Trend Tracker: Engage Your Students Through Instagram Stories

Tove Tupper
Tove Tupper

Highline Public Schools recently held a live video conference call for high school seniors and their families. Our superintendent answered questions and reassured students we are fully committed to them during the new coronavirus outbreak, just like we always have been. During the broadcast, a comment in the chat box said students are getting the latest updates by following the district’s Instagram account. That comment made me smile, knowing it was more than a year in the making.

Last winter, HPS schools were closed for several days due to snow. In our district, snow days are far and few between, so everyone — students, families and staff — eagerly awaited news every day.

As the snow days passed, I began to notice something peculiar and exciting happening on our Instagram account. Students were communicating with us — the school district! We had spent years attempting to engage students on social media and rarely saw success. We had been labeled “too old” and “not cool” by our teenage audience.

We seized the moment, threw up a question about snow days on Instagram stories, and crossed our fingers.

Within minutes, we were buried in responses from our middle and high school students. I spent hours on Instagram stories, replying to students’ questions and jazzing up my content using GIFs. Students replied with hearts and laughing emojis. We had finally broken through.

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After the snow days, I vowed to focus on Instagram stories and continue to build our student audience.

‘Take Your Stories to the Next Level’

This year, our Communications Department teamed up with the Secondary Success and College and Career Readiness Department to host monthly Q&A sessions using Instagram stories. We focused on career and college prep topics such as applying for college, navigating the financial aid process and securing scholarships.

Now, with the long-term closure of schools due to the coronavirus, we also are leaning heavily on Instagram to amplify our district messages and resources. We’re seeing students turn to the account more than ever for updates and connection.

Through these situations, I’ve learned that a few small steps can take your stories to the next level. Here are nine tips to maximize your Instagram stories:

  1. Develop a strategy. Instagram stories should not be an afterthought. Users consume stories first, posts second. Use stories to show the day-to-day life in schools. Share behind-the-scenes footage. Stories don’t have to be picture-perfect, but they should be a part of your overall social media strategy. Posts can showcase polished photos and videos.
  2. Create content that encourages engagement. Instagram stories are meant to be interactive. Use Instagram’s questions, polls, quizzes and countdowns to encourage your audience to engage with you. Add pizzazz to your stories with gifs and emojis. Have fun with the content you share.
  3. Create templates. To craft high-quality stories on the fly, create templates in advance. Save the templates on your phone in a photo album, so they can be easily accessed. I have templates saved with my district’s branded colors. I also have templates using branded colors for our high schools and middle schools.
  4. Copy photos from your phone’s photo stream. Did you know you can add multiple photos to a single story? Find the photo you want to share on your phone, select “export” and then “copy.” Open Instagram stories, double-tap, and select “paste.” Repeat as necessary.
  5. Use your brand’s colors. Don’t stick to Instagram’s canned color palette. Integrate your brand’s colors. Select the paintbrush tool, then tap and hold any of the default colors to access a larger color palette. Pro tip: Copy and paste an image of your color palette, and use the color picker tool to pinpoint an exact color. Once the color is selected, delete the photo from the story.
  6. Create a solid color background. Want to skip the photo or video and just use a solid color in your story? Select the pen option, find a color and hold the screen for a few seconds.
  7. Hide hashtags and tags. Sometimes multiple hashtags and account tags on a single story can be distracting from your message. Pinch the text to make it smaller and disappear into the story.
  8. Amplify your message. Tag others in your stories, so they can easily re-share. Organize Instagram bombs by asking your network to share the same story at the same time so users are guaranteed to see the content.
  9. Respond to DMs. Instagram is meant to be two-way communication. DMs (or direct messages) should not be ignored, especially if it includes a question and it comes from a student. Always respond, even if you have already answered the question. Be reliable and consistent. Our students depend on it.

Choose Topics to Engage and Interest

In addition, put some thought into choosing story topics that will engage and interest students. Here are some ideas:

  • Ask questions:
    • What is your plan for spring break?
    • Who is your favorite teacher and why?
    • What questions do you have about today’s snow day?
    • What questions do you have about applying to college?
  • Create countdowns for events such as the first school day and graduation.
  • Highlight recent posts.
  • Play back-to-school bingo.
  • Stage staff or student “takeovers.”
  • Conduct polls.
  • Solicit quick feedback.
  • Identify hashtags for events.

Find a ‘Reverse Mentor’

My final piece of advice: find a “reverse mentor.” I often turn to my 17-year-old nephew Cole and ask him to critique our Instagram account. He shares his honest feedback and encourages me to keep going. I look to him for tips and help (especially when attempting to understand new lingo).

If our goal is to engage our young people, making time to listen to them is our best strategy.


Author Tove Tupper is assistant director of communications for Highline Public Schools, Burien, Wash. Contact her at or on Twitter at @ToveTupper.