Social Media or Social Life?

Technology can work wonders in keeping principals in touch with stakeholders. But too much of a good thing can overwhelm even the most tech-savvy leader.
By Jody Capelluti and Anita Stewart McCafferty
Principal, May/June 2017

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

When Charles Dickens wrote this phrase in A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, he was talking about the differences between London and Paris during the French Revolution. But if he had written that novel today, he could have been referring to the dilemma principals confront around using social media and technology to communicate with their stakeholders and how that affects their personal lives.

For the past several years, we have been conducting research around this topic. Our results have raised serious questions about the conflicts principals face. The merits of increased communication are clear. Principals who told us that they use a variety of channels to communicate noted that stakeholders reported an increased connectedness to school, increased parent engagement, and an increase in families moving to their districts. Parents told the principals they feel more involved, more attached to the school, and generally more satisfied with the school’s efforts.

But principals also reported a downside: They are working more hours and are expected to be available more often. At times they feel there is no escape from work and say that issues have arisen around personal time or the lack thereof. One principal noted: “The more platforms you use, the higher the expectation that you will add more. You could easily become overwhelmed with maintaining the various social media options.”

Where Do You Stand?

There are some principals, however, who seem to have figured out how to use technology and social media effectively without sacrificing their personal lives. They have been able to manage technology, not the other way around. How do you stack up? Are you in charge of social media, or is social media in charge of you? Do you have a life outside school, or are you “in” school all the time? Do you feel you have to choose between social media and a social life? Take this brief quiz and then check the answers to see how you compare:

1. How many days a week are you available to your stakeholders?

  • 5 days/week
  • 6 days/week
  • 7 days/week

2. How has the use of social media affected your workload?

  • Decreased
  • Remained the same
  • Increased

3. How tech-savvy are you?

  • Not at all
  • Moderately savvy
  • Very savvy

4. What strategy do you consider the most effective for communicating with stakeholders?

  • Face-to-face conversations
  • Social media tools/platforms
  • Email
  • Phone
  • Texts

5. While at an event with family or friends, how likely are you to check your school email or social media account?

  • Never
  • Sometimes
  • Too many times

6. Do you agree with this statement? My home life and my work life are in balance.

  • Strongly agree
  • Strongly disagree 

Reflect on These Answers

Question 1: Availability. Almost two-thirds of principals reported they are working six or seven days per week, cutting into time spent with family and friends. One principal commented that when her spouse expressed concern about her missing too many Sunday family gatherings, she was in denial until the specific events were described. Another said that technology on occasion has come between him and his family, noting that it is difficult to be present when checking messages.

Question 2: Workload. Three percent reported a decrease in workload, 48 percent said it remained the same, and 49 percent saw an increase. Those in the 48 percent category seem to have a good handle on appropriate usage, and the 49 percent who said it increased their workload are among the majority of elementary principals who enjoy using social media but have found it has not made their workload lighter and are struggling to find balance.

Question 3: Tech-Savviness. Thirteen percent were moderately savvy, and 87 percent said they were very savvy. Principals are knowledgeable about technology and its benefits. They are struggling, however, with what types to use, and when and how much to use them.

Question 4: Effective Communication. Ninety-three percent of principals believe that face-to-face conversations are effective for communicating with stakeholders; in fact, in our focus group interviews, principals see it as most effective. Seventy-eight percent find phone conversations effective, 71 percent view emails as effective, 31 percent report social media tools as effective, and 21 percent indicate text messages are effective. While elementary principals feel pressure to use social media, they strongly believe talking to people, in person or on the phone, is most effective.

Question 5: Checking Email. This is a key question. During a focus group we conducted with approximately 30 principals, we asked, “How many of you will check your email or smartphone during our presentation or when you are out to dinner with family or friends?” The majority raised their hands. One principal said: “I feel like I am always on the clock. I have my cellphone with me everywhere and find myself checking school email so often I wonder if there is something wrong with me.”

Question 6: Balance. Your response to this question is the only one that matters. It needs to be “Strongly Agree.” If it’s not, how do you get there?

Finding Balance

We asked principals to tell us their best strategies for successfully taking care of their lives outside school while tending to the needs of others at work. Here is what they told us:

Set boundaries. There comes a time each day or week that you need to stop working. When you say “yes” to more schoolwork, even if you are home, you are saying “no” to something else. That something else could be dinner with your significant other, playing with your child, or exercising to help maintain your health. Know your limit and stick to it. You can’t get time back.

Don’t try to do it all. Savvy principals have learned that the job is never done. Your school was open before you arrived and will remain open long after you leave. You are important to the daily function of the school, but only if you realistically and effectively manage your time and what you can do. What tasks are you doing that someone else could do, maybe better?

Encourage your district to define your work schedule. Have a serious conversation with other administrators and teachers about what days and hours are expected. Teachers, superintendents, and other principals are facing the same issue. Yet, it seems that people don’t want to talk about it. Our hypothesis is that most districts do not want to set a firm policy because doing so would force school boards to define when teachers and administrators are on the clock and deserve to be paid. For example, does “24 hours to return an email” mean 24 clock hours or 24 work hours? There is a big difference.

Social media and technology are tools. Use the ones that are most effective. Knowing which technology to use for what purpose and when are key. There is an explosion of platforms, and it can be challenging to reach everyone. One principal lamented: “It is hard to keep up with everything. Some people want me to be on Twitter, others on Facebook, and then we also have to update our website. It is too much of an expectation to be proficient at using all of these sites and yet do a good job.” The right platform sometimes depends on your stakeholders’ knowledge of and access to technology. Find out what tools are best for your message. Be creative and be in control.

Remember that the most effective way to communicate is in person. Despite all the attention focused on social media, talking to someone directly is still the best option to make sure what you are trying to communicate is understood. It is hard to build a relationship or read facial expressions and body language via email. Often more work is created by trying to take a shortcut. Use technology when it will save time rather than when it will create more work.

Make Your Stand

The proliferation of social media platforms and their impact on the work life of the principal is unparalleled. In many ways it has enhanced the capacity of the principal to connect to those they serve and with those with whom they work. It has also created significant and challenging obstacles for the principal who wants to excel at work while maintaining a healthy, productive life outside the workplace.

Drawing a firm line between home and work affords the best opportunity for principals to succeed. If you are forced to choose between a balanced life and work, choose the former.

Is it time to revolutionize your work-life balance? Shedding light on the use of technology is a start. With wisdom we can successfully navigate life and work in this season of social media, making it a tale of the best of times.

Jody Capelluti, a former principal, is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine.

Anita Stewart McCafferty, a former principal, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine.


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