Professional Learning Teacher Inquiry

My Social Media Story


Steve Moore chronicles his first year teaching on his blog. Here he reflects on what he learned.

Originally published on March 2, 2011

Year one of teaching is scary enough on its own; but when you add in the prospect of thousands of people watching you go on that journey publicly, intimidation doesn’t even come close to describing it.

Before I started teaching, I decided I needed to write about my first year of teaching, that was settled. Journaling had helped me sort out issues and frustrations in student teaching and I wanted to recreate that experience again for Year One.

I finished student teaching in December of 2008 and started subbing full-time in the same district the following Spring. I felt very fortunate to have a job after graduating, but I still felt the need to do more (and defer my loans just a bit longer) so I started a master’s degree right away.

Starting a graduate program while subbing did two things for me: it exposed me to a massive amount of educational and professional literature which needed to be processed, and it gave me the time, attention, and desire to write about it. Since I was subbing mostly in a computer lab and playing the role of a writing tutor I was allowed ample opportunity to do my graduate work while observing students. This was helpful; I wasn’t just reading theory and considering it in an academic vacuum, I was actively working with students and other teachers (those who came to the lab) and writing about it.

My connection to social media, as you might be predicting, sprang from this experience. Sure, it wasn’t a 10,000 hour, Outlier-birthing semester a la Malcolm Gladwell, but it certainly was transformational. Whenever I read a journal article, an excerpt from a professional publication on teaching, or a discussion board post from my fellow graduate students in education, I was itching to share and hear more. While it was nice to hear from my professor and our class about a topic, and equally nice to talk with educators the school where I worked, I felt I needed to triangulate.

Social media made it possible for me to connect with educators around the country (around the world really). Not only could I find other new teachers trying to figure it all out, but I could talk to teaching veterans, authors, and people shaping the landscape of the profession. This access took the shape of many different kinds of interactions. I asked questions, read blog posts, left comments, and even gave some advice on things I felt comfortable with.

Social media helped to facilitate a “flow” experience for me during my first year of teaching. I had encountered that feeling a few times before while working in some classes in college and during extracurricular activities in high school, but never within the act of teaching or considering the work of teaching.

What this resource is designed to do is first provide a glimpse into my life as a new teacher in 2009-2010. Its goal is also to model what participation in digital writing and social media looks like, feels like, and sounds like in the scopes of an entire day, week, month, and ultimately my whole first year.

Greater Than the Sum of My Posts

After a semester of teaching, I feel overwhelmed, but not in the horrible sort of way you might imagine. Sure, you’ve been warned: being a new teacher is difficult, you’ll probably be bad at it…the truth is I wouldn’t trade the moments I failed so completely for anything this past semester.”

Tying several weeks of reflection together into a larger picture of my growth and abilities allowed me to build momentum. The persepctive that each following month brought, after my first, was key to taking my next step as a teacher. I know I would’ve forgotten much of what I learned during my first year had I not returned time and again to my previous posts. If I didn’t return often to my past failures and successes in effort and attention, I couldn’t hope to learn anything long-term about my own teaching.

The way that a sailboat navigates across a body of water is something I was called upon to consider. A business writer from Sweden, whom I met on Twitter, had written about the idea of how to deviate effectively. When a sailboat makes its journey, there is a straight line in mind, but that’s not where it goes. Due to the nature of the wind, the boat must draw a staircase-like path from point A to point B.

When you understand that deviation from your plan is not only unavoidable, but necessary to growth and progress, worry and fear subside, decision-making becomes easier, and the learning process becomes clearer.

I began to undertand that my reflective writing was actually adding up to more than the sum of its posts. My tweets were reflecting me for who I was authentically. I was tweeting as a new teacher, not as a “failing teacher asking for help.” I think a lot of new teachers are afraid of using social media because they, or their administration, has a lot of fear about the nature of learning and how that relates to who teachers are: Teachers should come off as unchanging, unchallengable experts, not people who as for help all the time, on Twitter!

Sadly, I know several people who were cut off, really illegally and unethically, from their use of social media as teachers and learners. It’s sad when useful habits are stifled because of willful ignorance. It was while wading through my long-term challenges online that I became comfortable with who I was and was trying to be.

I started to fashion myself as a speaker for the cause of social media in learning–especially for new teachers. I connected with people like Tonya Roscarla of Converge Magazine, who just happened to be writing a piece on the subject, “Why Educators Should Network.”

I made friends with innovative and experienced teachers like Chad Sansing who invited me to present with him at NCTE the next year. Not only was I finding answers through social media, I was finding places to rebroadcast them as a representative of their power.

Spending time to look at the bigger picture is vital to understanding what is happening in your school, your content area at large, and in the larger field of education. So many new teachers learn to just lock themselves in their room to avoid being bothered. They want to insulate themselves from pestering paperwork and pernicious pedagogical practices, but they often end up unhappy. Being disconnected doesn’t help solve problems, it’s only through finding ways to ask the right questions to the right people that we can improve our situations and those of our students.

The 14 Day Work Week?

During my first year of teaching, I didn’t spend five days teaching each week; it felt more like fourteen. I may have only been in the classroom during the hours of 7:00 to 4:00pm, but each hour there seemed to require equal time in preparation. The fear of being overwhelmed during your first year of teaching is constant. The nonchalance of veteran teachers is perceived either as expertise or detatchment. New teachers can’t afford to be detached if they want to stay hired, but efforts to telegraph a sense of professional expertise usually just seem like hollow posturing.

Such situations are what make most new teachers marry themselves to continual worry and fear of failure. The most important thing I learned during my first year was that I could charter my own path, and that I’d be a stronger teacher for doing so. Reflective writing was at the core of my teacher development. It was what made me dedicate myself to weekly blogging. The public forums I volleyed my little vingettes into were what transformed my fear into the confident assertion that I was here to learn too.

The community in my school offered a lot of help, but on a day-to-day basis I couldn’t expect much more than half-smiles and hi’s between copy machines. A new teacher needs a lot of nurturing. Maybe I’m just not tough enough, not John Wayne enough since I’m associated with this entitled generation who grew up online, but I’d hope all teachers–not just the new ones–agree that they should be challenged to learn every day.

Each week of my first year was punctuated by a blog post. That post was buffetted by a series of tweets, those tweets influenced by my class or an article on teaching. The most important thing that this chunking of my school year did was to break up each semester into managable pieces. Just as some football coaches break up the season into quarters to provide focus, blogging each week was a magnifying glass into my practice.

One week, I started to reflect on just how different my digital connections were from those in real life. I felt that “Teaching is all about community” but were those people following me, the ones I followed back, the people leaving comments and reading them, really friends?

“Earlier this morning I read someone’s blog in which they said ‘My friend Paul Bogush…’ It caught me by surprise. I never considered that person my ‘friend.’ But after reflecting I thought to myself that I have talked and shared many things with him, the same things I would have with any other friend. If he was standing next to me and someone walked up to us I would introduce him as ‘my friend.'”

That quote from Paul Bogush helped me to realize further that I could build a strong community of teacher support online. It wasn’t just about a bunch of people sharing links to good articles and talking about what they were reading in class that day. The community of teachers online is robust and responsive. The community in my building was disparate and disconnected at best, even if you count the few close friends I had there. As Hugh MacLeod’s scribbling suggests, the wider ability of a network to provide support is stronger than any single node.

Zen and the Art of Digital Maintenance

When I was hired for my first job as a reading teacher, I was endowed with the blessing of a filing cabinet full of resources from a decade of courses past. My predecessor, a wonderful teacher whom I still call friend, is a total type-A hoarder. Not only did she keep what appeared to be everything she’d ever used, but she had ten years of day-by-day planners to give to me too. I was excited to receive such a gift, but…

It was a little overwhelming.

On any given day, my teaching, tweeting, and thinking resembled a similar pattern. I did a lot of the things I thought new teachers needed to do to survive, like put a coffee pot in my room, my kitchen at home, and bought a bigger thermos to hold the coffee I planned to drink in the car.

After I had that covered, I thought, “now at least I have coffee.”

My attitude about coffee was very connected with how I went about my day. The more coffee I drank, the more jittery I got and the less I spent time eating (or sitting). It wasn’t a cycle that made me a more effective teacher, or a calmer person. I think there are some negative stereotypes about social media which follow a similar pattern.

Voice One: If you are online too much, you’ll never get anything done!

Voice Two: If I’m not online, I can’t get anything done!

The kind of absolute thinking that drives unhealthy overuse of something like coffee or Facebook is something you need to consider. You can waste a lot of time reading things to help your teaching online, but if you don’t balance that very valid study and reflection time with practice in the classroom, you’ll end up with a big pile of resources but no idea how to put them into action. You’ll end up with your own file cabinet full of potentially wonderful things, but there will be no connection of theory to practice.

There were days while I was a substitute in a computer lab that I was able to immerse myself in reading about education for hours. When I only had to respond to student questions about how to log-in, find a research database, or the occasional query about whether they should use “affect” or “effect,” I could devote a lot of time to myself.

The time I spent independently studying was valuable, but I know there were days I’d spend in a coffee shop reading, linking, and tweeting, and not accomplish anything you could see in my classroom. When I started to notice that, I wrote about it. That metacognitive process led me to seek out a better balance of theory and practice, of digital and acoustic learning.

The high of finding “great stuff” online, giving and receiving comments and retweets, and crafting really great hypertext would fade quickly if I didn’t consider my students. Each day of my first year of teaching, I tried to make my students my priority. The students in the room, the halls, and everywhere else were THE reason I taught. I did well when I remembered that fact.

Each day, I had to challenge myself to find reasons in my students to do what I did online; applying that practice consciously helped start what Robert M. Pirsig referred to as a “wave of crystallization” in his book Zen and the Art of Motocycle Maintenance.

What blogging allowed me to do during my first year was understand that I have a lot to tweak in any given lesson or day, but that’s okay. I discovered that I can’t make myself a perfect teacher, there is no such thing. Teachers don’t have a magic process to go back and edit their actions, but they do have social reflection.

Teacher Man: Year One

The New Teacher Chronicle: A timeline of the very candid thoughts of a first-year teacher.

“There is a small part of me that makes me wonder if my confidence will melt into bravado when that first bell rings, the first bags hit my floor, and I choose whether or not to smile. For now, I will keep grinning and planning for this sure-to-be exciting and challenging year.”

I wrote those words the day before my first class came through the door. The act of writing them in a public space helped in the making of my attitude and the chartering of my course for the next day. I allowed my blog to not only be a public space for sharing my thoughts and questions, but also as a mechanism to socially process and store my emotions.

A lot of people use Google Docs or something similar to store their presentations, spreadsheets, and papers in the cloud, but what if we thought about social networks as locations where we store our emotions and feelings?

My Year One blog series New Teacher Chronicle was a place I uploaded my hopes and fears about my new profession. I wrote this way for the same reason I drank coffee in the morning: it woke me up and aroused my senses. Because I wrote digitally and socially, I was keen to my place in a larger world of educators and designers. Because I shared, asked questions, and engaged others proactively I was able to build an audience. My digital cohort was more powerful than anything at my university or in my school district. How could they compete?

The effect on my university and my school district was very different than I expected. They hardly noticed. It’s not that I didn’t announce what I was doing publicly, not that I didn’t clammor for attention, not that I didn’t seek permission or advice about my digital undertaking, it was just that no body really cared.

There were many teachers in my building who thought I was a nice young man who enjoyed tinkering on the Internet (Oh, how cute. He’s writing about teaching instead of playing Call of Duty), or maybe even that there could be some small benefit in the future to the school (but we’d probably never be able to do that here).

I don’t want to leave out the select few teachers with whom I worked very closely who really believed in what I was doing as a powerful professional act; they know who they are.

What this year looked like on the surface to those other teachers, to my principals, and to my students I can’t say I know for sure. I think they saw an enthusiastic teacher in his class trying to improve every day. I think they say someone who was a reflective practitioner. I think they saw a teacher who was honest and candid about learning and assessment, be it his own or that of others.

I think those things, but I can’t be certain.

If you want to real deal, the inside scoop, on the guts of my first year, then you’ll just have to read my posts. The people who really know me from Year One were mostly folks I’d never met in person; there are many I still haven’t met. The educators who really know a lot about my first year of teaching didn’t write my evaluations or walk into my classroom with clipboards–they were all on social media.

Paul Bogush is a history teacher I met on Twitter and Plurk. He was one of my first sustained influences. He spent a lot of time in lunchroom-like banter with me online. It was social, it was casual, but there were always undertones about improving as teachers: that’s why we were online in the first place.

Year One for any teacher, or any person in their new career, is a time to form your identity as a professional in your field. For me, spending that year in public reflection on Twitter and blogs was the best professional decision I could have made.

See the interactive timeline here.