Part 1: The Problem
You are an administrator. You are sitting in an administrative meeting and someone mentions how a certain teacher has spoken out against the school or district on Facebook. One of the attendees happens to be friends with the teacher on the social media platform, so the meeting comes to a halt while said administrator pops open her computer, searches for the post, connects her computer to the projector, and displays the defamation for everyone to see.
The teacher in question is a dynamo in the classroom, but she has grown tired of the district’s latest direction (probably something to do with data). (We will leave out insults regarding state testing and/or the Common Core, as public complaints on these topics have become the norm, even amongst district leaders.) The administrators spend the next thirty minutes doing a little of each of the following:
- Bashing the teacher, on both a personal and professional level
- Formally, deciding what the punishment should be, based on district policy
- Informally, deciding how they are going to “get even” with the teacher
- Discussing how they can get the post taken down
- Discussing who should be the one to confront the teacher about the post
Believe it or not, based on what I have experienced, heard, and read, occurrences such as this happen much more often than we think.
So, what went wrong? Why are these administrators faced with this conundrum, and how could they have proactively avoided it?
Part 2: The Solution
Teachers take to social media because they are not being heard in their own schools and districts, and they crave an audience that will listen. Not only is social media the avenue through which they cry out for help, but at the same time they are airing their dirty laundry in public, as if to say, “You wouldn’t listen to me, so now let’s see how everyone feels about what you’re doing!”
I believe that 9/10 of these teacher-related social media problems can be proactively avoided if administrators keep the lines of communication open with those in their schools and districts. This means continuously listening to stakeholders, seeking to understand their points of view, and doing what is possible to involve them in decisions with significant impact. (In general, people do not like to have things done to them.)
Last year, as an assistant principal in a different district from where I am now, I had teachers coming to me on a regular basis to voice their job-related concerns (some of which had to do with me). Although I was not always able to offer a solution, I can honestly say that I consistently (1) attempted to understand their perspectives, and (2) interacted with them as an equal. In other words, I believe that they were comfortable speaking their minds because I did not have an attitude that projected, “How dare you say that in front of me?” I am a firm believer in “perception is reality,” and as an administrator I cannot ignore teacher problems even if to me they might seem trivial. Also, the fact that the teachers were so willing to confide in me said a lot about the relationships that I had established with them, and in this I took a lot of pride.
Teachers are the ones who interact with students on a daily basis, so their opinions should be voiced and heard. According to a former fourth grader teacher, “I believe teachers need a platform of some kind to speak without feeling it will hurt their career. The teachers know the truth about how district policy and curriculum are affecting the students first-hand. The teachers need a place to work with the district to make improvements.” This platform can be at a school or district level, or it can be on social media. The choice, for the most part, depends on how administrators interact with teachers.
Yes, there will be times in which administrators and teachers disagree, but that is not the point. What matters is that administrators take the time to listen to and understand their teachers, and not disrespect them by disregarding what they have to say. When this ignoring takes place, and complaints fall on deaf ears, that is when social media gets involved. (The same could be said for parents who might be unhappy with a school or district. Once again, 9/10 times they just want to voice their concerns, and a teacher or administrator giving them the time of day will help to nip everything in the bud.)
Please understand that I do not support the bashing of schools and/or districts via social media (and, depending on the specifics, I do think that there are some instances in which reprimanding should take place). However, as a district administrator, if one of my teachers is publicly criticizing my work, I first need to turn to my own actions. Just like with misbehaving students, all we can do to change the behavior is modify how we react to it. Furthermore, when teaching digital citizenship (which is quickly becoming a non-negotiable), students, teachers and parents should all be on the receiving end of this instruction.
Finally, throughout this post I have emphasized the relationships/interactions between administrators and teachers. However, I believe that the same general rules apply to any two educators at different “levels” on the hierarchy (superintendent and principal, assistant superintendent and assistant principal, curriculum supervisor and assistant principal, etc.). Also, although Facebook was used as our example, comparable situations can involve all types of social media, blogging, and pretty much anything that is posted publicly.
In the End
Returning to our original scenario, it is easy to see why district administrators vindictively striking back at the defiant teacher will not solve the real problem at hand, which is more than likely an unhealthy culture. In addition, rarely does anything positive result from administrators using (or abusing) their “hierarchy cards” to strong-arm teachers into doing something (or in this case, not doing something). As stated by Kerry Patterson, Josh Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler in Crucial Accountability:
The flagrant and abusive use of authority, in contrast, guarantees little more than short-term bitter compliance…We convince ourselves that we need to use power to solve the problem, and we enjoy doing it. That’s because we’re thinking with our dumbed-down, adrenaline-fed lizard brains…Every time we decide to use our power to influence others, particularly if we’re gleeful and hasty, we damage the relationship. (pp. 113-114)
A better option to reactively deal with the predicament would be to help the teacher in seeing the consequences of the Facebook post and how they relate to the teacher’s personal values, such as the school’s reputation. As one middle school educator puts it, “I really think teachers are a school's greatest PR. Why would a teacher want to publicly harm a place they work to make better? All criticism should be kept internal.” When posting out of frustration to Facebook, teachers might overlook this long-term damage. In Crucial Accountability, the authors exclaim, “Your job is to help make the invisible visible (p. 118).”
Whether dealing with these dilemmas proactively or reactively, what matters most is working together to do what is best for students. The best administrators with whom I have interacted accomplish this by setting aside their egos and collaborating with teachers as equals. This whole social media problem almost never even enters their radars because first and foremost they invest in people, not programs, data, tools, etc.
What are your thoughts on teachers speaking out through social media and/or blogs? How do you think districts should handle it?
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