Before March 2009, Eric Sheninger was “your typical school leader who felt that social media had no place in my personal and professional life.” Sheninger, principal of New Milford (N.J.) High School, believed that social media was “a waste of everybody’s time and a distraction for students.” His beliefs changed when he read an article about Twitter and “the light bulb went on.”
A Leading Voice in Using Social Media
Like many districts at the time, New Milford School District communicated news about school closings by using a phone chain and had a district website that was updated sporadically, at best. News was not immediate. Everyone had to wait.
“I realized that Twitter could be the answer, and a free one at that,” says Sheninger, who has since become a leading voice in using social media in education. He has won numerous awards for his work in the field, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ “Digital Principal Award” in 2012. He is a regular contributor to the “Huffington Post,” co-creator of the annual Edscape Conference, and author of the book Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, published this year.
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Today, hundreds of principals are using Twitter to communicate news about their schools, and as a professional learning network that allows them to connect with colleagues, other principals and their teachers. But, hundreds more are reluctant to make that leap, citing the time commitment, a misguided fear of posting something they’ll regret, and a simple misunderstanding of the free communication tools they have at their fingertips.
As a school public relations professional, you can use your relationship-building and communication skills to work with principals in your district and help them jump on the Twitter bandwagon. Not only will Twitter enhance their communication with school stakeholders, it will change communication district-wide.
Supporting Teachers and Students
The excuses not to use social media “no longer work in a 21st century communication environment,” according to George Couros, division principal for the Parkland School Division in Stony Plain, Alberta.
“The teachers who are moving forward need their principals to understand this and support them,” wrote Couros in a recent blog post. “Teachers don’t need principals to be at the same level, but they at least need to know principals trust them and will put the systems in place for them and more importantly, their students, to be successful.
“There can no longer be an ‘opt out’ clause when dealing with technology in our schools, especially from our administrators. We need to prepare our kids to live in this world now and in the future. Change may feel hard, but it is part of learning. We expect it from our kids; we should expect it from ourselves.”
Creating a Personal Learning Network
John Falino, principal at Dobbs Ferry High School in Westchester, N.Y., uses his Twitter account primarily as a personal learning network, where he shares information with colleagues, his teachers and out-of-district thinkers in the education field.
“Initially, I thought it would be an excellent tool for communicating with parents,” says Falino. “But then I began to realize that we don’t have a whole lot of parents on Twitter. Young people in my region are on Twitter, and those using Facebook seem to be parents roughly between the ages of 35 and 45.”
Over time, Falino noted that, “My tweets became something completely different and all about professional learning and building a network of people with similar interests and ideas.”
Falino, who has more than 1,800 followers, also heads a building in which a majority of his teaching staff tweets, and follows him. That means, simply, that they also follow his ideas, visit the links he cites, and retweet his content. Says Falino, “I’ve discovered that Twitter is invaluable as a professional development tool.”
In addition, Falino frequently uses Twitter as a live “back channel” at his school’s professional development workshops, a tool that encourages real-time conversation and questions.
Recognizing the Positives
A majority of Dobbs Ferry students have their own Twitter accounts, and the school permits students to bring their smartphones to class. Some teachers post “do now” questions that students can answer via Twitter when they arrive to class, and all are encouraged to use hashtags. And, there are classes with their own Twitter pages, where multiple students can log in at the same time.
But what about security and student safety, the reason many educators say they avoid social media?
“People imagine that it will be a disaster or that it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen,” says Falino. “But to our students, social media and technology is all they know. We have to catch up. The positives far outweigh any potential dangers. In fact, it’s our responsibility to teach kids how to act responsibly on social media and their mobile devices. To teach digital citizenship, we need to know what we’re talking about.”
According to Falino, principals must be transparent, immediate and responsive. He carries his smartphone with him wherever he goes for that reason.
“First and foremost, I look at my email,” he says, “and I respond as quickly as possible. You never know when a parent might be reaching out or when a staff member needs your attention.”
He also posts frequently to the high school Facebook and Twitter pages, using his smartphone. And by the end of 2013, Falino expects that the high school will have its own mobile app, thanks to some enterprising students who helped design it.
Experiencing Classroom Activities
In Valhalla, N.Y., no fewer than four school district administrators use Twitter on a regular basis. The district also has a Facebook page, a district-wide Twitter feed, and a YouTube channel. Work has just begun on a Pinterest page, as well.
Matthew Curran, principal of the 3-5 Kensico School in Valhalla, says his tweets are a combination of “in-the-classroom” communication with parents and identifying interesting resources with colleagues and teachers.
“A lot of things go on in our classrooms that parents don’t routinely experience or observe,” notes Curran. “I use Twitter, especially to post photos, so parents can experience in real time some of the special and more routine events that take place every day.”
More recently, Curran has posted photos of a writers’ celebration, Student Council elections, a storytelling festival, and other events. His only concern is that his page currently has a mere 54 followers, so he is considering holding a workshop for parents to de-mystify Twitter and other social media tools.
Suggestions for Working with Principals
But how do principals become adept with social media like Twitter, and how can public relations professionals help them?
You can encourage your principals to open a Twitter account as a pilot project, to see how it works. “Then, just help them lurk and learn,” Sheninger suggests. “Let them know that as they model social media, others will begin to take notice, and then their Twitter accounts will take on lives of their own.”
Effectively engaging stakeholders is an area where your expertise can be invaluable to building leaders. Explain how Twitter can be used to engage people through meaningful, two-way communication. Posting photos of activities going on in school each day is a great way to start interaction with parents and others. Asking questions is another way. Also cite Twitter’s use for professional development by creating networks among staff and with other school leaders.
In addition, you can follow early adopters to see how they’re using the technology and pass along tips to your principals. Then, encourage them to do the same and share ideas with colleagues in your district.
Building a ‘Collective Intelligence’ for Social Media
Following principals like Sheninger, Falino and Couros can be enlightening. Also, encourage your principals to reach out to these and other social media leaders with questions or comments.
“Virtual mentoring is so important on social media,” says Sheninger. “We can all build a collective intelligence using this technology.”
Evelyn McCormack is director of communications for Southern Westchester BOCES in Harrison, N.Y. and NSPRA Vice President at-Large for Communication Technology & Innovation. She can be contacted at: email@example.com.
Twitter handles for principals cited: