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Uncategorized   |   Jul 17, 2014

Big fish, little fish, and separate ponds of educators

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Big fish, little fish, and separate ponds of educators

By Angela Watson

I have never had the option of having a single, tight-knit group of friends.

When I was growing up, my dad was in the army. We moved every 3 years, and so did all my classmates. That sounds kind of traumatic, but it was the only life I knew and I enjoyed the adventure of it all. I figured out how to be very independent and self-reliant, especially since I was an only child, and by necessity I developed the skills to make friends with different kinds of people from all types of backgrounds.

I learned that new people will always be entering your life, and it’s wise to welcome them rather than cling to your existing group of friends. The kids I saw who insisted on forming small cliques slowly ended up alone and friendless as our parents got stationed in other places. The lesson was obvious: If you only want to be friends with the new people when your old friends aren’t around, you’re probably going to end up lonely.

It’s only now that I am in my mid-thirties that I finally feel like I have found “my people.” I have my girls (and a handful of guys) that I can completely be myself with, and that I feel understand me on almost every level. There’s only one problem: they’re spread all over the globe. Okay, two problems: most of them don’t even know each other yet. It’s a true testament to the power of social media that we’ve even connected at all, and I’m constantly searching for ways to bring us together.

Education conferences are the obvious place to meet up, and my friends are one of the main reasons why I go. But conferences can be a strange experience because there are so many people from so many circles suddenly altogether. I hear a lot of people say that mingling at conferences makes them feel like a little fish in a big pond. They don’t realize that many of the “big fish” feel just as out of place: they’re used to being in an even larger pond and don’t identify as anyone of particular importance. Being recognized is a very surreal experience because 99.9% of educators have no measure of fame in their everyday lives.


Navigating all the different ponds of educators is tricky, both online and in person. I was very overwhelmed at most of the TeachersPayTeachers events this past weekend because I have spent years collaborating in Facebook groups with a lot of the attendees. I felt like I should recognize all 800 educators in the room but I didn’t, so I tried to smile at everyone and some people were looking at me like who is is this crazy lady, am I suppose to know her? And by smiling I created the same fear in them–that they should recognize me and they didn’t–so then THEY felt anxious and we were both staring trying to figure out whether to introduce ourselves. But then when I didn’t smile at strangers, I worried they might feel snubbed…and sometimes they would introduce themselves and it would turn out they’re one of my favorite people in the whole universe but I didn’t make the connection between the 3/4 inch Facebook profile photo they use and the person standing before me and I felt terrible.

So yeah, I’m a little awkward at conferences and it gets pretty draining.

The whole experience made me reflect a lot on the various “ponds” in education. There are people with tens of thousands of followers on Twitter who can’t walk three feet at an ed tech conference like ISTE without getting stopped for pictures and conversations. Those same people would have been completely invisible at the SDE and TPT conferences the following week in Las Vegas. And similarly, there were “big fish” getting mobbed by fans at TPT who probably wouldn’t have known a soul at ISTE.

So my question is, why do we have separate ponds? Everyone needs to find “their people” that they can connect with deeply and without pretense. But if we’re all working toward the same goal—to make school a better place for kids and teachers—why isn’t there more overlap in the groups?

The size of our ponds is constantly shifting. So are the people within them, with new arrivals every single day.  And I think we are ALL big fish in our own separate ponds, whatever size those may be. Our pond may be just a group of 3 teachers within our own school, or through our online presence, it might stretch across the globe. But it’s still our pond, and it’s always little compared to how many educators we could potentially connect and collaborate with. So I think we need to continually ask ourselves:

Are we welcoming new fish and helping them find their school?

Have we supported the more established fish as they explore bigger waters?

Are we recognizing the fluidity of our environment and adapting to the changes within it?

Have we acknowledged our own need for growth without neglecting the pond where we started?

Are we interested in meeting fish from other ponds or too scared to leave the safety of what we know?

I am all too aware that I haven’t tackled these issues perfectly myself. There were people at both ISTE and TPT that I did not recognize, forgot to introduce myself to, or didn’t spend as much time with as I would have liked. And it was jarring for me to continually swim into other ponds. In some of them, I was a big fish (I believe the word “legend’ was tossed out on more than one occasion and I’m still wide-eyed at the thought of that.) In other ponds I ventured into, I was just a minnow and not one person in the group had ever connected with me online or even heard my name. Those two experiences often happened in the same room within minutes of each other.

Those experiences are empowering and humbling at the same time. They’re a reminder that I am impacting teachers’ lives and making a real difference on a large scale, but I’m far from the only one in that position. I have much to learn from others, and I need to be doing a lot more collaboration so that we can transform education on a larger scale. I need to also be helping others grow and move into their full potential.

Each one of us will always encounter both smaller AND larger fish than ourselves. Always. At the TPT conference, Deanna Jump advised those who are feeling like a little fish to “just keep swimming.” At the ISTE conference, Elvira Deyamport reflected on the importance of “finding your school of fish.”

I think both of those pieces of advice are terrific. I would add that as we keep swimming and seeking out our school, we need to rise to the challenge of welcoming new fish into our ponds and learn from those we haven’t yet met, both “bigger” and “littler” than us. We need to continue venturing into other ponds and making connections so that every fish can feel welcome wherever they go. And, if you’ll let me stretch the pond analogy here a little bit, one day I hope we can merge all these small bodies of water to create a great and powerful ocean of educators who are passionate about making school a place where kids fall in love with learning.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. It was great to meet you Angela. Love the fish analogy. I felt like a little fish but not in a pond. I felt like a fish that someone had tossed in an ocean. Actually, at one point I felt like a fish in an ocean with a broken fin who was about to sink. LOL. I learned a lot about me at the conference. On the night of the meet/greet, I left my name tag in my room, and by the time I went to my room, got it and walked back, the meet/greet session was packed. It was 800 people I didn’t know. I got this lump in my tummy and headed back to my room to not return. Luckily I had a change in heart and turned back around, but I felt like I wanted to take the fastest flight back to Atlanta. I’m not going to lie. The next few days were actually a bit like that too. I am normally an outgoing person when among co-workers, friends, etc. I have taught college level classes, been to conferences (always work related and with friends), worked with lots of people I don’t know, etc. This was a bit different though, as not only was I among people I had never met, but I was on the other side of the country in an unfamiliar setting. For me, it was a bit overwhelming. The positive is that hopefully by the next conference by ‘broken fin’ feeling will have mended and I will feel like I can stay above water. I won’t feel like I need to run back to my room or jet back to Atlanta. It was a great experience, one I would not change, one I am so glad I was involved in. I learned so much, met so many great people, and hopefully by the next one I will go in feeling more like a rainbow fish. 🙂 Enjoyed your post! ~Molly

    1. Hey, Molly! I was glad to have met with you, too, even though we didn’t get to talk much beyond surface conversations. Guess that’s what FB is for! 🙂

      I can relate to feeling totally overwhelmed. The Vegas location added to that for me. Even though I barely left the building for 3 days, I never figured out my way around. I was constantly disoriented about where I was, and completely overstimulated with all the non-conference people, lights, noise, safety issues (avoiding the drunk people stumbling back to their hotel rooms at 6 am when I was going to the conference, for example) and so on. I have never been to a Vegas conference before and that was…intense, to say the least.

      I know it’s not practical or probably even very fun, but the ideal for me would be to meet at a retreat out in the mountains someplace where there are no distractions and no one around but people I’m there to see, and we can step outside at any moment for fresh air and some quiet.

      I LOVE your “rainbow fish” analogy! Yes! That is perfect!

    1. That’s very sweet, Katie, I appreciate it! I suppose it all depends on the size of the pond, though! I have been in MANY, many ponds these last few weeks in which I was the little guy. It is so interesting and also helpful to experience both sides of the spectrum.

  2. I felt the same way and had a few moments when I felt like no one would recognize me only to find out they did! I also sat next to some gals I had never met before at the keynote and became fast friends with them. I love that!! Totally unique experience and I think I know what I would do differently and what I would keep the same. Thanks Angela!

    1. I have so many ideas for next year, too. There are so many things I would do differently. There were several hours on Thursday when I was completely alone and knew no one, and then there were other hours where I was surrounded by hundreds of people I knew to some degree and couldn’t even get to them all. I need to plan my time better!

  3. What serendipitous timing. I wrote my own, very similar, post, just a week or so ago. I even used a fish metaphor! I think that the challenges of some of these big conferences is going to start being HOW to attract fish from other ponds. A conference full of people who all think the same way doesn’t produce the same kind of learning and growth as one where there are people with a variety of perspectives…. On the flip side, I think that debate and differences of opinion are VERY uncomfortable for many educators, and so we swim furiously back to our own ponds when we bump into other schools. Here is the link to my post; I would love for you to read it: http://missnightmutters.com/2014/07/chewing-on-the-fish-out-of-water.html.

    1. Are you my long-lost twin? Do we share a brain? How have we not had any interaction before? Talk about separate ponds…I’m going to take a wild guess…you found me via Matt Gomez on Twitter, right? He seems like the kinda kindergarten teacher who would be friends with a kindergarten teacher like you. 🙂

      I have so many things to say in response to your post, I’m going to just say them there. Thank you so much for bringing my attention to your post.

      1. Yes, our friend in common is indeed Matt Gomez. He is my kindertwin, and we often joke that WE share a brain! Thank you so much for your comment on my post. I’m working really hard to bridge the gaps between my world and that of the teachers I described. It’s not easy, this relationship-building business, but I am so glad when I find others who also see why it is important. I feel like we have to be brave and say the things that are scary to say, so that we can find one another. Please keep visiting my site – I’ve got more up my sleeve!

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