How Teachers Are Missing the Networking Boat

Despite my last blog regarding the recent laws in other states prohibiting teachers from interacting with students on social networking sites, it is imperative that educators must become more, not less, involved with social media. As a former teacher with nine years of experience at the secondary level, I have had time to reflect on my years. I realized that in many ways, I really missed the boat on how to use social media to be a more effective teacher.
One of the most important aspects of a teacher’s job is communication; teachers must maintain constant communication with students, parents, the community at large, and with other professional educators. But despite the plethora of social media outlets to choose from, the majority of educators still fail to take advantage of the vast networking opportunities available to them.
With all of the negative coverage about teachers in today’s media, it is easy to overlook the majority of hard working individuals who toil daily in their isolated classrooms to provide a quality education for our youth. What they don’t realize though, is that the isolation is self-imposed. By refusing to engage in more active networking, the professional community at large fails to see education as a serious profession (I found this out first hand when I found myself trying to make a career change).
Not only are teachers shooting themselves in the foot by hiding in their classrooms, they are missing valuable opportunities to make deeper connections and market themselves appropriately. Make no mistake; a teacher must market him or herself if he or she expects to become more successful, or to ever be recognized for his/her efforts.
Below is my list of the most frequently missed opportunities and underutilized tools in education.

1.  Business Cards:  
The simplest, and most obvious tool is also the most overlooked in education. Ask anyone in the business world for their card and most can pull one out immediately whether they are at work, at the gym, at church, or at the grocery store. Ask a teacher for a business card and most will stare at you with a blank look on their face. Even though we (I still consider myself a teacher) work for school districts, we are still essentially in business for ourselves. It is our responsibility to present ourselves as professionals and this is the first way to do just that. 
My favorite site for affordable, professional business cards is Vista Print. Their most famous promotion allows you to order 250 business cards for “free” – just pay the $5.00 shipping charge and receive quality, professional business cards about 10 days later. I also recently ordered some from Moo that are of a remarkably high quality, but this offer is only for 50 cards for the same price as Vista Print. Save these cards for Very Important People that you need to impress.

2. About.Me:  
This is the online version of a business card. It only takes a moment to set up a personalized About.Me webpage and then you can begin linking this in all your online correspondence, email signatures, and social networking sites. It is a single splash page that allows for a brief paragraph or two explaining who you are and then provides links to all of your social networking sites. Every teacher should have one set up that links to their school email, blogs, wiki pages, Twitter accounts, or any other social media that is school appropriate.

3. LinkedIn:  
The best way to describe it is as Facebook for professionals, but in a cleaner, tighter format. Almost 80% of employers use LinkedIn as their first source when looking for qualified professionals. But ask a campus principal or teacher about their LinkedIn page and most will admit they have never heard of LinkedIn. The few who have do not have a profile set up and seem unsure about why they need to bother. Being an educator is about so much more than just being in a classroom day in, day out.

Education is about teaching students how to survive in the “real world” once they graduate. How can educators and administrators be taken seriously by their students and by the rest of the”real world” if they have never learned how to survive out there themselves? LinkedIn is one of the first places they should start towards branding themselves and towards forming those “real world” connections.


4. Start Blogging:  
Nearly seven years ago when I started blogging for fun, I suddenly realized that I could use this as a tool in the classroom to discuss our readings in more detail and enrich my lessons. Imagine my surprise then when I discovered that most school districts at the time strictly blocked access to blogs on school computers. A few years later I came across Edublogs.org, a blogging site created just for teachers, and was pleased to discover that it passed most school internet filters. Most teachers are required to post some sort of daily agenda in class. I used to use power points for this, but Edublogs became a much more effective tool. 
Each day, I posted our daily agenda with reminders of upcoming due dates and important links. At the end of the day, I made any corrections and adjustments. I also included the link in all correspondence with parents and students so that they could always see what was happening. It was especially useful to students who were out sick or on vacation and wanted to stay caught up, or for parents who wanted to know what their child was learning or what homework to be looking for. 
It was also a great place for me to store past lessons and documents I created that I could share with teachers across the country who wanted access to what I was working on (I was on a listserv at the time and received frequent requests for lesson plans and projects). What better way to keep the community informed about what their child is learning? 

5. Twitter:  
Make no mistake. This is NOT the same as posting to Facebook. To the novice, Twitter can be either terrifying or completely pointless. The idea that every single thing that you post is public is enough to make most teachers avoid it altogether. And thanks to a few people like Chad Ochocinco or Charlie Sheen, it can come across as a vessel for narcissistic self-promotion (this does not stop me from following them). But when used correctly, this is one of the most valuable classroom tools and it is almost completely ignored in public education.
As a teacher, Twitter can be used to post assignment reminders, extra credit opportunities, outside reading, and important links. Teachers can also organize Tweet Chats using a hash tag like #WritingWS, for a weekly writing workshop discussion, #LetterA to discuss The Scarlet Letter, or #Homework every night to offer help or answer questions. Just make sure that you use the hashtag in every single tweet or nobody following the discussion will be able to see it. Also, be sure that your hashtag isn’t already being used or you could end up disrupting someone else’s discussion. It is also a great way to network with other professionals in the educational community. 
There are even more specialized Twitter chats already in place. #AgEdChat, for example, is a bi-weekly discussion for those who are involved in agricultural education or the Future Farmers of America. There is also #4thchat, a discussion that takes place every Monday night at 8:00 p.m. EST for anyone who works with 4th graders. The most popular seems to be #EdChat – a discussion between teachers, administrators, parents, and students about the quality of our education and how to make changes. This conversation is every Tuesday and is one of the most popular on Twitter. Engaging in a few Twitter Chats per month can vastly increase an educator’s exposure and reputation while gaining useful ideas to use in the classroom. If you want to know the best sources for finding the best current hashtags, or even create your own, check out this link from Smart Insights. 

6. Facebook:  
The look of the new Facebook Timeline.
I put this one last because most educators already have a Facebook page so it does not require explanation. What it does require, however, is discretion. With the new Facebook Timeline rolling out on October 5th, most of your current privacy settings will go out the window. I pretended to be a developer so I could gain access early on and the layout is really cool. However, one thing that is new is the ability for people to subscribe to your posts even if they are not your “friends.” That may be cause for concern to some educators, and students for that matter, who don’t want everyone in the entire universe to have access to their posts. This is easy enough to disable in your privacy controls. 
Another element that surprised is discovering all of my past check-ins are now on a map, front and center, so everyone can see everywhere I’ve ever been. Have you ever called in sick to work so you could go shopping? Or what about all of those bars you checked into this weekend? Do you really want all of your students, parents, and co-workers to see that? You might also be surprised to see that they are not always accurate. This summer, my husband and I drove through Santa Fe, New Mexico on our way to a family vacation in Colorado. I “checked-in” in Santa Fe. My Facebook map shows that I checked in to a nursing home. That is funny now, but it might not have been so funny if it had been a strip club by mistake. Try explaining that one. 
One more thing that is different is the ability to search through ALL of your past postings. Are there any posts in your past that you regret? Be prepared to have those pop up again in your present unless you make them unsearchable. 
Be sure to limit viewing of your pasts FB posts.
Most students have a Facebook presence and whether you like it or not, they will find you and they will extend a friend request. Some teachers avoid this altogether while others prefer to add them to stay in contact for one reason or another. But Facebook is one area where there can definitely be too much of a good thing – and too much of your personal life exposed. For this reason, if you are one of those who does not want to give careful consideration to every single post you make, I strongly recommend that educators create a secondary Facebook account that is separate from their personal one. This way, teachers can feel freer to interact without the privacy concerns or fear of public embarrassment. Make this the account where you can add your students, their parents, and your colleagues without worrying about that picture from Spring Break 1998 in Cancun, your bachelor/bachelorette party pictures, or that drunken Pampered Chef party surfacing and causing public humiliation.

Once all of these accounts are set up, link them all together to create a seamless, and professional, online presence. By engaging more actively in social networking, teachers and administrators alike can reach out to more than just the students they interact with on a daily basis. Education as a whole is not an industry that commands respect anymore, so it is up to the individual to change that perception by utilizing the tools that are available. Educators must treat their reputation and their image as a brand, much like those in real estate – minus the flashy billboards with their pictures. The only way to being seen as a serious professional is to stay abreast of the current trends and harness those social networking skills.    
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