Social Media: An Asset for Teachers and Leaders
Students and parents are growing users of social media. There is great value in meeting them where they are. Allowing their communication arena to grow without us can be a mistake. Reasons for joining the social media environment seem clear. Business calls it branding; each of our districts is unique and so are our communities. How do we want to be known? What is the vision toward which we are working? We think of social media and branding as a convergence creating a valuable leadership opportunity to focus on the values and direction of the district. But before jumping in, serious consideration needs to be given to essential information and careful decisions have to be made.
A concern we have heard most often is one about misinformation. Let's say we start a Facebook page or Twitter account. What do we do if we see comments that are incorrect, unfair, rude, personal, off track, or accusatory? Lessons from the field tell us that this is not the arena to directly counter what others are saying. However, monitoring what is being said provides information about what conversations are being held and among whom. This arena allows access and can reveal much about what else needs to be said and whether the message we want out is actually getting there. It is not advisable to enter a social media fray. However, once we know what is being thought about and said, there are many ways to respond.... 'Q&A' section on the district website, a tweet out, or a comment at a board meeting. Sometimes simply knowing what conversations are taking place is enough to inform our next steps. Whatever the method chosen, ignoring the conversations or failing to use the medium lacks wisdom in these times.
The use of social media as a communication tool for educators is inevitable. A day does not go by without an article or blog post encouraging leaders and teachers to use social media. Certainly, our students use it and educational dissidents are using it. Commissioners and the POTUS use it. It is a communication accelerant that moves information between people faster than we have ever experienced and, in fewer words than we are used to using. That requires some thought. If we abstain from its use, the information shared by others has the potential to create misunderstandings, garner opposition, and create mistrust.
Let's just focus on micro-blogging (Twitter) social networking (Facebook). In an article posted on Learning First, New Milford High School Principal Eric Sheninger lists the main reasons schools should use social media. They are:
- Public relations
- Professional growth and development
- Student engagement
Each of these reasons and, from our perspective, the paramount value of using social media is the creation and maintenance of relationships. Quick, clear, frequent communication directly from 'the horse's mouth' allows for a community or group to be 'in the know.' Everyone receiving the same message, at the same time, from one source is a vital asset. So using Twitter, for example, to share information like team scores, rating results, awards, meeting times, encouragement, and warnings has great value and connects the community directly with the Tweeter. It feels personal. It is personal. Assignments, reminders, and words of encouragements are good examples with a great value for teachers. They send direct messages to students beyond the school day and building, entering the time and space when many students drift away from the school connection. It is all about relationship building and, yes, it is an attempt to ensure the accuracy of the message.
Heightened awareness and responsibility is necessary. There can be no relaxing around the minimal language used or the preciseness of the message. This is not an arena in which to step without serious conversation, perhaps even a 'cheat sheet' developed for all users that reminds about the value as well as the dangers when guards are let down. It is brief but it is not casual for those who are using it professionally.
Whether micro-blogging or using social-media, your messages must be frequent and valuable. Although there are different opinions about frequency, one point agreed upon is that the use of the medium should always be for important information and, for the most part, predictable and frequent in terms of timing. For example, if a principal decides to tweet out the score of a game, it is best that scores of all sports be tweeted. You can see the bias assumed if it is only some of the sports which receive that attention. And, if sports scores are being tweeted, other extra-curricular events should be included also. Again, be aware of the unwritten message; we want all events to be supported. If one weather event is tweeted, all weather events should be tweeted. Expectations develop among recipients about how this source fills needs in their lives. It must be consistent and reliable. So before randomly sending out info, it is important to think these things through to avoid setting up expectations that you cannot, or do not intend to meet. Teachers who tweet out assignment reminders might find students become reliant on those reminders. Whether that is a good thing or not is an individual teacher decision. Sharing of articles and information with students, faculty, and the community allows this to become an information resource system. And, these things can be retweeted, spreading the word widely.
Initial thoughts in brief:
Twitter: Schools and teachers should protect their Tweets. Twitter allows you to choose between public and private Tweets when you sign up. From their support page: "Accounts with protected Tweets require manual approval of each and every person who may view that account's Tweets." Our advice, however, is that one should never assume their tweets are 100% private. Once tweeted, a recipient can re-tweet the information. However, initially limiting those who directly receive your messages does keep things a bit more under control. There is no situation in which a tweet can be considered private. A public mindset must always be invoked when using social media to communicate.
Facebook: The same is true for Facebook. Instructions on how to create a group for schools or districts can be found on numerous sites as well as on the Facebook site. This networking vehicle offers a more complex opportunity for communication, so we recommend serious study to be sure your group is as closed as possible as you explore your comfort level and are sure information sharing can be managed, accurate, frequent, and essential. But nothing is truly private. Your message has to assume two things: one, that you are speaking, publically to your audience, and two, that it will be shared beyond your intended audience. Past Twitter posts can be found by scrolling back, but it is difficult sometimes to find what you are looking for if you are following many people. On Facebook posts are more easily found. So unlike Twitter, Facebook is a better place for stories. You, also, have more space in Facebook for storytelling. A story can consist of a picture and a one to three line explanation. Remember, including one focus or subject and not another speaks volumes and may result in an unintentional message. Both what we say on this medium and what we don't, reflect the values of the leader, teacher, school, or district.
It is time to put at least a toe in the water. One small, thoughtful step into social media is important. If we allow the medium to exist and grow without us, we are missing an important opportunity to lead the conversation.