Dr. Twitter: An interview with Dr. Joseph Roy, Superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District

Dr. Joseph RoyThere is perhaps no place that the tension caused by Social Media is greater than schools, and particularly use by teachers and administrators.  On one hand, students are obviously using social media, and it presents school employees with an incredible opportunity to better connect and interact with those they teach.  On the other hand, the medium presents innumerable questions and potential challenges: what can be said, and what can’t?  What about the ramifications into a teachers personal life?  What about using social media to post blatantly inappropriate content?  In a governmental culture, risk-taking is not encouraged, and social media use can easily be viewed as a risk.

I’ve advocated that the best way for a government employee to use social media is to simply jump in and use common sense.  One of the best uses of social media that I have seen is by Dr. Joseph Roy, Superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District.  Dr. Roy is an avid and expert Twitter user who has done a phenomenal job at striking the balance between communicating with his school district and ensuring appropriate use of content.  I asked Dr. Roy a few questions about his Twitter use – his answers are below:

1)  How did you get involved in Twitter in the first place?

We were contemplating a Facebook page for the district – and decided we just didn’t have the staff available to moderate it. So, Jack Silva and I decided to try Twitter as a way get out the good word about the district. My daughter, Jessica Roy, is the editor of Time.com Newsfeed – news blog and a reporter for Time. Her expertise is in social media, so she coaches me along the way.

2)  What kind of response have you gotten from students and staff?  Any negative feedback?

Mostly all positive feedback. Some people don’t get Twitter, so are negative or at least ambivalent. Since I started the @BASDSUPT account there are now probably a couple dozen district related Twitter accounts.

3)  You have over 5,000 followers – that’s a pretty impressive amount.  How’d you get that many? 

IN two words – hurricane and snow.  I think I started in May 2012. October 2012 we had the hurricane and schools were closed for a week. I went from a couple hundred followers to close to 2000. Since then, the numbers have grown when the weather is bad. Additionally, people beyond the district began to follow me. I would guesstimate that over 50% of my followers are students – and not just from BASD.

4)  Two weeks ago, you were pretty blunt with people that were angry that you didn’t cancel school, and it’s clear that you use Twitter to call out those who are being disrespectful.  Was there any negative feedback from this for you? 

Social media is fascinating because it encourages people to be informal – and opinionated. That combination with teenagers tweeting at their Superintendent requires occasional clarification regarding my expectations on the tone of tweets. Most fascinating is when students police themselves and correct their peers. That has been one of my most interesting learnings – how social media users can police themselves.

5)  What DON’T you tweet about?  Is there anyone you won’t tweet to?  

I ONLY tweet about school/district related business – never personal (maybe once when I posted a picture of my three year old daughter sitting next to me while I made a snow day decision). My purpose is to put out good news about the district. I often tweet out articles from the local papers. I’m guessing many students don’t read the morning paper – so I put BASD related articles right in front of them via Twitter. I hope I spark an interest in reading the daily paper. I also will tweet out some state level education issues and also tweet student specific resources on college searches, etc.

I will not tweet to anyone whose “handle” is patently offensive. And many people have offensive handles. I block a good number of followers if they are rude, disrespectful and sometimes just because their “handle” is inappropriate.

6)  How often does someone in the real world mention your Twitter use to you?

Several times a week.

7)  Any advice for other school superintendents when it comes to Twitter use?  

One of the fascinating lessons for me is that I started with the intent to inform parents and the general community about BASD. And while that goal still exists, the completely unintended consequence is that I have established a relationship with many, many students in this very large district that I would likely not have established. Kids feel like they know me and when I visit the high schools (and the middle schools to a lesser extent), there is a real relationship established through an initial cyber relationship.

8)  Just how vital is it for someone in your position to use Twitter?

I don’t know that it is vital – meaning absolutely essential. However, Twitter is a tool to build relationships and to open communication with the community, parents, students and staff.

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