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Making Your Voice Heard: The Power of the Teacher Brand

Peter DeWitt will not be blogging the week of March 16th. Today's guest blog is co-written by Andrew Hamilton & Russell Quaglia. 

Each day educators are doing amazing things in our schools. However, the majority of the public conversation surrounding education tends to be negative: Common Core controversy, standardized testing strife, strikes, finances, teacher evaluation, turnover, etc. To combat this trend, teachers can purposefully brand themselves in an effort to highlight their successes, expand their influence, and start a more meaningful dialogue about education.

If you are of a certain age, you will no doubt remember Apple's commercial campaign "I'm a Mac." Recall the pasty man in the stodgy suit one size too big, sheepishly admitting, "I'm a PC." Juxtaposed with this sad reminder of the typical uses of technology, picture the young, hip twenty-something: good-natured, stylish, and approachable, proudly proclaiming, "I'm a Mac." Regardless of your device preferences, you've got to admit this series of ads was an effective way for Apple to showcase its products' capabilities while positioning itself as a young, attractive company. The story here is clear: "Sure, a PC is great at work stuff. But a Mac is great at life stuff."

There is an important lesson here about the power of purposefully, proactively telling your story - the power of a brand. Apple isn't just selling a device in these ads; it is telling a story about what it means to "be" an Apple user. While a well-crafted brand can be a wonderfully effective tool for selling a product, the concept has implications far beyond the marketplace, especially for educators. As a teacher, how you tell your story matters.

At its core, a brand is a purposeful engagement in a public conversation, a strategic effort to showcase what you're proud of--what makes you special as an educator. Teachers have an enormous opportunity to take charge of their narrative, and the larger education conversation, by consciously crafting what they say, how they engage with others, and the story they choose to share.

A teacher brand is not about having a cool logo or selling a product--it is a sincere representation of who you are as an educator. As branding expert Marty Neumeier (2006) claims, a brand really goes one step further: it's who other people say you are. Neumeier points out that though we can't control the branding process, we can certainly influence it by making clear to others who we are, what we do, and what we value.

As mentioned above, the majority of teachers are doing amazing things; however, they aren't being recognized for these efforts. As Chip and Dan Heath (2010) note, one crucial step in any social movement is to focus on what's working--the bright spots--rather than fixate on what is wrong. When teachers share the qualities that make them special--a stellar student work example, an innovative instructional approach, or evidence of a commitment to equity--they showcase how they are positively impacting teaching and learning. As Eric Sheninger (2014) points out,

"If you don't intentionally claim your brand, some stakeholder on the other end of a computer will do it for you." Rather than let others tell your story for you, Sheninger says you must "become the manager of purposeful, visible behaviors that initiate and build relationships and connections."

Branding is especially crucial for teachers seeking to make their voices heard in the public sphere, their local communities, or even within their own schools. When we proactively share our stories, we shape the perception of who we are and what we do. This need for teachers to tell their stories becomes even clearer when one takes into account recent findings found in the Quaglia Teacher Voice report: 97% of teachers surveyed indicate that they work hard to reach their goals, and 94% believe they can make a difference in the world.

Meanwhile, 26% feel they are not valued members of their school communities, only 59% say their school celebrates the accomplishments of the staff, and a mere 27% feel valued for their unique skills and talents. The data indicates a serious disconnect between who teachers think they are and how they are perceived: while they know they are working hard and making a difference, most teachers feel neither valued nor celebrated for this work.

It's not enough to be aware of the school or district brand and collectively bask in its glory.  In fact, the organization's brand is only as good as the brands of the individuals that comprise it. Further, while teachers certainly need to be cognizant of how their actions and public messages influence their organization's brand, the organization itself must mindfully foster the conditions that will empower teachers to speak up, engage in the larger conversation, and showcase their innovations and successes. Indeed, schools and districts have everything to gain from well-branded teachers.

So where to begin in crafting your "teacher brand"?

  • Find your passion. Reflect on who are you as an educator and what inspires you every day to be the best teacher you can be.  Take time to personally recognize and celebrate what you do and why you do it.  Then express those thoughts in 140 characters or less. 
  • Get the word out. Once you have identified who you are as a teacher, you've got to make it known to an audience beyond the classroom walls. Twitter is probably the best and most immediate tool for connecting with a large, influential audience. Start a blog, build a website, or start an e-newsletter. Attend and present at conferences, and participate in the backchannel conversations on Twitter while you're there. Engage with innovators inside and outside the immediate world of education. In short, get connected.
  • Embrace new possibilities.  Without doubt, your brand will grow as you do. Don't be afraid to change or adjust your messaging along the way. Recognize that developing your brand is a process, not an event.  What teachers share about themselves (and what they don't share) has a huge impact on how they are viewed as both professionals and as individuals. We live in a time of unprecedented connection and access. Strategically and effectively telling your story as a teacher turns up the volume of your voice and positions you to advocate, innovate, and shape the future of education.

References

  • Quaglia Teacher Voice Report, Corwin Press 2015 (in press).
  • Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. New York, NY: Crown Business.
  • Neumeier, M. (2006). The brand gap: How to bridge the distance between business strategy and design. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.
  • Sheninger, E. (2014). Digital leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

About the Authors

Andrew Hamilton (@AHamilton79) is Technology Integration Specialist at Northeast Metro Intermediate District 916 in Minnesota

Russell Quaglia (@DrRussQ) is the founder and executive director of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations and author of Student Voice: The Instrument of Change

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