Last fall, I conducted research into how school leaders (headmasters, principals, assistant principals) use social media platforms, specifically Twitter. According to research literature, these leaders could and, to some extent, do use the platform as a means of communicating professional development ideas to staff and other colleagues, broadcasting educational philosophies, and building community by sharing news of academic and athletic achievement (Currie, 2014; Reickhoff and Larsen, 2012, and Sauers and Richardson 2015). Of social media-based professional development, McCleod (2015) writes:
Perhaps the most powerful form of professional learning occurs when we connect with others outside our own schools. As teachers, heads of schools, counselors, coaches, and librarians, we all now have the ability to participate in ongoing, virtual, global communities of practice. (p. 56)
Emphasizing the importance of sharing pedagogical beliefs, Reickhoff and Larsen (2012) state that, through social media, these leaders can be ““providing followers with a vision and sense of mission” (p. 59). As for community building, in his online blog, Principal Charlie Weir (2011) comments,
[S]chools need to use technology to not only provide information TO parents but to also engage in conversations WITH parents around student learning. Social media, in which parents can leave comments and questions, can be a great tool for this.
Currie (2014) adds that Twitter allows school leaders to “tell the school’s story visually [and to] capture all the great things we do…for all stakeholders to see.”
In my research, I analyzed the Twitter use of 15 school leaders—five heads of independent schools, five principals or assistant principals at high-performing public schools, and five principals or assistant principals at low-performing public schools. I found that very little of their Twitter activity emulated what researchers and practitioners espoused, other than community building–primarily by retweeting sports scores.
Sauers and Richardson (2015) offer a viable explanation:
Educators may be apprehensive to use Twitter because of the ways they see and hear about it being used by the general public. Stories about bullying and sharing inappropriate content are popular media topics about social media. Stories of inappropriate tweets linger fresh in the minds of many. Those negative images have certainly hindered the ways in which public figures such as school leaders use social media. (p. 130)
It is understandable that public figures would be sensitive to the implications of even one misstep on social media. Consider ESPN personality Jemele Hill and her disparaging remarks regarding President Donald Trump, a feud that ended with Hill leaving the sports network; East Stroudsburg University Professor Gloria Gadsden who was suspended following posting on her Facebook page, “Does anyone know where I can find a very discrete hitman? Yes, it’s been that kind of day…”; and the poster child for poor judgment on social media, Janine Sacco, who was fired from her job by the time her plane landed at the start of her vacation, having shared, “Going to Africa! Hope I don’t get AIDS! Just kidding. I’m white.” Of course, most people can see the obvious turmoil created by such situations and would think themselves more sensible. Yet, one bad thought shared with the world…
To further examine how educators might use social media, I interviewed “Hans Bergman,” an upper school English teacher of 12 years.
Describe your use of social media in relation to your work as a high school teacher.
Honestly, I use it sparingly. I mean, I have set up Twitter accounts for classes and encouraged kids with Twitter to follow. I can’t make them, of course. And all I do is use it to occasionally remind the class of upcoming projects or due dates. Sometimes I’ll tweet an interesting fact or a “this day in history” type of thing. I also follow an ACT and SAT account that sometimes offers questions or tips of the day. I retweet those for the students. I might post an interesting article, not necessarily related to our curriculum, but something thought-provoking or just an example of good writing. How often they read, or how many of them read, I don’t know. Maybe half the class follows. Some parents follow, which makes me more aware of maintaining a professional voice, of not retweeting an article that might contain questionable material.
Do you use Facebook? And if so, are you “friends” with students?
I do. I avoided it for a few years, but then got hooked on it for a while, playing games and stuff. I sought out some former students with whom I bonded, just to see where they are, how they’re doing.
What about current students?
My policy is not to “friend” a student while he or she is in my class. I have pretty tight security settings—and I don’t even have a wall that someone could post to, so I tried to make my Facebook
presence as student-free zone. I don’t show up in searches, but students find me through my wife’s account. I made the decision that, if I accept one friend request from a student, I accept all friend requests—though I have made an exception with a student who was particularly ugly towards me and classmates. I did have one student who took a liking to me—I think I was one of the few teachers that sort of “got” him and treated him more like an adult. He’s an immature child, though. I accepted his request and noticed his profile picture featured the Confederate battle flag and some of his posts showed up on my feed. He’s very country, very southern and some of the things, while not blatantly racist were at least insensitive. It made me uncomfortable. I ended up blocking him, though I felt bad about it because I could tell he looked up to me. I just, I don’t know.
So is Facebook something you use professionally?
Not really. But I have to be professionally-conscious. I don’t share much personal stuff. I certainly don’t write anything inflammatory about the school system or specific individuals. I might post an article about education, in general, and make a comment or simply type, “Thoughts?” to elicit comments from Friends. Once a student speculated that I only “friended” former students so I could keep giving them stuff to read. I had to admit that I do enjoy seeing how they respond to different items. The most interesting thing is when students from different years—maybe six years apart, even—get into debates over something I’ve posted. My classroom is an open forum; that’s something I’m proud of, that students can express opinions and know that they will be respected and know that they do not have to adopt or agree with the views of anyone else. I play devil’s advocate, and consequently, they don’t really pin me down on a position. They ask what my opinion is on something, and I might say that my only opinions have to do with them being better readers and writers and thinkers. That’s the only thing I advocate, I tell them, and I try to carry that attitude over to social media. Not everything I share is school-related, but it’s not controversial. I might type something about a basketball game I’m watching or give a status update that says something like, “Enjoying Spring Break” or “Lots of grading to do.” I avoid bitching about my job; I am more likely to complain about a referee’s call in the basketball game I’m watching.
Then you are conscious of your role as teacher, even in personal social media use?
Absolutely. I have to be. A few years ago, in a faculty meeting or department meeting, whoever was leading the meeting said that Downtown [the central office] was aware that teachers had posted unflattering things about the superintendent and was giving some sort of warning against that. I don’t know what they can legally do about that, like, I don’t think they can fire someone, but they could make life hard for them. Maybe they could claim insubordination.
Do you use social media to communicate with colleagues?
Occasionally. Usually it’s just a comment on something they have posted. I’ve tried following conversations about education on Twitter, stuff like #EdChat or #TNEdChat. I might tweet a response if I see something interesting, but I prefer not being reminded of the crap in our educational system
during my free time. I don’t tweet much about education. I really don’t tweet much about anything. I retweet or reply to someone else. Usually TV- or sports-related stuff. I follow more sportswriters than school people.
Is that because students or parents or principals might dislike what you say?
Well, my personal account is not linked to the school. I mean, I have nothing indicating that I work for the school system. I’ve seen people who, in their profile, have stated that their opinions are their own, as if to say they’re not speaking as an employee of whatever company or school they work for. But still, I prefer not sharing much. I’m a fairly private person. I am older than the generation that feels the need to share everything. I understand, I think, the appeal of getting attention and being popular, but at my age, I don’t care. I think the students I have now care less, too. They aren’t on Twitter or Facebook as much. That’s where adults go. They want their own places. They do stuff like SnapChat and any number of platforms that sound completely foreign to me. Our paths cross less and less.
Do you blog?
No. I’m just not interested in sharing to the world or maybe I’m not interesting enough for the world to care about my thoughts.
Are there any other platforms that you use?
I do some Instagram. I don’t post much. Pictures of my pets. Nothing really school-related, though I did once post a picture of the pile of essays I had to grade with a caption that said, “It’s going to be a long night.”
How do you think educators can use social media as part of their curricula? Or should they?
It’s something I’ve thought a little bit about. I’m not keen on it, to tell you the truth. I have seen colleagues give goofy little projects where students make poster-board Facebook pages for characters in whatever play or novel their reading. I suppose I see some value in that the students are analyzing the characters. I would prefer they teach writing. I am not a believer in the idea that, “Hey, they’re going to be using social media anyway, so let’s put it in the classroom.” I see my job as teaching them academic skills—effective writing, analytical reading, critical thinking—and not teaching them ways to attract more followers on Twitter. Now, we do read articles about social media and discuss internet addiction and how social media affects society. They need to know about its power. So, I guess, maybe, I do influence how they use [social media], or the readings and class discussions do. It’s part of their world, and I draw on the world and current events to enhance my curriculum.
Bergmann’s answers offer a complicated view of the teacher and social media. On the one hand, the teacher is like any other adult who uses social media. On the other, educators represent a special class of people—somewhere between public figures and private citizens. While they do not “shed their rights to free speech at the schoolhouse door” (Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969), teachers should recognize that we live in a time that unpopular speech can lead to unfavorable consequences. Perhaps being a “private person” online and recognizing that one is still a teacher, even on the Internet represent the best approaches.
There’s a phenomenon familiar to teachers: seeing students at the grocery store (or anywhere in public). Each party feels a strangeness. The teacher, a few steps earlier an average Joe or Jill looking for graham crackers, now feels a sudden weight of professional responsibility (“Thank God they didn’t see me with a cart full of alcohol,” she might say). The student sees the teacher, not an adult, but out of context, without the authority in a classroom, but still Mr. or Mrs. Anderson, not Joe or Jill. The student and the teacher exchange awkward acknowledgements of the other, maybe attempt small talk (“I see you’re out grocery-shopping, cool”), and hasten to the next aisle.
On social media, though, the small talk lingers, preserved until consciously deleted, though a screen-capture could make the words immortal. Think about the private citizen posting the pic of himself and a couple other people at a dinner table with two empty bottles of wine, another just opened. A happy memory of good times with close friends, or a teacher who’s a lush? We are adults, teachers are. We can enjoy adult things. But how sensitive must we be to a potential social media audience that includes impressionable students?
With colleagues, the dynamic is different. We see each other at Target, and depending on how well we know each other, we may commiserate about a tough day, a rough semester, an incompetent school administrator. We don’t share lesson plans or encourage each other to read a book on best grading practices.
Depending on the closeness of the relation, we may ask about each other’s family or the Spring Break trip or whether we have time to meet for drinks and trivia this Wednesday.
And so it is on social media. Despite the opportunities for expanding our networks, as teachers we find it hard to dedicate more time to our jobs than we already do. There’s more exigency in a stack of papers to mark and scores to enter online before the end of the grading period. Talk of methodology and pedagogy and curricular alignment is consigned to time at school, in a planned meeting, with professional expectations and norms in play. Most teachers, it seems, go to social media to be social in a collegial and amiable way, not as a means for advancing our careers.
In fact, “Hans” was the fifth person I approached about an interview on “writing for social media within his profession.” The first four indicated that they don’t.
Currie, B. (2014, July 15). You are what you tweet. [Video File]. Retrieved from
McLeod, S. (2015). The challenges of digital leadership. Independent School,
Rieckhoff, B. S., & Larsen, C. (2012). The impact of a professional development network
on leadership development and school improvement goals. School-University
Partnerships, 5(1), 57-73.
Sauers, N. J., & Richardson, J. W. (2015). Leading by following: An analysis of how K-12
school leaders use Twitter. NASSP Bulletin, 99(2), 127-146.
Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).
Wejr, C. (2011, Nov. 23). Using tech to meet parents where they are [Blog post]. Retrieved