In Florida’s Collier County Public Schools, educators’ use of social media to connect with parents and the broader community started with “a coalition of the willing” says Greg Turchetta, executive director of communications and community development. “Resistance is at every turn. We started with school administrative teams and school accounts.”
Once the administrators became comfortable using social media, teachers were invited to join in. Some couldn’t get past the fear, and that’s fine, Turchetta says.
So far, nearly 30 percent—about 900—of the district’s teachers use Twitter. Turchetta refers to them as Tweetchers. They are willing publicize and promote successes on social media.
“We are in an industry that needs to evolve” Turchetta says. “Education moves slower than the rest of the industries. We need to keep up.”
Which network works best?
Educators can share big and small wins on Facebook because most parents use the social network, says Monica Burns, an edtech and curriculum consultant who founded the Class Tech Tips service.
A good Facebook post includes a clear message or call to action, as well as a link to more information and an image that will grab readers’ attention. Tagging relevant individuals encourages them to spread your message by sharing the post, Burns says.
Wellness teacher Kelly Agee, on the other hand, chooses Instagram to connect with parents. Agee, who works at South Grove Intermediate School near Indianapolis, uses the photo-heavy network to celebrate her students or to give a “shout out” to a spelling bee winner.
Instagram posts are more about the photo than the text—the image should tell a story on its own, and include a brief explanation. She also keeps her “brand”—her school and her class—front and center, and strives to write “short and sweet” posts.
“When I was solely on Twitter I didn’t have many parents following me” says Agee, whose building is part of Beech Grove City Schools. “But my Instagram account is very popular with both parents and students. I enjoy the challenge of saying what I want to say as clearly and as effectively as possible.”
Closed platforms, such as Remind and Bloomz, are good ways to privately share classroom lessons with parents. Such platforms are less public than traditional social media.
Features vary widely. Some apps allow for two-way communication between parents and teachers, and even other parents. Some translate messages into the family’s home language.
When a teacher selects an app, they send notes home with information on how to access it. To sign up for Remind, for instance, parents and students simply send a text. If parents don’t opt in, they can still receive messages via email or phone.
The apps are among a growing number of teacher-parent communication platforms, each with slightly different functions, including video sharing, unlimited messaging and language translation.
Vicki Davis, the IT director for a small private school in rural Georgia, chose Bloomz to share footage of her high school computer science students pretending to bobsled on the classroom floor. The activity had started as a lesson on filming action scenes.
“I want the parents to see their kids learning and happy” she says. “My parents know how rigorous my class is but I like them to see their kids laughing and enjoying themselves.”
She opted to not share the lesson publicly on Facebook. “There are times when people who don’t know you and don’t know how you teach, they may not understand your classroom—and they are eager to criticize” she said.
‘Ultimate recruiting tool’
Social media gives Collier County Public Schools the opportunity to showcase itself in an era of increasing competition from charters and private schools. “We have to prove that we are the best education choice for children” says Turchetta, the communications director.
When Turchetta joined the district in 2015, many educators there feared using social media. That started to change when student numbers dropped due to competition and community criticism. “That’s when the district realized there is value in telling its story” Turchetta says. “The beauty of choice is that everyone ups their game.”
The district recently fielded a call from a New York parent who was moving to Collier County. The parent asked that their child be placed in a specific classroom after watching the class’ Twitter feed. “It’s the ultimate recruiting tool” Turchetta says.
Using social media also stimulates dinner table conversation. “Parents always ask their children, ‘How was your day?’ Good. ‘What’d you do?’ Nothing,'” Turchetta says.
“One parent stopped me in a grocery store and told me she was able to engage her daughter by asking about the Lego Mindstorm robot she watched her daughter build at school. Once asked, the girl talked about that project for 15 minutes.”
Proper social media training and well-established policies prevent trouble from arising. For example, teachers and students at Collier are prohibited from disclosing any personally identifiable information online. All online activity is monitored by staff to make sure these guidelines are followed.
The district has yet to reprimand a teacher for improper social media use, Turchetta says. “You don’t just launch this” he says. “This is all about communication. You don’t need to surprise anyone.”
A little pushback
Twitter, though not as popular with parents, seems to be the best way to link students to faraway classrooms, says Jennifer Ward, a teacher at Grandville High School in western Michigan. She witnessed a big boost in her students’ enthusiasm when they made a real-life connection with classes on the other side of the world.
While teaching the book The Kite Runner, her class worked through the language barrier to interact with students at Marefat High School in Kabul, Afghanistan, which has many students from the Haraza minority.
The plight of the poorly treated group, which is depicted in the book, took on new meaning when Ward’s students communicated with the Hazaras.
“My students developed a deeper understanding and empathy” she says. “We were able to talk about how it wasn’t just a story, it was accurate.”
Ward also uses social media, particularly Twitter, to bring students and writers together. She finds authors and other people she wants to connect with by searching specifically for them. She finds topics by searching hashtags.
Authors are often enthusiastic to communicate with students, and are willing to answer lots of questions. Some writers have even offered to come into the classroom to talk to students free of charge or to hold Skype sessions, Ward adds.
Hashtags, such as #scienceproject, also help drive traffic to the classroom’s site. When a social media user is seeking specific information, they will search hashtags on all the public platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“For me, there has been no more powerful tool than Twitter” she says. “Ten years ago, I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
Ward does presentations and also coaches teachers on the best way to curate their feeds so they can find what they are looking for without dealing with the vitriol often found on the platform.
Ward has different social media accounts for different needs. For example, she has a classroom account where she connects with students, parents and authors. She uses her personal account for professional development.
When presenting, she always gets some pushback from teachers who are wary of social media, especially Twitter, because some educators see the networks as tools for nothing more than cyberbullying and posting memes, Ward says.