences in years, my digital PLN has kept me sharp and kept education fresh for me. As a writer, there is no better way to get my writing out into the world than to cross post everything. In fact, you are probably reading this from a link on one of those platforms. I love the comments, the likes, the shares, the buzz. There’s a certain satisfaction when my phone “blows up” with great conversations that both affirm and challenge me.
Yet, there are other times when I wonder about these paradoxical conversations. I can leave an intense Twitter chat feeling exhilarated and connected, like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, and a profoundly positive collaborative. However, occasionally, it feels like a mirage–an amorphous shiny spot in the distance that may or may not exist, almost too good to be true.
If you’re not a “connected” person, you may have never experienced the artificial high of rapid fire dialog and synergy that happens quite a bit online, and not so much in person, at least in my opinion. After all, when in real life do we dish out the accolades, wildly share each other’s accomplishments and act as a giant, inclusive club? Nope, real life isn’t quite like that.
Chandler Blog Pic 1Real life is different. It’s riskier. People might not like you, and they sure as heck don’t welcome you to their table with the same enthusiasm as to a chat, right? When I ask to sit at a table of strangers at a conference, I’m not met with “Hi Amber. So glad you can chat. Can’t wait to connect with you and share ideas!” While that is a nice perk to digital conversations, it would be a little weird in real life.
Also, when I am chatting, it is often while sitting at the bottom of my son’s bed in my pajamas, whereas in person, there’s the fine art of deciphering a dress code for a summertime conference–which I always miss by a bit, erring on the side of too dressed up. Clearly, there are more complexities to face (to face) time, but importantly, I think there are some rewards that we should remember to keep us from getting too comfortable in our digital mirage.
Last week, I had the privilege of attending a two day training session with other National Board Certified teachers who were also being trained to be support providers for new candidates. It was challenging and dense material, but there was a whole level of camaraderie that I’d honestly forgotten I’ve been missing. During the workshop we were asked to chat about topics, work in groups of our own choosing as well as random groups. In each of these scenarios, there was a positive vibe created when a group of likeminded professionals spent some elbow time learning together.
As I drove home, it occurred to me that there are a couple of benefits of face (to face) time that just can’t be replicated in a digital PLN:
Tapas Dinner (1)Spontaneity: After our first day of training, some of the group decided to have dinner together and explore Ithaca. We stumbled upon a tapas place that had been recommended to us, and we ate dinner “family style,” each ordering a few things to share with the group. I loved tasting the foods that other people picked–everything from spicy garlic shrimp (Kishayna from New York City) to duck leg (Annette, our workshop presenter). The delicacies were passed around the table, and with them, stories of our lives. I loved that feeling of connectedness–that wasn’t a mirage, but actually tangible in a shared meal.
When I asked the Twittersphere, “What would one gain from a conference or workshop that can’t be replicated digitally?” this type of authenticity was cited by Joy Kirr (@JoyKirr):

This sentiment was echoed by another of my PLN on Twitter, Conn McQuinn (@ConnMc):

Authenticity: I don’t know about you, but when I’m on Facebook, and I read that someone’s comment has been edited, I always bristle a little. Now, maybe someone had a typo, but maybe someone had second thoughts about what they had written and had re-worded it. Though there’s obviously some legitimate reasons to have restraint, but one of the things that I enjoyed at the workshop was the authentic, uncensored opinions and responses of others. As one of the participants shared her own vulnerabilities, her words resonated with me in a way that 140 characters or a blog post just won’t allow.
This too was mentioned by Tim Maki (@timmaki) from my digital PLN:

When people are within physical proximity of each other, body language must be interpreted and the tension of ideas and personalities navigated. And though the “real world” is more complex and perhaps more stressful to deal with in some ways, the digital world can’t replicate explosive laughter or collective groans that bind a group together.
Clearly, I loved the face-to-face time that a workshop allowed, but also it should be evident that when I wasn’t able to communicate in person, I turned to the next best thing: my online PLN. In an increasingly digital world, I’m certainly not suggesting that we cut ourselves off from one another–an entirely unnatural response for most of us.
What I am suggesting, however, is that we still seek opportunities to attend conferences and workshops to reconnect with the more spontaneous and authentic sides of ourselves that all too often can’t be expressed in words, but must emerge from a group experience.
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Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a middle school teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, NY.

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1 Comment

Joy Kirr

Thank you, Amber, for putting into words how I feel about conferences, edcamps, patio PD, and even just one-on-one conversations with passionate teachers who want to learn more.

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