To meet the challenges of teaching in an increasingly connected world, school leaders, educators and community members could benefit from building a culture of transparency and connectivity, creating a culture of sharing around the successes and struggles of teaching and learning.
Creating a transparent school starts with a school’s leadership. “Leadership has to buy into the value of connectivity,” said Dr. Joe Mazza, director of connected teaching, learning and leadership at North Penn School District and a former elementary school principal in an edWeb webinar. “The culture offline or online has to say we care about being open minded to the rest of our learning community whether that’s local or global.”
Many educators have found connecting through social media and other online platforms is valuable for sharing resources and inspire one another. But some teachers are still wary of social media after a few high-profile incidents of teachers being accused of wrong-doing on the web, Mazza said. "Once teachers understand that the leadership is taking a risk, then they feel a lot more comfortable doing so,” he said.
Starting with a foundation of openness to learning new ideas and encouraging innovation among teachers is also important because social media often amplifies whatever school culture already exists. “If you don’t have a culture that’s a collaborative one, that’s relationship-based, that’s selfless, that’s constantly taking an inquiry stance, then a lot of the social media stuff isn't going to fit the vision,” Mazza said.
School and district leaders can model transparency by sharing the notes from staff meetings, school board meetings and even in-service teacher learning days with the whole school community. Removing the mystery can help everyone see why the district does what it does. That includes being clear with students about what the goals are and where the district is going so that they can be part of the transparent culture too. Leaders can also share what they’ve learned from conferences and bring that excitement back to the district.
“When you are using digital tools and other social media it’s like you’re yelling out the front door of your school because you are so proud of something,” Mazza said. It gives educators a chance to write their own stories and to connect more easily with parents and other community members. And just as school and district leadership can inspire teachers to connect with their peers, teachers in turn can role model good online behavior for students. “Embrace the fact that everything you do online and off is role-modeling for kids; and they need good role models,” Mazza said.
Connecting with other educators puts control in the hands of educators, but it also helps push the field forward. “It’s important for us not to just look at connectivity for ourselves, but for the entire field of education,” Mazza said. He encourages his teachers to pose problems they face to the Twitter-verse, where they can get great ideas from other educators who have faced similar issues almost immediately.
“The more we take, the more we give,” said Jeff Zoul, a principal in Deerfield, Illinois. “Sometimes a teacher will tweet something out to the hashtag and the next thing we know we’ve got educators all over the country sharing other resources.”
RELATIONSHIPS AT THE CORE OF CONNECTIVITY
It’s easy to hear the term “connected educator” and immediately think of technology, but the most important connections are made face-to-face. “Every one of our 18 schools are very different and the teachers expect us to meet them where they are,” Mazza said. “Every teacher and leader and parent are leveraging tools on a different basis.”
Mazza will even print out relevant Twitter chats -- yes, print! -- and articles for principals in his district who aren’t comfortable with technology. By first showing the power of connecting in a familiar form he hopes reluctant educators begin to see that the benefits can outweigh the hassle or potential harm. “When you see it not as work, but as inspiring and helping you get the work done, that’s when your mind opens up,” Mazza said. He’ll often sit down and look at a school improvement plan or goals with a principal and as they move down the list together he’ll list various Twitter hashtags that could offer some suggestions for meeting those goals.
Focusing on relationships is equally important for engaging parents and community members with what’s happening at school. “You need those families or else the kids aren’t going to meet their full potential,” Mazza said. He tries to offer parents lots of ways to engage and emphasizes that they should pick what works for them, not necessarily engage on all the platforms.
“It’s really about listening and getting out there and making relationships with all these stakeholders,” Mazza said. “If they are not on the internet at all then it’s up to us to get out there and know them. We can’t widen the gap just because they aren’t online.” He makes home visits, especially at the beginning of the year, listening to parent concerns, letting them know about various ways to connect with the school and showing that he cares about the individual student’s well being. “The majority are flattered and honored that you would make the extra effort to get to know them,” Mazza said.
He’s also had success holding monthly parent-teacher leadership meetings. Student voice is the center of the meeting, and a group of students always present on something they are doing at school first. Then the discussion can range from how to meet school goals to social and emotional well-being or fundraising.
In 2008 when he started these meetings, Mazza would have seven or eight white families coming to those meetings. But he’s started moving them around to different community libraries, as well as streaming them online. Participation has spiked to between 50 and 60 families present physically and another 30 participating online. He partnered with the neighborhood gathering places like the mosque and Korean church to put in computer labs that students use for school work, but that also stream the parent-teacher leadership meetings so community members can participate even if they don’t have internet connections.
GET COMFORTABLE WITH PUSHBACK
Including everyone in creating a positive, nurturing and transparent school culture will almost certainly raise questions for parents. “All that pushback is rooted in something,” Mazza said. “If your culture is not transparent, you might have pushback automatically because people aren’t used to sharing what they’re doing. They might not feel it’s safe to do that.” Mazza sees pushback as a way to bring more people into the discussion. Connected, transparent school leaders are comfortable with pushback, Mazza said.
“You can’t expect everyone to get it the first time you articulate something,” Mazza said. The only thing a transparent leader can do is keep communicating at every step along the way, continually articulating why he is taking that step and answer questions. Community engagement is a huge part of being a good principal, Mazza said. And if done right, those relationships can be leveraged down the road when things might not be going well. During the tough times -- budget cuts, lower test scores -- the community still knows the principal is dedicated, committed and cares about the school’s well-being.
LEADING FROM A TRANSPARENT PLACE
“If you are a school leader right now and you think you have all the resources and can do it all, that’s impossible,” Mazza said. “You need the rest of the world with perspectives to constantly expose your faculty to people who are trying things.”
As if running the school, engaging with the community, being a role model both online and off, and encouraging teachers to innovate wasn’t enough for one person, some of the most effective principals make time to continue their own professional development with a learning community. In the school environment the principal, or “lead learner” as Mazza calls the role, is supposed to have all the answers. But that’s impossible and it’s why principals can learn so much from one another.