By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis
Eric Sheninger, the principal of New Milford High School in Bergen County, N.J, is known for his forward-thinking approaches when it comes to social networking and education. He has his own web site, a blog, and almost 52,000 followers on Twitter. Now he's written a new book for education leaders highlighting why the use of social networking is critical and how this technology can ease school administrators' long list of duties, not add to them. The book, "Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times," will be released Jan. 14, 2014. I had a recent chat with Sheninger about what readers can expect to learn from the book.
ES: It's about leadership in the digital age. I'm looking at leadership through the lens of technology, finding how we can become more effective and efficient at using the tools of our age.
MD: Educational leaders, like principals, already have a crushing workload. How can they add technology to their list of tasks without adding another responsibility to their list?
ES: The last thing I wanted to do was write a book and have people think, 'This is another thing I have to do.' It's all about that natural fit and initiating sustainable change that's going to improve school culture. I cover seven pillars of digital leadership that all leaders need to pay attention to if they're going to be effective: communication; public relations; creating a positive brand presence; professional growth; student engagement, learning, and achievement; school environment; and opportunity. Through the pillars I introduce practitioners from across the country who can demonstrate them in action.
MD: Give me an example of how technology can make life easier for educational leaders in one of the areas you mentioned.
ES: Communication. Effective leaders are effective communicators. You need to be effective at communicating your vision for strategic plans, for change, for how you're going to initiate and sustain plans. When I look at how we do traditional communication—snail mail, newsletters, and reports—how effective is that at getting our message out in the digital world? It's all about meeting our stakeholders where they are. Social media and other digital tools are a lot less time-consuming when you think about a 140-character tweet or putting up a post on Facebook. With technology, busy leaders can communicate with stakeholders anytime, anywhere. I look at that as a time-saver. This example sets the stage for how I address the other pillars in the book. It's about how the practices should be effective and how technology can be integrated seamlessly in a time-efficient format to take our leadership to a more profound level for the digital age.
MD: You mentioned creating a positive brand presence as one of your pillars. Isn't that more of something people in the business world have to worry about?
ES: Branding is often synonymous with the private sector or businesses making money. What I've realized through my work is that the more you communicate with digital tools and form a public relations plan, you ultimately create a brand presence. Your school or professional brand is your work. Brands convey a message to attract consumers for their product, to build support and trust. It makes sense in a time period where the rhetoric is so negative in terms of public education, educators, and the role of schools in society that we can use digital tools and social media to tell our story and provide accurate information about what's going on inside the walls of our schools. Our brand centers on the positive work of our students and teachers. We want to showcase their innovative work, how we are increasing student achievement, and the opportunities students have in our schools.
MD: Many educators are leery of social media. How can you convince them it can be beneficial?
ES: Social media to school leaders has such a negative connotation that they don't want to touch it. There are so many misconceptions about social media in school. Leaders will be pleasantly surprised as I debunk these misconceptions and show what we're doing and what other school leaders are doing across the country to create a culture that's relevant, meaningful, and applicable. We feel like by integrating tools such as Instagram, Pinterest, and a variety of others, we can focus on essential skill sets like collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, media literacy, technological proficiency, and entrepreneurial awareness. We want our students to use real-world tools to do real-world work. In the real world all of us, professionally and socially, are using these tools that are embedded components of society. Why not harness these tools and integrate them in a pedagogically sound fashion?
MD: But how do you make sure students are using social networking appropriately?
ES: We can do a better job teaching students how to use tools responsibly for learning. The more we worked with our students on how to use the tools to enhance the learning experience, the fewer problems we had. In the book, I tackle and debunk misconceptions about using social networking related to federal privacy laws. Then it's all about showcasing what this looks like from a pedagogical lens: how to structure learning activities where the technology is a tool to help substantiate the learning outcomes. We are actively teaching our students about digital citizenship and digital responsibility and about creating positive digital footprints. In that section of the chapter I explain how the digital citizenship initiative here at the high school works. What leaders in the digital age might not know is they have to give up a certain amount of control and trust in their students and staff. If you can't do that, you can't be a digital leader. Is there some inherent risk? Yes, but there's risk in everything.
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Photo: Courtesy of Eric Sheninger