I was privileged to put on a professional networking event this week. The aim was not just networking, but also to facilitate mentoring relationships, and so I had been in contact with participants before the event to gauge their interest and need in mentoring. There were three types of sessions for the evening: presentations, structured networking and informal networking. To put a mentoring flavour into the night, the three speakers spoke candidly about their experiences in mentoring, and the structured networking was centred on questions that mentees had provided prior to the event. These were questions that the mentees would like to ask a mentor, and ranged from the general types such as, ‘what does mentoring mean?’, to the more specific and specialised like, ‘how do I manage higher qualifications if I’m working full-time?’.
Professional networking examples
In education we often think of networking in terms of formal events such as conferences, or professional programs like LinkedIn. However, the beauty of an informal event is that we are able to build our networks based on relationship thereby affording it more chance at success. When I was an early career teacher in Australia I worked hard at attending all the professional development opportunities as I thought these were the only way to build my networks. I tried to make use of the break times to converse with people, but the mistake I made was to only talk about work.
Good practice in professional networking reaches far beyond the confines of work, and includes sound relationship development. You don’t need to share hobbies or points of interest, but there does need to be some kind of personal investment to make it worthwhile.
In 2007 I went to a national teacher event in Japan and was treated to a week, all expenses paid, in Tokyo. It was a contractual obligation to attend and the conference focused on teacher approaches, changes to the text books and informal events like dinners. I found the most useful time for networking was in the breaks, as I was able to start conversations based around the food, and also ask other educators about their experience living in their locations. This type of event was unique in that we were all foreigners living in Japan.
In 2013 I attended a smaller area-based conference for teachers in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands in Central Australia and again, was able to make connections based on location and this time, teaching levels. I connected across the years to talk with people who were in the early childhood and primary sectors, as well as vocational training. The following year I went to a jurisdiction event in the ACT on NAPLAN. This event was only for an afternoon and it had no refreshments or break times. I found it to be limiting as it did not capitalise on the event to build networks.
Structuring networking opportunities
In 11 years of teaching I have realised that the most effective networking opportunities occur organically with masterful guidance from facilitators. Examples include the question forum I used this week, or a task for participants to complete at break/meal time and even a designated networking time with limited support. As a facilitator this week, my role was to make sure that people were connecting and getting what they needed out of the informal sessions, whether it be to start a mentoring match, growing networks or professional learning. It was only a small group of about 25 people which allowed for intimate knowledge of participants before, during and after the event. The most difficult aspect is seamlessly putting myself into the group without breaking the dynamic. A good tip for this is to walk to the best of the loudest talker to try and blend my movements into the energy in the room. This trick is also useful if you need to take photos during the event!