Many of the issues arising from the increased use of digital technology in schools aren’t particularly new.
For example, current calls to ban smartphones from schools often forget that this isn’t the first time that students have been distracted in class. Similarly, issues of cyberbullying and online cheating are certainly not novel behaviours.
However, the rise of the “social media teacher” is a good example of how digital culture is causing shifts in education that very few experts might have predicted 20 years ago.
This recent piece in the Sydney Morning Herald gives a good illustration of recent trends. It describes the rise of what might be termed the “teacher-influencer” – in particular the growing number of primary school teachers using Instagram to showcase their classrooms to a wider online audience.
Examples such as these highlight the phenomenon of a new generation of teachers who are now bona fide “micro-celebrities” within the world of education. In internet terms, these are “edu-famous” individuals with tens of thousands of followers.
The pressure to continue producing content, increasing one’s follower numbers, and maintain the illusion of being an “always-on” inspiration for others, is proving to be too much for some.
Regardless of their day jobs, these teachers are prominent personalities among the large number of educators who use Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to talk about teaching, swap advice and generally look for inspiration about their work.
As a result of pumping out teaching tips, reflections and resources online, such individuals might find themselves being asked to run professional development days for other schools, present at education conferences and trade shows, and increasingly being feted as a “thought leader” among their peers. The most successful might eventually end up running their own sideline consultancies, juggling lucrative speaking gigs, and perhaps even writing books and making regular media appearances.
Pros and cons
At this point, it’s tempting to conclude that this is an interesting (but hardly surprising) reflection of current cohorts of teachers in their 20s and 30s who have grown up with digital technology. Yet, while these trends might sound harmless enough, such shifts in professional behaviour perhaps require more rigorous conversations about the ways in which digital culture is impacting on education.
For sure, there’s much about social media that can be praised as benefiting the teaching community. For example, social media undoubtedly allows individual teachers to gain a very powerful “voice” among their profession, and perhaps even gain the attention of those in powerful positions.
Similarly, social media is a place where some teachers are undoubtedly finding communities of like-minded colleagues, and making valuable connections with others around the world. These can be incredibly useful channels for getting ideas and keeping up to date with developments (what educators often like to term “professional learning”).
However, these trends aren’t wholly beneficial. In fact, there’s much here that could be said to be altering the character of teaching for the worse:
- First is the obvious concern of teachers taking on too much work. After all, these social media activities are carried out in conjunction with holding down full-time teaching jobs. Teachers rightly complain about having too little time as it is. Spending extra hours each day creating content and maintaining one’s online presence will inevitably impinge on what teachers are able to do for their own classes and students.
- Second, while teachers have always “shared” resources and tips from their own practice with others, it could be argued that social media is commodifying teachers’ work in potentially problematic ways. Are these teachers producing teaching resources that best fit their own classes, or are they producing “content” that they think will play well with their online audience? There’s a fine line between professional creativity and self-branding.
- Third, these lines are blurred further in terms of the online marketplaces for teachers to trade their classroom resources. On platforms such as TeachersPayTeachers, individuals can sell their worksheets, PowerPoint presentations and other work for small amounts of money. This raises a range of questions – not least “double-dipping” in terms of profiting from resources that one has already been paid to produce as a regular school teacher. These are certainly uncharted waters for teachers and their employers.
- Fourth is the creep of commercial interests through these platforms into the classroom. It’s a well-known tactic in the ed-tech industry to sign up high-profile teachers to be affiliated with their products – be it as an Apple Distinguished Educator or ambassadors and champions for particular apps. Many of these schemes are well-intentioned, but some are designed for teachers to encourage colleagues to then sign up other colleagues to adopt a particular app or piece of software. These influencer activities could be seen as modern means of spreading good ideas and new practices, or a social media form of pyramid-selling. Either way, such activities need to be better-acknowledged and discussed.
- Finally, concerns can also be raised over the long-term effects on teacher wellbeing and mental health. As has been highlighted in recent cases of high-profile YouTubers and Instagrammers, there can be serious mental health repercussions of attaining even a moderate level of internet celebrity. The pressure to continue producing content, increasing one’s follower numbers, and maintain the illusion of being an “always-on” inspiration for others, is proving to be too much for some. While this kind of online work might appear glamorous and fun, it’s increasingly recognised as hard, emotionally draining and exhausting work.
More attention needed
All this is not to argue that teachers take themselves off social media altogether. However, it does seem sensible that more attention is paid to the longer-term consequences of these trends. The variety of ways that teachers can now promote themselves through social media has so far developed “under the radar” of the education establishment. In many ways, this underground quality is what attracts millions of teachers to get involved.
However, many of the issues just outlined touch on significant concerns such as the commercialisation of public education, the exploitation of teachers, issues of over-work and burnout.
As such, these are trends that require some level of oversight from teaching unions, education departments and other professional associations. Social media will undoubtedly continue to grow as a significant part of many teachers’ professional lives. However, we need to make sure that these shifts are to everyone’s benefit.