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A Network Approach to Educator Support

One of my biggest insights following my time with Converge is that an impact network structure may not be possible or appropriate for every collaborative endeavor. But just as the principles and practices of network cultivation are remarkably similar across impact networks, so too are the principles of a network approach, which can be embraced by many different entities. 


I had the opportunity to deliver a workshop on network cultivation last summer for the Networks for Education Equity Community of Practice, facilitated by Community Wealth Partners and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation


The cohort convened eight educational support organizations around a common interest in exploring ways to support better outcomes for Black and Latino students and students experiencing poverty. The community of practice provided a space for its members to learn from peers, pilot new approaches, inspire further learning and collective action, and share insights with the field. 


About half way through the workshop, one participant raised their hand and said:


“I’m not sure that my organization is an impact network.”


I asked if anyone else felt this way. A few more hands went up. A breakthrough! 


I was describing an impact network in a specific way — a group of individuals and/or organizations that are intentionally coordinated and convened to connect, learn, and collaborate on behalf of a shared purpose — but that definition felt limiting to some whose structures looked a little different. 


I’m so grateful to that participant for speaking up.


Many of the entities in the community of practice had the word “network” in their name, but they were organized in a variety of ways. It wouldn’t be practical or feasible for most of them to completely restructure to fit one definition of a network. Still, over the course of our conversations, they illuminated ways to strengthen their work using a network approach.


At the close of the cohort, I partnered with the team at Community Wealth Partners to develop a report that synthesizes key takeaways from the cohort through the lens of network theory and practice.


This report leverages a great deal of wisdom from experts and practitioners around the world, including cohort members, the Community Wealth Partners team, and many network leaders and systems thinkers from whom I continue to learn a great deal.


An excerpt and link to the full report are below.


 

A Network Approach to Educator Support

Cultivating Human Systems to Advance Educational Equity

(excerpt)

We coexist in webs of relationships. From family to workplace, local community to society at large, relationships are the bedrock of the human experience. Core to taking a network approach is embracing the fact that we are not only interconnected through these systems of relationships but also interdependent — our actions and behaviors affect those around us in both obvious and subtle ways.

We can think of this perspective as a network mindset. “Those who have embraced the network mindset see themselves as part of a larger web of activity — as one of many nodes in the system, not the central hub,” David Ehrlichman writes in Impact Networks. “In this way, the network mindset shift can also be characterized as an evolution of focus from me to we .” In essence, a network approach is the process of putting this mindset into practice.


Cultivating the relationships that shape our world gives us access to diverse perspectives — the key to developing a more holistic understanding of the systems we hope to change. When those relationships are rooted in trust, we are more open to different points of view and more willing to voice ideas of our own. The insights that emerge from this context better equip us to navigate our increasingly complex world.


Education is changing in dynamic and multifaceted ways, and the challenges educators face are systemic. The educational inequities that disproportionately affect Black and Latino students and students experiencing poverty can’t be traced to one singular cause or solved by one entity alone. To manage the complexity of their field, educational support organizations (ESOs) can provide immense value by creating opportunities for their members to connect, learn, and collaborate across differences. From a place of connection, openness, and trust, education professionals can pool their collective wisdom and explore these challenges from many different angles. This coordinated interaction gives way to learning, innovation, and creative solutions that no single person could have imagined alone — the network approach in action.


Taking a network approach often presents a departure from traditional planning and operating methods. The following guiding principles help to illuminate the essence of this approach and how it may differ from dominant organizational frameworks:

Prioritize Relationships
Practice Humility
Promote Openness
Prepare for Emergence

These principles are expressed in the ways we approach tasks, make choices, and interact with others.


Read the full report here to explore each principle and how it looks in practice.

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