Social Media Helps Educators Build Professional Learning Communities

By Joetta Sack-Min

Many educators have latched on to social media as a way to share information with colleagues, parents and community members. But becoming truly connected means much greater engagement—using social media to find and share resources, glean advice on tough dilemmas and build professional learning communities with other colleagues around the country.

October is Connected Educators Month, and LFA has queried social media-savvy educators on how they’re using social media professionally and which platforms they find most useful.

“The biggest misnomer I've noticed is that educators think of social media strictly as a tool,” says Brad Gustafson, principal of Greenwood Elementary School in Plymouth, Minn. “I think we need to recognize that social media also creates a space. The space can be a place where dedicated educators come together to collaborate, ask questions, learn new ideas and push each other to do more than any individual could do alone.”  

Not surprisingly, Twitter has become the dominant platform for many educators who also use it to engage parents and community members in their schools. Twitter chats and hashtags are ways educators are virtually connecting—for instance, Superintendents Nick Polyak and Michael Lubelfeld co-moderate a monthly chat for district administrators called #suptchat the first Wednesday of each month at 8 p.m. ET. Jessica Cabeen, an elementary school principal, hosts an early childhood education Twitter chat each Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. ET at #ECEchat.

For new users, social media can be intimidating, time consuming and stressful—just the amount of information it makes available is overwhelming.

“It’s a challenge and a gift,” says Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash. “We have multiple ways to tell our story but other people [also] have multiple ways of telling our stories. It gives us the imperative to own our story and be the ones to tell it.”

Dr. Enfield has been targeted with negative and false tweets, including one situation where high school students blasted her to protest the condition of their school building, which could not be renovated because a school facility bond had failed. She decided to use their interest to teach about school construction funding mechanisms and how they could become better activists.

“You will have to deal with some tough situations—be prepared for the negative as well as the positive,” she says. “You also have to be disciplined—it’s important not to react on Twitter and not get sucked into a back and forth—it’s very tempting but Twitter is not the space for that.”

Instead, Dr. Enfield and others advise school officials to take a conversation offline using private messaging or another form of communication.

LFA asked these educators and others for advice on getting started and making connections—without being overwhelmed. Here are their responses:

Which social mediums do you use, and how often?

“I mainly use Voxer and Twitter. I started on both platforms last fall and since then have not only developed a stronger network of leaders to reach out to, but have improved my own abilities to be an instructional leader at my school. I also started my own blog as a way to house ideas, programs and interests to share with my professional learning network.” (Jessica Cabeen, Principal, Woodson Kindergarten Center, Austin, Minn. @JessicaCabeen)

“Twitter is the social medium I use most often. I also use allo, duo, Google HangOut, Facebook, LinkedIN, Periscope, Voxer and others. I use Twitter along with members of the school district where I serve to share, learn, communicate, and brand. We use #Engage109 as our district hashtag. I got started using Twitter in November 2010 at a workshop with the Illinois Association of School Administrators.” (Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent, Deerfield Public Schools District 109, Deerfield, Ill. @MikeLubelfeld)

“I tweet on a daily basis. As a district, we have Facebook, Instagram, a district Twitter account and Tumblr. I made the decision to hire a social media manager to help manage all of this.” (Susan Enfield, @SuptEnfield)

“I use Twitter and Voxer daily in support of my work as superintendent.  I also use tools like Periscope, Vine and Instagram to make sure I am meeting my students, teachers, parents and community members on the platforms they use.” (Nick Polyak, superintendent, Leyden High School District 212, Franklin Park, Ill., @npolyak

“I use Twitter a lot—both to learn about and to share resources, including my own posts. I also share resources on Pinterest, Facebook and Google Plus.  I use my blog to primarily keep track of resources, lessons and ideas that I use in my own classroom, and share with others in case they're interested, too.” (Larry Ferlazzo, high school teacher, Sacramento, Calif., and blogger, @larryferlazzo)

How did you get started on these platforms?

“Our social media manager on our communications team suggested that I start tweeting about a year and a half ago—her advice was, ‘if you’re going to do it, you need to be consistent about it.’” (Enfield)

“I typically get started by experimenting with different tools to find out how they can best support our district.” (Polyak)

What’s most useful about social media? How does it help you perform your job better?

“Social media reaches across status, boundary, wall or border. It's immediate, it's permanent, it's usually free! It helps me do my job better by allowing me to direct the messages, to tell our stories, to share what's happening in real time and in real life.” (Lubelfeld)

“It is Professional Development at your own pace—on your own time.  With Voxer I can join in on a conversation during my commute home, in the AM before work or when it is most convenient for me (and when I can fully engage).  With Twitter chats and Twitter I can save lists and hashtags to refer back to when I need particular information.  Both platforms have helped me tremendously in looking at problems with a new lens and with new research while not requiring me to read text books and case studies.  I can ask real-life practicing educators about what is working and why and then take that knowledge and make it work for our school.” (Cabeen)

“I would answer this question two ways.  Social media supports our district by allowing our students and staff to "tell our story" to the world.  If you search #leydenpride on Twitter, you will see exactly what is happening in our schools.  Secondly, social media helps connect me to school leaders across the world.  What can be a lonely profession is made collaborative through social media.” (Polyak)

“I'm able to perform my job more efficiently and with greater precision because being connected using social media tools like Twitter and Voxer gives me access to people who, quite frankly, are much smarter than I am.  For example, when our school started investing in a fleet of Mobile MakerSpaces several years ago I reached out to members of my Professional Learning Network and asked what some of the best tools and opportunities were for kids to create.  The responses I collected yielded powerful advice that saved me time and money.” (Gustafson, @GustafsonBrad).

“Learning about resources, research, lessons, etc. are the main reasons I use Twitter.  I am a far better teacher than I would have been through those resources and through the extra thinking writing about them has forced me to do.” (Ferlazzo)

What if you are just getting started on social media? What is your best advice for using social media effectively (without it taking up all your time)?

“My advice is to participate in a Twitter chat like #suptchat that will help you find other leaders.  When you ‘follow’ them, they will follow you back and you will start to grow your professional learning network.” (Polyak)

“Start small and have your team help you. The more you do it the easier it gets—tweeting is now part of my daily routine.” (Enfield)

“Have a message and schedule tweets in advance using a service like TweetDeck. Organize your ‘tweet interests’ into hashtags so you can focus and filter that which you seek (i.e. #Engage109, #suptchat, etc.). Don't get overwhelmed, start slowly with a purpose and let it grow from there. Don't be afraid, it is where your public is! There are more than a billion folks on Facebook...it's not going away anytime soon.” (Lubelfeld)

“Using it to collect and curate ideas is fine.  However, the most beneficial aspect—to you, your students, and your colleagues—will be putting time into creating something new with what you learn and sharing it. (Ferlazzo)

Final thoughts?

“Kids don't need experts in the classroom...they need relevant and connected learners who will empower them to be curious, networked and safe.  Times are changing and so should pedagogy.  We simply can't ignore the positive potential of social media to help us be more nimble, and responsive to the needs of our students and schools.” (Gustafson)

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla for Refe.
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