Communicating & Connecting With Social Media

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Social media holds great potential benefits for schools reaching out to our communities, preparing our teachers, and connecting with our kids. In this short text, the authors examine how enterprising schools are using social media tools to provide customized professional development for teachers and to transform communication practices with staff, students, parents, and other stakeholders.

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1 Using Social Media Tools to Enhance School Communication Plans

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Coauthor Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in New Milford, New Jersey, believes that effective leadership begins and ends with effective communication. He argues, “If we’re going to succeed as a school, I’ve got to get several different stakeholder groups—parents, students, community leaders, and businesses—to buy into a set of core beliefs. That means I’m constantly trying to craft messages that have resonance and trying to deliver those messages in ways that are likely to be heard. In a lot of ways, communication is the most important thing I do every day” (Sheninger, 2010a).Researchers studying school leadership would agree with Eric—communication is the most important thing that he does every day. Hoyle, English, and Steffy (1998) identify communication and community relations as one of the nine most important skills for leaders to master, while Arnold, Perry, Watson, Minatra, and Schwartz (2006) conclude that principals cannot be successful unless they communicate effectively with their publics. Marzano, Waters, and McNulty (2005) support findings from both of these studies, noting that the most accomplished principals establish strong lines of communication throughout the school community, and Strong, Richard, and Catano (2008) emphasize that principals who practice two-way communication engender support for their schools. To put it simply, communication should be the most important thing that you do every day.

 

2 Using Social Media Tools to Enhance Professional Development

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Like many educators, coauthor and sixth-grade teacher Bill Ferriter is frustrated by traditional approaches to professional development. He states,

 

I rarely learn anything useful in professional development sessions simply because the majority of professional development sessions are presented once and never referred to again. What’s more, the content covered in professional development sessions never seems to target my own teaching strengths and weaknesses and the structure of professional development sessions never seems to give teachers the opportunity to interact in meaningful ways with one another. As a result, I can’t think of too many formal professional development opportunities that have changed who I am as an educator. (Ferriter, 2010a)

Sadly, anyone working in schools will probably find Bill’s pessimistic description of professional development all too familiar. Despite the fact that educators passionately argue about the importance of delivering engaging, student-centered lessons built around opportunities for experimentation and social interaction—and despite knowing that ongoing, meaningful professional development is essential to improving teaching and leadership practices (Kostin & Haeger, 2006)—the same passion rarely translates into the work we do to prepare our teachers. Instead, we continue to hire experts to deliver training to large groups of teachers during stand-alone faculty meetings, creating an interesting educational dichotomy: teachers groaning every time they are asked to be learners. Even the euphemisms we use to describe the structure of professional development— Spray and Pray, Sit and Get, Sage on the Stage—are derogatory.

 

3 Developing Professionally Responsible Social Media Practices

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As we have seen in the first two chapters, using social media to communicate with constituents and connect with colleagues in new digital spaces is gaining traction with a wider audience of school leaders, experts, and educational organizations. Negative stories trumpeted by media outlets, however, continue to slow adoption. It is difficult to expect educators to completely embrace services like Twitter and Facebook when they are constantly surrounded with headlines like, “Teacher Loses Job After Commenting About Students, Parents on Facebook” (Heussner & Fahmy, 2010).

As a result, the majority of schools and districts are overly cautious about the role that digital spaces can play in their own communication and professional development plans. As coauthor Jason Ramsden, chief technology officer for Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, North Carolina, explains, “I understand the excitement and hesitation that comes with conversations about using social media in our schools. In my experience, most educators think social media means social networking on Facebook. While Facebook is certainly one tool that can be used, there are many other tools available, each with its own set of positive and negative factors that need to be considered” (Ramsden, 2009).

 

Epilogue: The Future of Social Media in Education

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For Eric Townsley, principal of South Tama Middle School in Tama, Iowa, social media tools have been an intellectual game changer. “Social media tools have changed the way I learn,” he explains. “I’ve made incredible connections with educators throughout the world on Twitter and am passionate about the quality and depth of the learning that I’ve done there” (E. Townsley, personal communication, August 29, 2010). Townsley is so convinced that digital connections can influence thinking that he is actively crafting professional development opportunities that incorporate social media tools for his faculty. “I know it will take some of my staff outside of their comfort zone,” writes Townsley, “but I also know that pushing my teachers to improve their digital learning habits models what we want our students to do” (E. Townsley, personal communication, August 29, 2010).

Townsley has not completely bought into the idea that social media spaces are silver bullets, though. While he recognizes that increasing numbers of parents, students, and stakeholders are embracing services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—and that businesses are actively building communities in social media spaces—Townsley also realizes that there are real stigmas connected to social media in education. Mass media coverage of cyberbullying and faculty members’ inappropriate postings to online forums has led to stakeholders who are not always excited to see the schools they support use social media. “There is a lot of negativity regarding Facebook in education in our area,” Townsley explains. “It would take a great shift in culture to change those perceptions, and that makes me a little nervous about using social media tools outside of my building” (E. Townsley, personal communication, August 29, 2010).

 

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