When I entered public school for the first time in 4th grade after attending private school since Kindergarten, I was almost immediately placed in a “TAG” (Talented and Gifted) program. From that time forward I was always told that I was ‘smart.’ I took accelerated classes, and even attended an alternative school my senior year because school didn’t seem challenging enough for me. Now, I was not THE smartest student in my school by far. In fact, I was at the bottom of the ‘smart pool,’ but I knew I was smart nonetheless.

I started my freshman year at Oberlin College and was completely humbled. I had never been surrounded by so many intelligent, forward thinking and inquisitive people my own age. Suddenly I wasn’t part of a ‘smart pool’ because everyone was smart. In fact, I was exposed to ideas and points of view I had never considered in high school. I was pushed to explore these new ideas and ponder how these new points of view played into my own beliefs at the time.

This is the same experience I have had in building my PLN as an educator. While once I was the only one I knew who read ASCD books for fun, now I am humbled and amazed by the intelligence and diversity on Twitter that pushes me to rethink my own ideals and beliefs and exposes me to new ideas.

I don’t purposefully surround myself with smarter people, I find that I gravitate toward them.  Here are 6 reasons why:

1) Face it, I’m not a genius.
Sometimes I need someone who’s smarter than me to explain a complicated concept.

2) If no one ever challenges my ideas, how will I know what I truly believe?
Through conversation with a diverse group of intelligent people I learn more about myself.

3) Smart people give smart feedback.
When I need real feedback it helps to have smart people around.

4) When I realize that I have no idea what someone is talking about, it motivates me to learn something new.
I don’t like being left out of the conversation!

5) I don’t have to know everything because, chances are, someone else knows the answer.
With the diverse, intelligent and eager to help PLN I have on Twitter I’m guaranteed to find an answer.

6) It’s important to feel humbled from time to time.
If we aren’t ever forced to learn something new or never realize that we’re not the smarty pants we thought we were we will never have the chance to grow.

There are implications for education in all of this.  As teachers, we often group students into homogeneous groups by ability.  Schools often track students by ability. If my experience has any value, this is the worst thing we can do for our students.  Not to say that working with small groups who share an academic need is out of the question, but students can learn from being surrounded by students who think differently than they do or have different strengths.

Teachers also need to have the opportunity to be surrounded by colleagues who challenge their ideas and expose them to new ones.

What do you think?


  1. Reply

    When I first interviewed for the job I now have, I got into a spirited disagreement with the man who was interviewing me, the principal of the school. I figured there was no way I would get that job and was stunned when I got called back for a second interview. We had a somewhat less spirited disagreement on two topics that time.

    There was a message on my answering machine offering me the job by the time I got home from the second interview. I returned the call and said I was surprised to get the offer. My principal responded,

    "I like to hire smart people who disagree with me."

    I tool the job immediately.

    He has been true to his word and I like working for a smart man who challenges my thinking and practice in order to improve my teaching.

  2. Bonitadee


    Great story, Deven!

    Love this post. I think we should constantly be examining our own learning habits and environments and wondering about how that translates to our students. This …"students can learn from being surrounded by students who think differently than they do "..particularly rang true for me (both for myself and my students).

  3. Reply

    I love it!! And I love how you say "here are five reasons" and have six… it's wonderful how no matter how smart we all are we are still the same amazing, accidentally amusing, fascinating and above all HUMAN people!! WIN! And thanks to all you teachers out there, us learners would be lost without you 🙂

  4. Reply

    You are very lucky, Deven, to work for someone who seeks out intelligent people, even if they don't agree with him. You were smart to take the job!

  5. Chris Lehmann


    A-yep. As a principal, it is essential to hire smart teachers who will push back at you. I think it's too easy for any employer to fall into the ego trap of wanting to be the smartest person in the room, but that's a HUGE ego trap, and it's both bad for the organization and bad for the individual.

    As a teacher, I have had *so* many moments where students have come up with ideas and insights so profoundly beyond my own… if we force ourselves into a place where we refuse to believe that our students can be smarter than we are — or at least smart differently than we are — we miss out on so much as well.

    Great post!

  6. Reply

    There really is a necessity in joining converstaions with all types of people who are at various levels. I have learned so much since I started tweeting and actively reading and engaging in blogs. I am very happy to say that I have an awesomely supportive, inovative, and informative PLN!
    (I am especially excited to come across this post, as this week I am introducing the concept of PLNs to faculty at the college I work for. Thank you for the awesome resource!)

  7. Reply

    Thanks Mary Beth, for your always-insightful comments. I, too, went from being one of the "smart" kids in K-12 (a large working-class suburban public system) to a small private college (Wooster, in my case). It blew me away my first year to have a paper returned by an English professor with the comment that I had obviously read the book and had ideas about it, but the paper needed to be substantially revised. I was used to being one of the only students who actually read the assigned books in high school, even in my supposedly honors class! Now I enjoy leading and participating in Shared Inquiry discussions of great literature for many of the reasons on your list, but basically because I love ideas and people who are open-minded and willing to delve deeply into the possible meanings of life/ literature and the world around us.

  8. Reply


    Glad you made the point about students challenging our insights. I'm even amazed sometimes at what my 2nd graders come up with when we're discussing literature! It is SO important as a teacher (and as an adult!) to put down our egos.

  9. Reply

    What's even more exciting to me, Denise is that I've found so many open and intelligent people who share that love of ideas! Glad you are one of them!

  10. Reply

    I refuse to define intelligence by test scores. In my experience, a person with good fine motor skills that can use tools and can work on a car, do carpentry work, fix leaking plumbing, or even knows how to navigate reading a map, is far more useful or valuable to others that someone with a string of degrees following their name. I even place having common sense above a superior range IQ score.

    Too many people I know with advanced degrees are clueless. That's fact.

  11. MAH


    It would be great if the example as cited by Deven would be the rule rather than the exception. A majority of the administrative heads I've encountered in my life want "clock watchers and company men" (to quote David Mamet) to fill their ranks. The don't want aggressive, take charge types, but dutiful automatons who don't make waves. Why is this? It's because they want people who are mirrors of themselves.

  12. Reply

    Deven, thanks for the reminder that, as an administrator, it's important for me not only to have people around me who disagree, but to listen to them and allow them to keep me grounded and focused. I'm curious, though, how you handle it when you and your principal end up with a fundamental disagreement about something and yet need to come to a decision and take action on that decision? How do you typically work that out?

  13. Karen Szymusiak


    I think I have the most potential to make smart decisions, think big, dream when I can connect with people who are like-minded but more importantly when I am with people who question, reflect, challenge my thinking. In schools, it's so important to respect our thoughtful differences and build something really great upon them. Thanks for the post. It's a great reminder to reach out to our friends, colleagues, PLN.

  14. Paula Naugle


    This is a great reflective post, Mary Beth. The two reasons that I find ring truest for me are: 4) When I realize that I have no idea what someone is talking about, it motivates me to learn something new and 5) I don't have to know everything because, chances are, someone else knows the answer. In today's world it is so important to be a "networked educator" and that is why I love my PLN so much. Thank you for being a part of it.

  15. Paula Naugle


    Deven, we are lucky to work for principals who allows us to voice our opinions. It makes my job so much more rewarding.

  16. marybethhertz


    There have definitely been times, Paula when you have inspired me to explore a new idea or resource! Thank YOU.

  17. Deven Black


    He's the boss and I usually have to do what he says I must. Occasionally he has everyone else do it the way he wants and lets me do it the way I want so he can see which approach works better. We don't have that many fundamental differences, just different approaches to implementing our fundamental beliefs.

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