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December 2010/January 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 4
The Effective Educator
William M. Ferriter
To the dismay of television producers who count on viewers spending free time on the couch passively consuming content, citizens of most developed nations are spending more free time connecting with one another through social media.
Mirroring these trends, educators are now increasingly taking advantage of social media services and tools. A recent survey showed that 61 percent of teachers, principals, and librarians are active in at least one social media space. Many use those spaces for professional development—attending webinars, watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, or participating on blogs (edWeb.net, 2010).
What's frustrating—particularly to many younger teachers—is that the same social media spaces widely embraced outside schools are routinely blocked within schools by district firewalls. Fears—driven by concerns about cyberbullying or inappropriate postings—cause school leaders to think twice about whether the advantages of social media outweigh the potential consequences of misuse.
For schools who've embraced social media spaces as tools for reaching out, however, the rewards are real. As Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey, a school with an active Twitter account (http://twitter.com/newmilfordhs) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pages/New-Milford-NJ/New-Milford-High-School/114382501908040) explains,
Unlike traditional forms of communication such as snail mail and press releases, I can provide updates in real time as events happen, on Twitter and in Facebook. Since society as a whole is actively using social media, it only makes sense to connect with my community through these means. (E. Sheninger, personal communication, September 30, 2010)
Connecting is exactly what Sheninger does through Facebook and Twitter. Explore his posts in both places and you'll see messages that celebrate the school's athletic victories, spotlight student work, and promote functions like parent nights and performances. You'll also see parents and other community members interacting with teachers and with one another—lending congratulations, asking questions, sharing opinions. Finally, you'll see Sheninger eagerly sharing photographs from school events and links to local newspaper articles, videos, and resources connected to student learning. New Milford High stakeholders can receive information on school events, student accomplishments, and innovations in the classroom from any Internet-connected computer or mobile device any time.
Perhaps most exciting for Sheninger is that participation in social media spaces enables him to tap into the thoughts and feelings of students—a group often overlooked in conversations about teaching and learning. "My students took notice of my affinity for Twitter during a meeting with members of student government," he explains. "They conveyed that Facebook was a more appropriate medium to reach them and disseminate the same information." So now, many New Milford High School students follow the school's Facebook page, joining in community conversations that they hadn't been a part of before.
Although Sheninger is proud of the work that he is doing in social media, he has also walked cautiously. All the messages he shares are connected to learning or to school events. He also has every family complete a new media release form before sharing pictures or video featuring students, and he regularly communicates with stakeholders about the purposes of New Milford's social media efforts. With these precautions in place, Sheninger told me, the school district has enthusiastically supported his efforts.
So what would Sheninger recommend to leaders interested in using social media to reach out to school communities? "The first step is to lurk and learn," he explains.
Watch what other principals are doing to get a good idea of information and content being shared with stakeholders. Begin to establish a vision and some goals as to what you want to accomplish using social media. I do not suggest diving right in. As you become more comfortable, begin to gradually share information relating to your school, students, staff, and the education profession. Finally, as with any new endeavor, communicate with the appropriate supervisors to elicit their support. (E. Sheninger, personal communication, September 30, 2010)
Integrating social media tools into a school's work is essential if leaders hope to build meaningful relationships with stakeholders. Although encouraging teachers to integrate social media into
instruction may not be a risk you're ready to take, integrating these tools into your school's communication plans is an excellent first step.
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edWeb.net. (2010). School principals and social networking in education: Practices, policies, and realities in 2010 (Survey cosponsored by Interactive Educational Systems Design, MCH Strategic Data, and MMS Education). Princeton, NJ: edWeb.net. Retrieved from
Facebook. (2010, May 20). Press room: Statistics. Retrieved from
Hepburn, A. (2010a, March 22). Facebook: Facts and figures for 2010 [blog post]. Retrieved from Digital Buzz Blog at
Hepburn, A. (2010b, May 12). Infographic: Twitter statistics, facts and figures [blog post]. Retrieved from Digital Buzz Blog at
Hepburn, A. (2010c, May 19). Infographic: YouTube statistics, facts and figures [blog post]. Retrieved from Digital Buzz Blog at
Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith, A., & Zickuhr, K. (2010). Social media and young adults. Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Madden, M. (2010). Older adults and social media. Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Weil, K. (2010, February 22). Measuring tweets [blog post]. Retrieved from Twitter blog at http://blog.twitter.com/2010/02/measuring-tweets.html
William M. Ferriter (@plugusin on Twitter) teaches 6th grade science in Raleigh, North Carolina, and blogs about the teaching life at The Tempered Radical (http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/the_tempered_radical). He is the coauthor of Teaching the iGeneration: Five Easy Ways to Introduce Essential Skills with Web 2.0 Tools and Building a Professional Learning Community at Work (Solution Tree, 2010). Essentials for Principals: Connecting and Communicating with Social Media Tools (Solution Tree) will be published in spring 2011; 919-363-1870; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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