Giving and Getting
Using social media for professional online collaboration
During the blustery winter of 2012, Nevella Schepmyer-Erwin was excitedly anticipating a move the following school year from her six-year stint teaching core French and Physical Education to her newly assigned Full-Day Kindergarten (FDK) classroom. She prepared for her new role by taking the Kindergarten Part I Additional Qualifications (AQ) course, with the hopes of completing her Kindergarten Specialist AQ in the future. But she also sought out information by researching online, using Facebook, Pinterest, and an assortment of Kindergarten blogs to virtually meet with educators more experienced with early learners in a play-based environment.
One of the groups she regularly visited was the Ontario Teachers Facebook Group, which primarily focuses on ideas and resource sharing. When she inquired about FDK topics such as inquiry-based learning, she noticed the same member typically answered her questions. As this repeated and continued, these two educators had a virtual conversation about creating their own group with a more specific focus. After checking to see if such a group was already in existence, Nevella became one of seven facilitators or administrators of what is now the Ontario Kindergarten Teachers Facebook Group. This group is currently close to 2,000 members strong – a rich group formed of not only Ontario Certified Teachers, but also Registered Early Childhood Educators working in both school and child-care settings, educational assistants, and out-of-province educators from as far away as the Northwest Territories. The challenge in this group isn’t encouraging its growth – simply with a posting to the Ontario Teachers group, some word-of-mouth promotion, and an announcement made at the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario Summer Institutes conference, it grew almost on its own and very quickly – but rather managing to continue to support its membership in an authentic way.
Like all of the administrators, Nevella signs into the group regularly, checks for spam, approves and welcomes new members, reads almost everything posted, and responds to questions or comments where she can provide support or point the way to resources (either saved in the not-so-user-friendly online filing system of the Facebook Group, at other online locales, or offline). She may “tag” members to point the way to a potential collaborator, photo, file, or resource; or “pin” important messages to the top of the group, so others are encouraged to read them – for example, on a hot topic like the current discussion on appropriate iPad apps for the Kindergarten environment. Other topics of high interest, discussion, and debate include inquiry-based learning, guided reading, welcoming new students, and behaviour issues, though these tend to ebb and flow with the demands of various phases of the school year. In theory, Nevella and the other administrators also help to manage the professional behaviour of group members, encouraging respect and support in their online postings; however in practice, such reminders have not been a necessary role in managing this enthusiastic group.
Though she helped to start this group as a means of supporting others and sharing resources, such as her classroom strategy descriptions and visuals using the Notability iPad app, her intentions were not purely altruistic. She is getting as much as she is giving. Nevella finds that, in general, social media is a positive and impactful way to share resources, ideas, points of view, experience, and information about professional development events – and just to network with others in the field. The Ontario Kindergarten Teachers Facebook Group itself is, she says, almost a “one-stop place for anything you are looking for.”
The feedback she has received from other educators shows that others feel the same way:
“What would we do without it?”
“This Facebook page has been a lifesaver!”
“Thanks for starting this group; it has been a great inspiration.”
“A ton of appreciation for all you’re doing with this FB group – it is THE MOST helpful resource out there for us Ontario FDK teachers new to the role.”
“It has helped me (and so many others so much).”
“I love the group and you always have amazing ideas to share!!”
Nevella easily summarizes her thoughts and feelings about the group: “As a teacher teaching a brand-new grade, social media (and specifically our Ontario Kindergarten Teachers Facebook Group) has been a lifesaver! Whenever I have a question, I know that I can post and within minutes I will receive several replies from fellow educators. It’s wonderful to be able to share information and advice with likeminded professionals who have a similar goal.”
Social media and teachers
Online social media can be defined as “sites that allow for a public profile, a public list of friends and visible friend connections” and which are “making visible social interactions between people.” Many professionals newly entering the workforce – including teachers – have grown up with social media, which have their roots in the late 1990s. For them, social media is a part of everyday life and work, while more seasoned professionals may see their use as a major individual benefit, both personally and in the development of their professional identity and skills.
Whether used as a professional tool or in the classroom, cautions for the judicious use of social media still apply. Education’s professional organizations both utilize social media and simultaneously provide warnings about its use. Refer to your professional association, federation, or college to find best practices, guidelines, tips, rules, cautions, and concerns (e.g. potential legal and disciplinary implications). (See “Cautions and Best Practices” for a summary of some of these recommendations, as well as feedback from educators on the front lines of teaching.)
Within these needed cautions, guidelines and regulations, exemplary practices are happening. Nevella Schepmyer-Erwin and The Ontario Kindergarten Teachers Facebook Group are not alone in their positive experiences with the professional use of social media.
Across Canada: three perspectives
Three front-line educators shared their experiences with the professional use of social media. All of these educators use social media in their personal lives as well as professionally, and all three use these tools in a different manner professionally than for their own personal needs.
Lara Lacroix is a job-sharing educator in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. New to the province, Lara has three different classroom positions: Grade 5/6, Grade 6/7, and a board-level position teaching and mentoring educators about technology in the classroom. Lara explains the professional benefits of social media in the context of her multiple teaching environments: “Social media helps me grow professionally because it allows me to expand my personal learning network beyond the walls of my classroom, past the school and district boundaries and permits me to connect with teachers and educators from around the globe. Within seconds, I can discover the latest trend in education and within minutes I can access resources to help me incorporate my findings into my classroom or to share it with others.”
Krista Mackinnon is an Instructional Resource Teacher at Botwood Memorial Academy in Newfoundland and Labrador, about a four-hour drive from the province’s capital of St. John’s. In her 11th year of teaching, she primarily provides in-class support to Grade 6 classes for Math and Language as part of an inclusionary co-teaching model. Ashley Kean is new graduate of Primary/Elementary Education from Memorial University, and a first-year teacher in her native town of St. Anthony (and area). Located on the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula, she is a lengthy 13-hour drive from St. John’s. Since her graduation last year, Ashley has been substitute teaching in local schools in all grades and subject areas, including a three-month-long replacement Kindergarten position. For more rural and/or geographically isolated educators like Krista and Ashley, social media’s information-sharing capability is a paramount advantage. Ashley considers these issues from her northerly locale: “The greatest benefits of using social media professionally are that you can easily stay connected to other teachers and learn from and work with them in your classroom setting… not just from Canada but in different parts of the world. It also helps teachers who may be in small, isolated areas come up with ideas – with almost unlimited resources at their fingertips. It’s kind of a co-teaching opportunity online.” Krista would agree: “The greatest benefit would be the sharing of ideas and information. The truth is, teachers do not have a lot of time built into their day to be creative and generate their own ideas for every learning activity they plan. Teaching is a profession where collaboration is an essential part of the job. It is great to be able to have quick access to a wide variety of ideas.”
What do teachers value about the professional use of social media? The common threads in the opinions of these four educators are easy access, time savings, and most of all, the inherent communicative, collaborative nature of these venues – the giving and getting of resources, ideas, knowledge, strategies, and recommendations for everyday practical classroom applications. For these educators, and likely countless others across Canada, the advantages of prudently using social media for their own professional use outweighs its potential risks. Used intentionally, social media are not “just” a time for social sharing about everyday life, but a valuable venue for professional growth.
Cautions and Best Practices in Social Media
- Always read, know, and heed professional standards and professional boundaries when in your online presence, just as you would in person.
- Consider separating your personal and professional personas, online profiles and circles of contacts, even so far as using a pseudonym and an avatar as privacy safeguards.
- Think carefully before you share information, photos, videos, etc. online. Once posted, information typically cannot be retracted as it moves through cyberspace.
- Remember that, although you can carefully control what you share, you cannot always control what others share in or on your public spaces.
- Where possible, adjust your privacy settings to “high” so you can control who contacts you and who views the information you share.
- Be cautious who you link with or “friend,” especially when it comes to students and/or the parents of students.
- Use great care if suggesting or accepting less conventional communication from parents, such as text messaging.
- Don’t forget that that phone calls and face-to-face conversations are far better suited to complex and contentious issues than electronic-based communications.
- Teach, model, and monitor the safe and effective use of social media for school community members.
First published in Education Canada, September 2013
EN BREF – Cet article traitant de l’utilisation des médias sociaux pour favoriser la collaboration professionnelle des éducateurs de la maternelle à la 12e année au Canada présente la croissance et le développement du groupe Facebook Ontario Kindergarten Teachers, avec des commentaires d’une fondatrice du site. Trois enseignantes de Colombie-Britannique, d’Ontario et de Terre-Neuve-Labrador illustrent l’utilisation professionnelle positive des médias sociaux. Les mises en garde et pratiques exemplaires dans ces médias y sont également résumées.
 Notability (Ginger Labs, 2012) is an inexpensive iPad app for taking notes and annotating PDFs with Dropbox and Google drive sync. https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/notability-take-notes-nnotate/id360593530?mt=8
 A. M. Cirucci, “First Person Paparazzi: Why social media should be studied more like video games,” Telematics & Informatics 30, no. 1 (2013): 47-59.doi:10.1016/j.tele.2012.03.006
 Jurisdictions across Canada have compiled professional communication with respect to social media practices in the teaching profession. See, for example: B.C. Teachers’ Federation, Guidelines and Rules for BCTF Social Media and Discussion Forums (2012), http://www.bctf.ca/help.aspx?id=22472&libID=22462; Ontario College of Teachers, Professional Advisory: Use of electronic communication and social media (2011), http://www.oct.ca/resources/advisories/use-of-electronic-communication-and-social-media; Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association, Cyberconduct and Electronic Communications: Important information and guidelines for teachers (2012), http://www.nlta.nl.ca/files/documents/infosheets/info_26.pdf