Engaging Parents with a Twitter chat

(Originally published in May of 2012, but still relevant-TM)

Principal Carrie Jackson (@jackson_carrie) answers 5Q with about Keller Timberview Middle School’s (TMS) use of #TMSHawkChat to engage parents and other stakeholders.

Hispanic family with laptop at home

What prompted you to attempt to engage stakeholders at TMS through your Twitter and blog accounts? 
After opening Timberview Middle School last year and communicating mostly in a reactive mode, we decided we wanted to create a proactive process for informing and engaging our parents about our school initiatives and accomplishments.  We realized that we needed to build trust with our stakeholders and that we wanted to tell our own story rather than let others tell it for us.

One of the things we noticed was our families are very active on Facebook and community blogs. I already had a principal blog in place from the time we started our campus web site two years ago; I just changed the way I used it. I began to use it to tell positive stories and to reach out to people, rather than to defend or explain our methodologies. With the movement to our Facebook page (from a closed Facebook group we had last year), I was able to do some micro-blogging and get parent responses. Communication via Facebook began to transform into two-way interaction.

We had also been using a campus Twitter account for one-way tweeting specific events and information.  Our use of Twitter changed when I began using my own personal Twitter account in February of 2012 after my assistant principal Brett Stamm (@Bstamm00) told me about the Personal Learning Network (PLN) concept. We learned through our PLN how leaders like Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal) and Joe Mazza (@joe_mazza) were using #bhschat and #ptchat to interact with parents and their community. Then we looked again at how we were using Twitter and decided to create #TMSHawkChat.  

The idea for #TMSHawkChat was initially a town hall-type concept, a chance for parents to ask questions and have them answered; however, after observing the #ptchat model, we found the question and answer discussion to be a positive structure for focused interaction. We did our very first #TMSHawkChat that way in April and have found the format to be the right fit for our needs.

2.  How are you using your personal and campus Twitter accounts, #TMSHAWKCHAT, and professional blogs to increase parent engagement? 

We use all of these tools as part of our comprehensive stakeholder engagement plan.  Our goal is to connect with families, nurture and support students, and to become a respected part of our community.

I use the (@jackson_carrie) Twitter account to interact at a personal level and write about subjects that interest me as well as moderate the #TMSHAWKCHAT.   The school account (@TimberviewMS) is utilized to brand and promote our campus, interact with stakeholders, and retweet content on behalf of the school.   I will tweet links to my personal blog from my personal Twitter account, while using the school account to tweet links to the official school principal’s blog hosted on our website. 

3.  What has been the response of parents, staff, and students to your #TMSHAWKCHAT?

The most exciting response has come from our incoming 5th grade families. We held a special #TMSHawkChat just for them the day after our parent orientation night. The most powerful moment during that chat happened when our incoming 5th grade parents had questions about the school, and a 5th grade student and some of our current 5th grade parents were answering those questions.

We started out with a handful of 5th and 8th grade teachers engaged in the conversation on Twitter and via #TMSHawkChat, and now we have teachers from all content areas and grade levels, including electives participating. Recently we have averaged ten staff members contributing in our #TMSHawkChat which has resulted in a sub-culture on our campus that has strengthened the bond between grade levels, teams, and campus administration.

4. What benefits to the TMS community have resulted from your engagement efforts?

Connectedness and relationships have been a major benefit of our engagement work. Our commitment to digital engagement through social media has strengthened and supported our in-person interactions in the following ways:

  • Our families are better informed.
  • Our families have stronger relationships with our staff through these trust-building positive interactions
  • Our families see evidence of how proud we are of their children.  For example, we often use Facebook and Twitter to share out pieces of student work and get people to respond. One of our 6th graders took a beautiful photo in his technology class. The teacher sent it to me, and I posted it on the Facebook page with a simple “Like this post if you think this kiddo has a great eye.” He got over 150 likes and a ton of comments. Imagine how that student felt…how his family felt!

5. What are some lessons learned that you would share with other educators who want to replicate what you are doing at TMS to engage parents? 

  • Tell your story or somebody else will tell it for you.
  • Be positive, and make positive presuppositions of everyone. We are all here for the kids.
  • Leverage social media to brag on your staff, your parents, and your kids.
  • Have processes in place. Know your limitations on photographing kids/their work and publishing them on social media. Make sure your parents are OK with it.
  • Establish interaction norms. While we’ve never had a kid make a negative post, we have had to visit with a handful of parents (fewer than five) about modeling digital citizenship for kids. Know what you expect of your interactions, and post your expectations in a friendly and positive way…and always keep it kid-centered.
  • Be patient. Our (adult) generation will not catch on immediately. Leverage your engaged parents and staff to involve friends. Give them a positive, meaningful experience and then get them to bring friends. It will catch on, but it might not be immediate.
  • Don’t quit. In our third #TMSHawkChat I experienced the moderator’s nightmare: I was talking to myself. Nobody else was on. (Later learned it was because it had been omitted from our newsletter, and people forgot about it.) I stayed with it and stayed positive, and eventually my PLN (including @TroyMooney and @ebhsprincipal2) came to my rescue…and some parents and staff members joined late. Remember people are busy, and when something is new they sometimes forget. Hang in there and stay positive. It will catch on.
  • Differentiate from your professional and personal accounts, but be willing to share the personal. Let’s get real; we are educators, and most likely there is little to nothing going on in our personal lives that would offend our parents and students. Be willing to share who you are as a person. People don’t care to know what you had for breakfast, but they are interested in who you are. You take care of their kids for 8-plus hours a day.