The loneliness of the long-distance teacher

Some of the more interesting discussions at ISTE’s Leadership Forum last month revolved around social media.  Use (or misuse) of Facebook, Twitter, etc., by students has gleaned plenty of press attention and even legislation, but use by and between educators flies largely under the public radar.  Not so for some advocates of embracing the new technology to increase communication among the adult constituencies in K-12 education: teachers, administrators, and parents.

Schools’ traditional goal of “parental involvement” – too often defined down as attending parent/teacher meetings and participating in bake sales – becomes instead “parental engagement” when social media help the school create ongoing conversations with parents.  With society – at virtually all levels of income and education – increasingly relying on digital media as their primary, not alternate, means of communication, in the words of principal George Couros “this is not optional anymore”.   Whether it’s a principal blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, emails or text messages from the teacher – dialog with parents is not only easier than ever, it’s more necessary than ever, because online conversations go on whether the school involves itself or not.

The important word there is “conversation.”  It’s not just about talking but about responding.  One presenter defined the difference between “networking” and “creating community” this way: “Networks are about me.  Communities are about we.

And the point about communities brings up the other key adult-adult communication that technology can enhance – educator to educator.  We’ve long talked up the virtues of “professional learning communities” but they often founder on the lack of time in today’s resource-squeezed school day.  But what if teachers could support and learn from each other with short but frequent interactions via social media on the tablets or smartphones most of them carry with them through the day?  There are various platforms that confine communications within a “bounded community” so the discussion stays within the appropriate group, just as secure as the teachers’ lounge.

This concept reminded me of my days as an English teacher and how lonely this profession can be.  The cliche about the teacher closing her door and doing whatever she wants emphasizes teacher independence – but it can equally be about teacher isolation.  In what other profession are professionals assumed to work so much in a vacuum?  As John Hattie says in his new book Visible Learning for Teachers, “This is how a profession works:…it aims to encourage collaboration with all in the profession to drive the profession upwards….Too often, we see the essential nature of our profession as autonomy…”  Hattie’s not talking specifically about technology there, of course, but surely technology is one way to foster that collaboration which is so difficult to achieve in the typical school day.

Is the primary advantage of new technology in schools communication, more than animations, content access, bells, and whistles?  Just wondering.

Mike Baum
Sophia Consulting LLC

About mhbaumk12

Mike Baum has 40 years of experience with all types of direct marketing, has run several companies, spent 25 years as a consultant in franchising and in K-12 education, and currently helps companies find solutions to growth challenges.
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