Social Media really is a wonderful tool for communication allowing people to connect with old friends and new acquaintances; to share interests, ideas and ideas through networks and virtual communities; to express and share opinions; as a tool to market products, blogs and concepts.
Twitter is a favourite platform for many. The 140 character limit is ideal for those able to choose their words carefully and thoughtfully. Campaigners, cat lovers, foodies, would-be authors and lovers of subtitled dramas on BBC4 all have a gathering point to interact and build relationships with like-minded souls. Twitter has also been a focal point for teachers too, in a world called EduTwitter by many. It enables connections to be built with professionals in other sectors, authorities, phases and subjects. For those in more insular local authorities, Twitter has opened up pathways to CPD and career opportunities. Professional ‘chats’, of which there are several, allow for open questioning and for ideas to be bounced around. As a tool for debunking ‘myths’ about OFSTED, Twitter is invaluable. Many training institutions have recognised how useful Twitter is, and recommended trainee teachers to access the platform.
There is however a darker side to social media. Tom Daley faced a barrage of abuse at the London and Rio Olympics over his performance, his sexuality and his public image. A number women campaigners were threatened with sexual violence over the campaign to feature British women on banknotes. Away from the world of celebrity and politics, social media can also be used to stalk the movements of others, perhaps by an embittered ex-colleague or former romantic partner; it may be used to ‘spy’ on potential employees; it can sadly be used as a form of harassment, ‘cyberbullying’ and ‘trolling’ being additions to our lexicon in this digital era.
These are extremes of course, resulting in criminal charges and convictions in many cases. Can we just stop though for a moment and consider the impact on those who were targeted. Caroline Criado-Perez took the ‘I will not be silenced’ approach; Stephen Fry, a vocal campaigner on mental health issues, seriously considered closing his Twitter account at one point; Sara Payne, who lost her daughter to a paedophile, Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin Williams, and Jane Goldman, wife of Jonathan Ross, all left Twitter because of the abuse they had received. In some cases these were a reaction to a single tweet generating a mob mentality. The mental wellbeing of these people afterwards is something only they and their loved ones will really know.
Let us digress for a moment. There is a strategy employed often in a recruitment exercise where after a day of interviews, activities and dinner, the candidates are left in a bar, or invited to go into town, and told to relax and enjoy themselves. However they are all being observed and as tongues and inhibitions loosen, the results are revealing. True personalities are revealed; unreasonable, unsociable and anti-social behaviours become apparent; degrees of self-control and self-regulation are there for all to see. To many potential employers, this is the most useful part of recruitment.
The relevance of this to this blog? Throw a topic into the EduTwitter ring and look what happens. The response may often be unpleasant. Last week we blogged on Wellbeing in schools and how it should be promoted in schools. As Twitter is increasingly part of the education landscape it should be promoted and protected in this media too.
Social media invites the expression of opinion. The nature of opinion means that someone will have a contrary belief. The character limit of Twitter means that one tweet may not be enough to develop, justify or express the opinion of the Tweeter in full.
One tweet however may result in the virtual equivalent of being thrown into the bear pit. A recent example of Pokemon being used in the classroom was vilified, demonised and shredded. Why? Because it didn’t suit you? Because you are such a magnificent teacher that you know better? The person who shared it used it in their class. It may or may not have worked. Does it matter to you? Are you their line manager, tutor, mentor or performance manager?
Some topics provoke discussion. Phonics being one. Phonics has to be taught systematically in the primary phase, not only for the screening test but as part of the basis of reading. The phonics discussion rears its head often but it frequently comes down to tweets of an aggressive tone, often from teachers in phases or subjects where phonic teaching would have been several years back in the child’s history. The tone may feature a whole sequence of tweets often rubbishing the opinion of the other participant. It is not uncommon for a discussion to last for hours or sometimes a couple of days. Too much time on one’s hands? Does the use of ‘big words’ make you morally superior? Think also about how wearing that is for the recipient.
The role and position of women in education; mental health of children; the nature of SEND and diagnoses; behaviour strategies. All produce reactions and discussions which can at times be unpleasant.
Holidays often result in fierce and unpleasant argument. ‘The nasty half term’ was the terminology applied recently. An inflammatory tweet however may cause individuals or groups to defend their phase, style or subject resulting in more fuel being added to the fire.
Those who butt into a discussion, particularly if they have a large following, do so in part because they know that the tweet then reaches a wider audience. The potential audience to view any reaction then expands to invite other intimidatory additions, belittling the original contributor. Semantics often feature in the tactics of the more negative users, often as a justification for their actions. Tweets however can be ‘shouty’, ‘loud’ or ‘aggressive’ in tone. Just look at the context.
Teacher blogs can be extremely useful reference points to share good practice, ideas that have suited the context of one school, strategies for behaviour and leadership. If we like a blog and what it contains, ‘like’ and ‘retweet’ are employed to share the resource. There are blogs that we may not agree with, in which case don’t respond. There are occasions when blogs are shared, or ‘filed’, with a derogatory, sneering comment. If the Twitter handle of the blogger isn’t used, then it can result in the Twitter equivalent of laughing behind one’s back. A blog is an opinion piece, not a PhD thesis. It isn’t there to be marked, mocked or hung out to dry.
Blocking is an interesting strategy employed by some. If someone is sexually or racially offensive then ‘block’ may be a tool to use. A number of teachers however have realised they are blocked for no obvious reason and without any interaction with the blocker. Blocking then becomes a form of censorship as you then stop somebody reading what you have to say. What are you hiding? Are you so important, such a talented teacher that the blockee doesn’t deserve the right to even see what you have to say? Do you then complain you have been blocked yourself? Use of a pseudonym account to look at the tweets of those who have blocked you, only to then comment on the primary account, is underhand. Arrogance and ego are unpleasant human characteristics. Trump; Brexit; the England football squad: all produce a strong response on social media but are these enough to block someone over? If a Tweeter’s words annoy you, unfollow then or mute them.
A further interesting tactic is the building up of followers by interaction and following back, only at a later stage to drastically cut back the numbers followed. The message here is a very clear ‘I want you to listen to what I have to say, but I’m not terribly interested in you!’ More reasoned tweeters will have followers/following in near balance. Others may follow only 5-10% of the numbers that follow them.
In short, such tactics are bullying and as we enter Anti-Bullying week and give the issue a higher profile this week, teachers need to think about social media usage too. Cyberbullying will feature on timetables this week. We have all had to address children and their use of Facebook and other messaging services for how unpleasant messages and images can impact the mental health of our young people. Think then how such comments may impact a teacher, one who is already in a profession more stressful than many others, who is only sharing their opinion and progressing their professional development only to be sneered at.
Nobody runs EduTwitter. No one person has the right to set the agenda, tell us the rules of blogging or tweeting or who to follow. No single person can tell us that ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’ teachers are any better than each other. There are some wonderful professionals out there who unselfishly share what has worked for them and have helped others in their careers. There are equally those words harm, hurt, offend and upset. These may also impact on how someone performs in their job. There are teachers and other education professionals who have left Twitter, even temporarily, because of this.
We are in a caring profession. That means we care not only for our children and their futures but for each other. There are few genuinely successful schools -by ‘genuinely’ we don’t mean because OFSTED says so or because of results, but one in which children and staff succeed because they are happy- that do not have Wellbeing at the core of what they do. We need to share that Wellbeing in our online behaviour too.