Social media offers preservice teachers a large network of mentors and colleagues who can help them translate theory into practice as they launch their new careers.
When Twitter was created in 2006, we did not expect it to affect how we prepare future educators. Like many people, we primarily associated early Twitter with celebrities, narcissists, and oversharing teens. However, we soon recognized that Twitter had become like a second faculty lounge, a place where educators talked shop and found community that counteracted the isolation long endemic to the profession. In contrast to traditional professional development (PD), which is often something done to teachers, we saw Twitter allowing teachers to engage in activities that were more participatory, grassroots, and supportive of teachers’ roles as professionals and intellectuals (Carpenter & Krutka, 2015).
Our experience with this new form of professional learning prompted us to experiment with Twitter in our teacher education courses. In doing so, we’ve found that, despite stereotypes of young people as digital natives who intuitively know how to use technology, professional and educational uses of Twitter are initially unfamiliar and even daunting for many students (Carpenter, 2015). So, with that in mind, for the past five years we have scaffolded our preservice teachers’ entry into professional Twitter (which we distinguish from social or personal uses) by requiring them to:
• create professional Twitter accounts,
• follow their classmates and other teachers, scholars, and education organizations,
• post several tweets each week related to course content,
• participate in synchronous Twitter chats, and
• reflect on and write about the experience.
Like experienced teachers, our teacher candidates use their professional Twitter accounts in various ways. They ask questions of the many educators who are active on Twitter, share links to relevant education articles, and post pictures from their practicum experiences.
One of the reasons Twitter has attracted so many educators is that it provides access to colleagues with whom they would not normally interact in face-to-face settings. These connections often occur through the many widely used education-related Twitter hashtags (e.g., #sschat for social studies) that allow teachers to find others with similar interests and concerns. Initially, we had our students use course-specific hashtags (e.g., #EDU355) when tweeting, but professors, students, and alumni outside the courses were uncertain whether they were welcome to chime in, and at semester’s end, students stopped using the hashtag altogether. Because we wanted to encourage conversation across courses and programs and with the larger profession, while also providing an easy way for our students to find each other, we shifted in 2015 to using #ElonEd for our entire Elon University teacher education program.
In its first semester, #ElonEd operated similarly to how course hashtags had previously. However, alumni began to use the hashtag in the second semester, and the addition of a twice-monthly synchronous #ElonEd Twitter chat increased the quantity and quality of interactions. As alumni and other educators interested in the topics we were discussing began to contribute to the conversation, more teacher candidates and faculty started to use the hashtag beyond just course requirements. Our institutional hashtag now attracts participation from a wide variety of current students, alumni, faculty and staff, and in-service educators. Below, we highlight five ways in which Twitter and the #ElonEd hashtag have helped reshape our work supporting preservice and in-service teachers.
Developing professional learning networks
While educator preparation programs build the foundation for candidates to be competent and effective on their first day in the classroom, even the best ones cannot teach novices everythingthey need to know. Aspiring teachers should acquire certain professional knowledge and skills during their teacher training, but it is at least as important that they develop the dispositions and habits needed for continued growth throughout their careers.
Many schools organize local professional learning communities (PLCs) that have demonstrated the potential to affect learning, teaching, and school culture positively (e.g., Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008). However, even if new teachers end up in schools with relatively effective PLCs, few are likely to become the best possible version of themselves if they only learn from and with the educators in their building. In fact, in-school PLCs can be limiting and static (e.g., Priestley, Biesta, & Robinson, 2015). Social media allows for the expansion of educators’ networks to include a larger pool of colleagues who interact across an array of contexts and topics in a more self-directed manner than might be typical of a formal school-based PLC (Krutka, Carpenter, & Trust, 2017).
We use Twitter with our students because of the presence of so many educators on the platform, the established hashtags for many education topics, and the multiple opportunities on Twitter for interaction, learning, and growth that aren’t necessarily available through more intermittent, one-size-fits-all, face-to-face PD activities (Carpenter & Krutka, 2015). Twitter allows our candidates to observe and participate in professional conversations with a wide variety of in-service educators, scholars, and educational organizations. This, in turn, contributes to their emerging identities as teachers and helps them see the value of collaboration beyond their school and district (Carpenter et al., 2017).
During their time at Elon, it is not uncommon for our students to interact on Twitter with the authors of texts they have read, such as Gregory Michie (@GregoryMichie) and Myron Dueck (@MyronDueck). Many of our future English teachers have felt encouraged and validated through their interactions with the National Council of Teachers of English’s active Twitter account (@ncte), and a number of our math candidates have found the #MTBoS (Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere) hashtag to be a rich source of ideas and community. Although graduation scatters our candidates to all corners of the globe, their professional learning networks (PLNs) travel with them and support their transition to full-time teaching (Carpenter, 2015; Risser, 2013).
Bridging theory and practice
A longtime concern in teacher education has been the distance between theory and practice (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009). When candidates lack opportunities to apply and contextualize ideas they encounter in their courses, they enter the profession underprepared. To help bridge this divide, we recommend that our students follow particular teachers who tweet regularly and thoughtfully about their work and about topics specifically related to our courses; we also make them aware of popular and relevant hashtags. We make sure to point our candidates toward educators who tweet about practices that they might not all have opportunities to witness in person, such as restorative justice, outdoor education, and project-based learning. We also explicitly instruct our candidates to look for ways that theories discussed in class emerge in their field placements and document their observations on Twitter, which enables their classmates to see the theory in action and may open a discussion with the wider education community.
What does this look like in practice? Early in the semester, Adam read about the importance of student self-assessment in one of his courses. Soon after, he tweeted a picture of his mentor teacher using Google Sheets as a tool for students to evaluate their own understanding. He tagged some of his classmates in the tweet to make sure they saw it, and the following day his professor dedicated several minutes of class time to discuss this instance of self-assessment.
On another occasion, Caroline, a music education major, was struggling to understand how flipped learning might be applied in her future classroom because the examples discussed in her education class were related to other content areas. So she sent out a tweet including several music education hashtags to find out what in-service music teachers would say. Sure enough, she received responses from several music teachers.
Accessing diverse sources of mentoring
Traditionally, teacher education programs have relied heavily on one or two K-12 mentor teachers to support candidates during their field experiences and student teaching. Although these face-to-face mentors are critical, they cannot realistically meet all of the complex needs of preservice teachers. Because Twitter allows candidates to interact with a variety of education stakeholders (Carpenter, 2015), novices can benefit from collective mentoring through their PLNs. Such interactions cannot replace the more intensive and personal support candidates receive from mentors in their field placements, but they do broaden their access to resources, ideas, and perspectives.
For example, history education candidates might find content-related resources by following the Stanford History Education Group Twitter account (@SHEG_Stanford), ask questions about how to use those resources in the content-specific #sschat, discuss new approaches to assessment in the standards-based learning chat (#sblchat), grapple with equity-related topics by following #educolor, and keep up-to-date on local education policy issues by tracking #nced, our state’s education Twitter hashtag. Our candidates also have access via Twitter to K-12 mentors who might not have opportunities to host student teachers.
For beginning teachers, Twitter can also be an additional source of emotional support, affirmation, and community. Although social media is known to facilitate extremist views and even hate speech, we have found that educators who use Twitter tend to be the passionate, engaged, and growth-oriented individuals with whom we want our candidates interacting. Candidates sometimes hear demoralizing comments about students, schools, PD, or the education profession in the hallways or faculty lounge at their field placements, and the generally positive and empowered vibe on educator Twitter can serve as an antidote (Carpenter, 2015; Carpenter & Krutka, 2015). To ensure that the interactions are high in quality, we recommend certain educators, organizations, hashtags, and chats to our students.
Connecting with alumni
One source of positive and high-quality interactions in our candidates’ Twitter experiences is their connection with alumni. Our alumni include the #ElonEd hashtag as they tweet pictures and video clips of happenings in their classrooms, share links to their blogs, or recommend resources they see as relevant to particular courses. For some students, connecting with graduates from their alma mater is a less intimidating way to test the waters of professional Twitter.
Graduates appreciate these interactions as well. One alum told us that she enjoys the continued exposure to new ideas and readings, and the energy among candidates who are excited to enter the profession. Another graduate said that he values providing the mentorship that he wished he had received more of as a preservice teacher.
Alumni involvement with #ElonEd happens most often during our twice-monthly live Twitter chats, which typically include current students, faculty and staff, alumni, local teachers, and other people in our networks. Since these chats began in 2015, we have invited alumni to assist with planning and moderating them by working with faculty and each other to identify relevant topics and create discussion prompts. These chats have led to numerous fruitful exchanges between alumni and current students.
For example, during a recent chat on digital learning tools, a candidate asked whether student-created videos might be a useful pedagogical strategy. A recent graduate responded with a link to a post on her blog that explained how her high school math students use Seesaw and Flipgrid to show mastery of content. Such interactions help us as teacher educators by providing concrete examples of concepts we discuss in our courses. Similar beneficial interactions also occur when seniors doing their student teaching offer advice to candidates just beginning their field experiences.
Expanding and enhancing partnerships
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so, too, does a village prepare a teacher. However, in many cases, teacher preparation programs and K-12 schools struggle to work together effectively to support teachers’ induction. Districts often know too little about what preservice teachers learn in their preparation programs, and many teacher educators could benefit from greater familiarity with the contexts and cultures of today’s schools and classrooms. Social media is an easy way to bring these worlds together.
By following K-12 educators on Twitter, we hear the current buzz about ed tech apps, popular assessment practices, or a new state policy that is stirring up conversation. Twitter also provides us another means to make connections and network with district administrators, staff, and mentors, many of whom maintain their own Twitter accounts or use their own hashtags. For example, educators in our main partner district, the Alamance-Burlington School System (ABSS), use #ABSStweets, while #FalconsLearn highlights goings-on at a local middle school. Former ABSS Superintendent Dr. Bill Harrison even co-moderated a recent #ElonEd chat.
Thanks to our increased interactions with K-12 partners on Twitter, we have been able to identify new local mentor teachers. Similarly, districts could use Twitter to find teacher educators with relevant expertise to contribute to their beginning teacher programs and PD activities. Twitter also can help the local teachers who mentor our candidates get to know us by giving them windows into our candidates’ coursework, just as it gives us windows into our candidates’ field experiences.
A new tool for a new career
New teachers must understand that their initial preparation is the first stage in a career-long professional learning journey, and we have found Twitter helpful in that regard. Graduates who enter the profession with strong PLNs will be well positioned to adapt to the changing instructional and professional demands educators face. Rather than struggling through their first year in isolation or waiting passively for the next PD workshop in hopes it might address their needs, our graduates can access their PLNs to find ideas, feedback, and support.
As teacher educators, we’ve found that the #ElonEd hashtag has transformed our teacher education work by helping to bridge the gap between theory and practice and increasing our connections between teacher educators and our K-12 partners. The #ElonEd hashtag has also extended our interactions with candidates beyond the individual courses we teach and into their early years in the profession. Success in those early years and beyond is our goal, and Twitter has helped us see that goal come to fruition.
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Citation: Carpenter, J.P. & Morrison, S.A. (2018). Enhancing teacher education . . . with Twitter? Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (1), 25-28.