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Is social media good for our professional advocacy?

When you put the words “social media” and “teachers” in the same sentence, warning bells often go off.

I remember what kept me from joining Facebook in 2008: a teacher who faced firing for writing some derogatory comments about students on her Facebook account. Add that to all the stories about students inappropriately commenting on teachers’ accounts, and you can understand why I was feeling a little anxious.

However, a friend showed me how to make my social media accounts private, and I finally caved (along with the rest of the nation) and joined the social media frenzy. At the beginning, my approach was similar to zero tolerance. I completely abstained from commenting on anything related to the teaching profession as I didn’t want to have to navigate social media guidelines.

However, I started seeing so many great examples of educators advocating for changes in our profession that I began to wonder if I was not only missing the boat but also failing to help steer it. A new friend, 2014 North Carolina Teacher of the Year James E. Ford, modeled how to have a positive presence on social media by re-posting, sharing, and commenting on many important topics of our profession. He engages our local and state community by making sure that we all see — and therefore think — about issues such as arts in education, school discipline, and the teacher pipeline.

So I decided to get my feet wet. I’ve “friended” and “followed” lots of organizations, such as MeckEd, Public Schools First NC, and BestNC. I’ve even started to repost and comment on their posts, with one of my first forays being North Carolina teacher salaries and pushing to compare North Carolina, not just to prior years, but also to surrounding states.

But I was still being timid. I was afraid to try to engage in a real dialogue through social media. I was sure that something I said was going to be misconstrued.

However, recently I re-posted an article about cutting the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program. While I wasn’t a NC Teaching Fellow myself, I went to school with many Teaching Fellows, and I was a Future Teacher of North Carolina scholarship recipient in 2006-2007. The scholarship allowed me to pursue a fifth year at the University of North Carolina Charlotte to graduate with certifications in both Dance Education and Biology.

After two different rounds of student teaching, I found myself very prepared for that oh-so-scary first day of school. So when I hear discussions about why the best students don’t go into education, I often bristle. Deep down I know some of the reasons why, and I felt the Teaching Fellows Program actually addressed some of those barriers. So I thought I would reach out to some of my local elected officials before funding was eliminated. This time I actually got pretty bold and tagged them in my posts, hoping to hear their thoughts and start a genuine dialogue.

And that’s just what I got. Shout out to Senator Jeff Tarte who responded to my post with thoughtful reflections about whether cutting the Teaching Fellows program actually contributes to the teacher shortage. His comments made me consider the reasons I feel this program is worth so much. And since I’m married to an economist, I often think about cost/benefit analysis (like this great example with The Three Little Pigs). So I sought out some data about the cost of teacher turnover (it costs Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools about $11 million per year) and the inequity of teacher turnover rates across different districts in North Carolina.

So what are my takeaways? I did learn to be very careful about hitting the “enter” button (which submits the post) instead of “shift+enter” (which creates a new paragraph).  For example, while editing a post, I didn’t realize that it was still visible even though I hadn’t finished entering my data points yet. I am hopeful that many other senators will continue to engage in dialogue with me about this and other education topics via social media.

I feel there is a false impression that teachers and legislators are at odds with each other.

Constructive exchanges over social media, such as mine with Senator Tarte, both strengthen our work to help all students and allow the public to see the complexities of the issues in a positive frame.

However, I recently read a post about a bill that would punish teachers who publicly advocate for policy changes. The language of Senate Bill 480 states that no State employee shall “use the authority of the employee’s position to secure support for or oppose any candidate, party, or issue in an election involving candidates.” The confusion lies in the definition of “authority of the employee’s position.” While I would never stand in front of my class and sway my students to view a certain candidate, what exactly is the authority of my position? I often proudly introduce myself as a Biology teacher with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. This bill makes me wonder: Does this mean that I shouldn’t tell people that I am a Biology teacher if I’m engaging in policy discussion?  Do my experiences as a teacher invalidate my opinion? Is it not part of my job to advocate for what is best for students? Teaching school ranks among some of the highest professions when Gallup polled the public on honesty and ethics. So what exactly is the purpose of the bill? It seems that it could be interpreted as limiting our ability to share the views from the classroom.

I felt so empowered about the discussions I had with my legislators. However, the language of Senate Bill 480 has pushed me back into limbo.

Do I take up more education issues, or is the threat of firing enough to make me retreat back into radio silence? 

What would you do in my position?

Do teachers have the rights and responsibilities to publicly advocate for policies that impact our students?

Joanna Schimizzi

Joanna Schimizzi is a National Board Certified high school biology teacher and Hope Street Group Fellow based in Charlotte, NC. To refine her teaching practice, Joanna works with organizations like The National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education, America Achieves, and Student Achievement Partners. She is also a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory​.