Teaching is something of an isolating profession. Teachers close their doors and instruct, at all grade levels and every subject. Teachers work alone, receiving an “observation” compliance visit by the supervising administrator as part of the annual evaluation. The structure of school in the United States makes shared planning time difficult if not impossible, students need supervision at all times so teachers cannot have the same planning time and of course the one hour, or less, of “planning” time is the only time a teacher can use the rest room, take a breather, contact parents, check the mailbox and prepare materials for the rest of the day or the next day. Lunch is typically a half hour, which often includes escorting students to the cafeteria and back to class. Collegiality and collaboration are not easily achieved when you don’t see or have time with your colleagues. A school calendar typically provides a planning day once a quarter or grading period, that’s when grades are due. So when can teachers share, discuss, plan and collaborate? After hours.
I have personally found virtual environments to be a space and time for synchronous collegiality and collaboration. On Tuesday nights I visit ISTE Island on Second Life, sometimes for a planned event and sometimes just to talk to teachers about challenges I’m having and get suggestions. I have met teachers from various states and countries with whom I share struggles and ideas. Periodically I logon to Reaction Grid or Opensim and sometimes find a teacher I have met online to exchange strategies and developments. I visit classes in session and interact with students, the collegiality and trust required of a Professional Learning Community (PLC) exist despite never having actually met my virtual colleagues. PLNs and social/professional networking sites offer a sort of sharing and collegiality, it is not the same as on-the-spot, in world “in-person” communication. I think of it as a cross between face-to-face and online. Much is available about the connections made in virtual settings. The authenticity of virtual friendships becomes evident to anyone who spends any time in this type of environment .
My virtual friends include people who are not teachers, people I may never have met as someone who moves primarily in an educator world. Interactions with these people enrich me both personally and professionally. I have a better idea of trends and realities to discuss with students and peers; jobs in the STEM area, business planning, software and data visualization tools, the music business. A real plus was car buying advice received from a virtual friend, the mechanical engineer and part-time SL space explorer. I have met people from other countries and have conversed with the assistance of an instant translator, picked up a little Italian and improved my Spanish.
Virtual worlds are not the answer to life, but they do offer a relatively easy and inexpensive opportunity to interact with colleagues and professionals that can help you grow.