Strategize for Social Media Success
Topics: Early Career Principals
One cold morning last December, I spotted a flyer outside the school library. Students arrive up to 40 minutes early at our school, and the librarian had invited them to come in and warm up with a nice book.
Who could resist? I stepped inside, and it was cozy in there. Relaxing music was playing. The kids were reading and having fun. The moment was made for social media. This was our school culture in action—a photo opportunity to show the entire community how kids start the day in the embrace of a school that cares about their well-being.
Having been a principal for 13 years, I call myself the school’s chief storyteller, and the story of wrapping our kids in a warm blanket of support anchors our social media presence. Principals who take a strategic approach to social media do more than post fun pictures. We also make sure our presence aligns with research-based practices in cultivating trust, reinforcing school culture, and promoting inclusiveness—all things that keep our students moving forward.
The culture I try to instill starts with giving teachers the respect and caring I want them to show the kids. Research confirms that cultivating trust with staff can boost academic achievement and, in turn, impact the attitudes of teachers toward students. Social media gives me a kind of portable spotlight to let teachers know that I see and appreciate the work they’re doing.
Here’s how you, as a new principal, can use social media to build trust:
- Be intentional. It would be easy to snap a cute photo and be done with social media for the day, but put some thought into it. I try to decide on a positive trait I want to spotlight on a day-to-day basis. As I go on campus walks or review the daily schedule, I look for examples of collaboration, engagement, trust, academic skills, and caring. When you look at the school through that lens, you’re sure to find examples.
- Align with the mission. My school strives toward its mission: building children into goal-driven, respectful, responsible citizens. What does that look like on social media? For us, it looks like smiling, excited students who are engaged in collaborative learning. It looks like happy teachers who are helping a student tie a shoelace or reaching a collaborative breakthrough in a staff meeting. It looks like students doing their part to keep the campus clean.
- Open a window. The trust parents place in us must be earned. Social media creates transparency into the hours when their children are in our care. When I’m out and about, I look for moments that might make a parent say, “Wow. I didn’t know they were doing that at school. That’s pretty cool.” That helps build support from parents for your actions as a leader. Or, as Jonathon Wennstrom and Alli Gray, principal and assistant principal of Riley Upper Elementary School in Livonia, Michigan, tell me, the more families see what is going on in classrooms and throughout the school, the more trust and inclusion grow.
- Recognize the district. It’s important to highlight district-driven initiatives on social media; we show our gratitude by tagging the superintendent and department involved. When the school board spent millions of dollars on portable smartboards, I posted photos of the kids and teachers using them, as well as teachers in a staff meeting teaching each other how to use them. Board members saw that they had made a great investment, and parents got to see that their kids were using the smartboards to learn—not just as glorified TVs.
Students are growing increasingly diverse in race and ethnicity, languages spoken, and abilities. That’s why How Principals Affect Students and Schools: A Systematic Synthesis of Two Decades of Research, a 2021 report commissioned by The Wallace Foundation, concludes that effective principals must develop an equity lens. As you tackle that goal on multiple fronts, smart social media strategies like these can help create and frame an inclusive atmosphere:
- Broaden the lens. Children and adults want to see themselves represented in the media and the books they read and encounter. My school is primarily Latinx, but we have African American, Asian American, and white students, too. We also have a whole class of students with moderate to severe special needs. I review current and past posts to make sure that our social media presence reflects the full spectrum of our wonderful school community.
- Manage waivers. Media waivers must be secured, of course, but it’s important to make sure kids without waivers don’t feel excluded. I don’t put smiley-face stickers over kids’ faces, because that makes viewers wonder what’s going on. And I don’t reposition nonwaivered students when taking photos; I reposition myself so that the student’s face isn’t visible.
- Prioritize inclusion. I can think of only one time when a parent objected to a post and the school policy behind it—when we stocked our library with more diverse titles. I thanked that parent for the comments, but I added that we want to make sure all our kids feel included and like they are part of a safe community. In that case, I asked myself what was more important: that a family had to work through its objections, or that my school’s kids and families see themselves represented?
Research tells us that excellent time management skills free principals’ time for instructionally focused interactions and correlate to school achievement. I make social media management part of my routine, and I don’t do it alone. Here’s how you can do the same:
- Delegate. As a principal, you can capture only so much. My district’s social media manager, Lynette White, introduced a team-based social media ambassador program that has helped meet shared goals. One or two volunteer ambassadors per school get monthly training on things such as new social media platforms and tips for spotting a great post. Since we work as a team, ambassadors can post directly on behalf of my school and tag me on their posts so that I can repost. Boom! There’s my post for the day.
- Choose your partners. My social media ambassadors are a reading teacher and a counselor, and there’s a reason for that: They touch every part of the school. They meet with a diverse set of students, so they can capture moments throughout the day. At Riley, Wennstrom and Gray divide posting duties while also designating point people to spotlight staff and create posts.
- Create continuity. A calendar of regular postings such as a “Student of the Week” helps direct your work and tells viewers what to expect.
- Repost. I’m always telling teachers to tag me and the school on their posts. If something expresses the spirit of our school, I can do my post for the day with a simple repost. This gives me more posts to choose from, and teachers feel flattered to see their posts shared more widely.
- Make the time. I try to take about 10 minutes a day to focus on social media. That time can get swallowed up, but the intentionality is there. Even on days when I haven’t snapped any pictures, setting aside time gives me a few moments to scroll through others’ posts and find something fun and illuminating to repost.
One advantage of strategic social media is getting to know the school anew every day, even when I’m rushing from point A to point B. Recently, I was walking back to my office after helping a student return to class, when I suddenly heard a joyous roar. I looked to my left, and I saw that the PE teachers were using a parachute with the kindergartners. I had to capture this moment full of smiles.
These are the kinds of things we want families to see—that their kids are happy at school and that we aren’t all academics, all of the time. Ultimately, I want people to look at our social media feed and say, “I want to work there” and “I would put my own kids in this school.” Lead with those thoughts in mind and find stories to tell, and your social media strategy will take a beautiful, purposeful shape.
Jessica Gomez is principal of Alice Birney Elementary School in Colton, California.