As I sat down at my desk last week after dropping my four year old off for his first day at school (gulp!) I automatically checked Twitter for updates from his school. I sent them a tweet and also followed the PTA’s new account. The school’s Twitter presence has the potential to give me a much better insight into what my son’s day-to-day school life is like, as opposed to a prospectus, brochure or newsletter.

After attending events with other parents and hearing all their questions and concerns, it got me thinking about what more could be done to improve school-teacher-student-parent engagement – making life easier for everyone and enhancing the whole educational experience.

Teachers’ fear of using social media

The use of social media by schools and teachers is a hot topic and the argument for and against usually follows a negative story around misuse. For many teachers there are obvious reservations; “how will I have time?, I don’t want pupils to see my personal information, what will parents think?, I want to teach not spend my time tweeting!”

Teachers that we have spoken to don’t understand how social media can be used for professional purposes – in fact, they are focused on trying to avoid their personal Facebook photos and updates getting into the hands of students and parents!

A common sense approach to social media for teachers

The first step for schools to help teachers embrace social media to enhance teaching, learning and student/parent engagement is to give them common sense guidelines on how to avoid the obvious pitfalls. Teachers are given extensive training in what is and isn’t appropriate/effective when it comes to communicating with students and parents. Basic principles about how to separate your private and professional life can easily be applied online. In most cases, it’s not appropriate for teachers to use personal Facebook accounts to engage with students – but a carefully managed blog or Twitter feed could be incredibly effective.

It is highly unlikely that a teacher or member of school staff would be stupid enough to share inappropriate information about their school/students in the public domain online. In 99.99% of cases they will know better. And the small minority that don’t will be have their unprofessionalism exposed and be quickly spotted.

Using social media for enhancing teaching and learning

Teachers are almost always under a huge amount of pressure. Once they understand how to easily avoid the risks to their professional reputation of using social media at work, they then need to see how it can make their lives easier – not harder.

Since they spend most of the time as the only adult in the room, teachers can often feel isolated and lacking professional support. There are huge communities of teachers from all over the world online sharing ideas and resources. Using social media to enhance teaching and learning isn’t just about creating content, it can also be used as an effective research tool. Whether it is arranging a school trip or planning a lesson, following and asking questions of specific people and organisations on Twitter could make life a lot easier. And rather than looking like they don’t know what they’re doing, it will actually show parents and others how proactive they are. Each individual teacher needs a clear strategy for what they want to get out of it so that they can focus on a specific purpose/topic and not feel they have to share endless updates about their lives.

Using social media for student, parent and community engagement

The other way that using social media can make life much easier for schools and teachers is in sharing information and engaging with students, parents and the community. Teachers and school staff often have to spend a lot of their time answering the same questions again and again. But what if they could broadcast information and answer questions directly at the touch of a button and for everyone to see? There is a chance that some time will be wasted dealing with irrelevant or inappropriate queries but it is more likely that time will be saved.

Sensible engagement with social media and the internet in the classroom allows teachers to shape pupils’ attitudes and relationship with an ever present and increasingly powerful medium. As a parent I find it comforting that my son’s school are using social media both to teach him about using the internet safely and appropriately and to keep me informed, involved and engaged in his school life.

Many schools in Yorkshire are already doing some really good stuff with social media – and teachers are seeing the benefits. Halifax and Tong High Schools, for example, use Facebook and Twitter to provide regular updates, news and advice for parents and pupils. Halifax High’s Deputy Head Mick Kay tweets from his own account about his views on school improvement and his personal interests. Bradford Grammar School is another early adopter – the first school to make its prospectus available as a downloadable app, demonstrating its forward thinking approach to all things digital. The Head is active on Twitter, setting best practice for his teachers to emulate.

There are a number of risks for schools but with an effective social media policy in place, with ‘buy-in’ from the top, which is effectively integrated into the daily workings of the school the risks are easily mitigated – and the opportunities are endless.

It won’t be right for everyone but if schools can identify a few teachers that have the skills and the enthusiasm to embrace it, they can empower them to become ambassadors.

If you are interested in how your school/teachers could use social media, we can help gather the insight you need for an effective strategy, policy and guidelines and give your staff the necessary training and resources to embrace it. Engage with us now to find out more.