Teachers as “Brand Ambassadors”

Susan Reese and I just completed editing the back-to-school edition of the NJCTE Newsletter, e-Focus. I include below an article we published inviting our readers to respond to the concept of teacher as “brand ambassador.” After you read the article, we invite you to respond to it here on the blog.

Teachers as “Brand Ambassadors”
What Do You Think?
 
by Susan Reese and Patricia Schall
We are happy to say right up front that we know the worth of branding.  We see that NCTE has moved from stodgy blue and gold to vibrant lime green that makes all stop and look twice.  This new look is akin to seeing Queen Elizabeth II, the bastion of propriety, don a Lady Gaga meat dress and strut her stuff.  Lady Gaga has millions of followers.  Branding works for her.  So why not use this same approach for the teaching profession?
Consider a recent article in the New York Times about Kayla Delzer, a third-grade teacher from Mapleton, North Dakota. She is characterized as a new kind of teacher who “is a member of a growing tribe of teacher influencers, many of whom promote classroom technology.”
These teachers influencers”attract notice through their blogs, social media accounts and conference talks” and “are cultivated not only by start-ups like Seesaw, but by giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft to influence which tools are used to teach American schoolchildren.”
Natasha Singer, author of the Times article, states that teachers like Delzer have grown in number “as public schools increasingly adopt all manner of laptops, tablets, math teaching sites, quiz apps and parent-teacher messaging apps. The corporate courtship of these teachers brings with it profound new conflict-of-interest issues for the nation’s public schools.”
Delzer and other teachers like her serve as “brand ambassadors,” and through their work in the classroom and as trainers of other teachers, “promote the products and services” of many companies and receive as rewards for their efforts, gifts like t-shirts, gift cards, and some more costly items such as travel expenses to conferences.
Singer goes on to say that these brand ambassador teachers continue to use and promote products and services despite the fact that “there is little rigorous research showing whether or not the new technologies significantly improve student outcomes.”
This article has generated some fervent reactions in the education blogosphere. Check out these links to the responses of a few noted educators:
Douglas Hesse, former President of NCTE, Executive Director of the Writing Program at the University of Denver and Professor of English, responded to the article on NCTE’s Connected CommunityIf you are not already a member of this digital community, we encourage you to join. Meanwhile, we quote his entry here for those readers who are not yet members:
Original Message:
Sent: 09-04-2017 11:37
From: Douglas Hesse
Subject: Teachers as Brand Ambassadors –NY Times StoryI’m still pondering a story I read in yesterday’s New York Times (9/2/17) about teachers establishing themselves as brand ambassadors, primarily for technology companies who provide both classroom/school and personal benefits for promoting devices and/or applications. A certain chunk of the teacher’s time and efforts is to make visible, primarily through social media, themselves and their classrooms: to promote themselves as brands, famous for being famous teachers, “emulatable,” as it were.  Now, there’s certainly nothing entirely new about this.  There have long been famous teachers, famous at least within the profession, whose teaching practices and ideas get noticed and circulated, some of them even achieving status as “The Smith or the Lujan Method.”  But those fame-garnering accomplishments have large occurred, historically, through professional organizations: presenting at conferences at various levels, publishing journal articles, occasionally authoring books.

Historically, there has been some sense of an implicit disciplinary vetting that occurred within knowledge communities; sometimes ideas and practices passed through levels of peer review (as in conference selections or publishing), but not always.  And of course there’s been a version of “brand ambassadors” when the “apps” being promoted were textbooks, not software; publishers sponsored professional development led by one of their authors.  The relationship within English studies between not-for-profit professional expertise and for-profit circulation of materials has always been a complex one.  (As a textbook author myself, I’ve tried to resist what have felt to me the crassest requests for promotion.) What strikes me as different in the NYT article is the more overtly entrepreneurial cast.  The tools of social media allow folks largely to bypass the professional associations and channels–organizations like NCTE–that traditionally provided authorizing (or sanctioning) functions.  Instead, there’s more or less direct marketing, with the teacher him or herself being the brand.

The NYT article raises questions about ethics, noting that teachers treading roads that other professionals (especially physicians) have trod: the possible tension between obligations to one’s students through professional standards and enticements to one’s self-interests through business opportunities on the side.  As the story points out (and as I concede), the nature of both school funding and teacher salaries–not to mention, the erosion of teacher status–makes the enticements pretty reasonable and understandable.

Now, as I said at the outset, I’m still pondering this all.  I have concerns, but I want to be thoughtful before pounding my shoe indignantly on a desk.  I am struck, however, by the consequences of these practices for what it means (or doesn’t, really) to be a professional whose professionalism is both signaled and sanctioned by membership in professional associations.

Larry Cuban, Professor Emeritus at Stanford, former social studies teacher, and Steven Singer, who identifies himself as “a husband, father, teacher and education advocate and can be reached at www.svteach.wikispaces.com  comments on the role teachers play as pawns in the technology industry money machine and the problems it can create for the profession and kids.  While he is not addressing the Times article in particular, it is clear that he has strong opinions on seductive forces of the technology industry.
What do you think? We invite you to share your thoughts on this article on NJCTE Blog, or if you prefer, you may email responses to us at njctefocus@gmail.com.
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