[Here’s another important new post by Bea Leiderman. Bea is an instructional technology coach at Goochland County Public Schools in Goochland, Virginia. Bea has been a Twitter user since the very beginning, and she’s spent much time thinking about effective teaching and effective professional development. As always, I’m grateful that she contributed this article.]
About a year ago, I stumbled upon a weekly Twitter chat in progress. A local educator I had recently started to follow was extolling the importance of teacher-led professional development. He was claiming great success at his school but was not providing any examples. I was very curious, so I tagged a couple of tweets with the chat hashtag and very explicitly asked for an example.
I never got one.
I was determined to get to the bottom of this since I knew several teachers at the school. I found it interesting that in all our conversations, we had never run into the topic of teacher-led PD.
A few weeks later, I found myself reading tweets from the same chat. Once again, there were some really good ideas being thrown around. The tweets labeled A1, A2, and so on just went past my screen, mostly in isolation with no pushback or follow-up questioning. It was like watching a log tossing contest. Each tweet reached farther than the first in terms of ambitious classroom ideas, but the ideas just landed and sat there. Nobody was claiming actually to do what they were tweeting. Nobody linked to examples or provided specifics. My questions again went unanswered and a few participants actually blocked me after I pressed for examples or proof of implementation of what was being tweeted.
I have continued to follow this weekly chat over the past year. I stopped participating and only read the tweets, but I have since participated in other chats that were, for the most part, log tossing contests themselves. The moderator asks questions designed to generate particular types of answers, especially when the chat is a thinly veiled vehicle for promoting a product. The answers are designed to garner attention from the vendor, along with lots of likes and retweets by chat participants. A few good ideas might drift by, but it is up to each participant to follow up and gather the specifics. That, as I have experienced, is not easy.
Twitter chats are not the only place where the messages are so vague it is hard to distill anything truly applicable to a classroom. Teachers are being encouraged to tweet, tweet, tweet and show off the good things they do. School divisions direct teachers to use this or that hashtag and mention this or that name to get retweets and likes. As with other social media, those retweets and likes are associated with a natural high. Combine that natural high with recognition by your peers, and the result is explosive. Who does not want a tweet to go viral? If we think it is hard for teens to keep their focus when their phone is buzzing away in their pockets, we have not looked hard enough at adults with Twitter lighting up in a browser tab.
But what happens when a teacher is conscientiously doing her work, forging good relationships with students, doing the slow and steady work of helping kids overcome difficulties and is focusing on that rather than on populating her twitter feed? From a social media standpoint, this teacher is at a disadvantage even if her students are making enormous strides. If someone at the district level is watching schools through the Twitter lens, that person might be getting a distorted view of teaching practices across the district.
During George Couros’s visit to Chesterfield County earlier this year, he spoke of the importance of leading by example in social media. He said the positive messages have to be loud enough to drown out the negative messages and showcased a beautiful example of how this is a great way to help teens navigate online spaces. While Couros’s advice is true for dealing with personal attacks, I worry it might create a toxic environment for educators tweeting about their practice. Clearly, not everything we do in our schools and classrooms every minute of every day is perfect and without need for improvement. But the pressure on Twitter and other venues is to generate a good buzz for one’s institution. Nobody will ever tweet a picture of kids asleep at their keyboards with the text, “Hey, I totally messed up today’s lesson plan. Anyone out there available to help?” We know failure happens in classrooms across the world. If it didn’t, would we need all these Twitter chats, PD, and magic bullet products?
I joined Twitter in February of 2008. At the time, the idea of growing a personal or professional learning network was pretty new. Educators I followed in those early days shared links to interesting blog posts and articles while the rest of the world joked about posting their lunch pictures. Over the past nine years, I have followed and unfollowed hundreds of people. I review my feed often and unfollow those who do not add to my learning. I unfollow the #CustomerServiceFail crowd constantly looking for a free ride. I unfollow habitual retweeters and instead follow any of the original tweeters I find interesting. I unfollow repetitive self-promoting tweets linking to books and speaking gigs. I keep my Twitter feed trimmed and manageable, and follow people who share interesting ideas. I follow a few people I dislike profoundly, but I recognize they have much to share in terms of creativity, expertise, and connections.
Social media in education can be a useful vehicle for sharing ideas and successes. However, it can also create a veneer of innovation and engagement when what it is really doing is fomenting teacher self-promotion. In those cases, students become props and lessons are deemed successful if they provide plenty of photo opportunities with mentions of products and services currently en vogue. I have even heard of teachers asking students to pose and look happy and busy, telling them in advance, “I’m taking a picture for Twitter!” Competition between teachers becomes unhealthy as likes and retweets become achievement badges based on projected images rather than sound instructional practices.
If our interactions on Twitter are to move teachers, institutions, and products forward, the conversations have to be honest. We must check our need for approval at the door and share both our good ideas and the possible pitfalls others might encounter when implementing them. Picture-perfect tweets might look good from the outside, but can be damaging to morale and counterproductive if teachers are judged by their social media presence rather than their actual classroom practices.