One might think that by being a kindergarten teacher, I wouldn't have any concerns regarding content shared via social media aside from protecting students' and colleagues' identities and avoiding posting unprofessional photos or tweets of myself. But as social media algorithms continue to promote what's shared the most, and lies (*actual* fake news) continue to go unchallenged and are shared ad nauseam, the truth, of which I am a fan, becomes harder and harder to find. Authentic, transparent, and occasionally painful, the truth helps us to become better navigators of our lives. As a teacher, the truths about children and how they develop, rather than the selling points of edu-brands and promises of education reform initiatives have guided and helped me to grow my pedagogy.
I've taught for a quarter of a century, so I can find the humor in teacher memes. I have snickered, giggled, and admittedly guffawed at some of them, and have even created one or two myself. When I began to encounter some rather tasteless memes regarding teachers and our jobs, where the humor was being pushed toward titillation rather than truth, I incorrectly assumed that the masses wouldn't care, and would certainly recognize the rhetoric as entertainment rather than fact. My humor didn't have to be their humor, to each his or her own, after all. But as I watched the outrage that began to attach itself to these memes, and even the embracement of the naughtiness of the not-quite-true content, the thought began to nag at me: rather than fading, these misrepresentations were spreading like cancer, superimposing themselves upon the architecture of public education just as they would the cells inside a healthy human body, damaging, then destroying it. Upon deeper reflection, I realized that my career and students have had to endure No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and now "failing government schools," all big-business initiatives, labels, and election-year rhetoric primarily created to manipulate how the public views this profession, while creating the appearance that the government sincerely cares about quality education and how children are taught in schools. Voters consumed headlines about NCLB, the Common Core, and Race to the Top initiatives like they were Skittles. How many will now eagerly gobble up "failing government schools" simply because they don't realize they are trapped by their own confirmation biases (and blind trust) masquerading as truth?
Memes and other content don't magically appear out of thin air. When I created the one above several years ago, I had to log onto the eCard site, choose a suitable illustration, figure out how to make my text fit, and hit "publish." People apparently liked it a lot, recognizing and sharing the humor of my sigh-of-relief declaration that there are no photos of me holding the clammy hands of a boy during PE in the 1970's. Fine... maybe MY hands were the ones that were clammy. But more and more often, rather than illuminating the art and hilarity of teaching, or commiserating with other teachers about the ups, downs, laughter and tears of our profession, the memes I was encountering were becoming the newest weapon for those who would continue the attack on teachers for their own economic benefit. Other professions and groups of people are regularly targeted as well, which made for an onslaught (ugh!) in all of my feeds because of how diverse (yay!) my friends and those I follow are in reality as well as digital-land. In trying to find a compromise so that I wouldn't end up tossing the baby out with the bathwater regarding social media (there's so much that I do want to see and share, despite the content I find misleading and unsavory), I first chose to unfollow a whole bunch of folks. On FB it was friends, colleagues, families of former students, strangers, and even family members, though they all remained contacts. On Instagram and Twitter, it was acquaintances and strangers alike. Unfollowing people on Instagram and Twitter yielded almost immediate relief, frankly because I wasn't closely connected to most of them, and because unfollowing removed them and their content entirely.
The hard work came a few months later when I had to challenge my ideas on how I wanted to use FB, rather than how FB wanted to use me (thank you grad school and Digital Minimalism). Was I okay with clothing and cute shoe businesses knowing what I like and don't? Sure. Have I become a member of a kindergarten curriculum, baking, or crochet-related group on Facebook based on its suggestions? Yep, and I love what I've encountered there. Did I like the content that was being suggested to me by what some of my friends appreciated? No, not all of the time. But even after fiddling with all of the account settings, I had to re-acknowledge a truth about myself that I've articulated in different ways over the years: I am triggered by very obvious bovine fecal matter. My jaw sets, my cheeks flush, my body tenses, and I feel anything but relaxed, pleasant, or safe. Despite my own confirmation bias (who doesn't like to be right?), having to repeatedly acknowledge others' truths and mindsets by their continued and often excessive spreading of some of the most unsophisticated memes, pages/groups and clickbait left a bad taste in my mouth, making me feel more fight-or-flight than engaged or entertained. That's right, unsophisticated. The clickbait posing as investigative journalism claiming to be able to prove that all immigrants are rapists and "articles" about how drinking seventeen cups of coffee per day is healthy are shams and should be easily recognized as such by most of us. While photos of flowered headbands resting upon the heads of pit bulls are products of the same technique utilized by those who manipulate images for political gain, and though the dogs are certainly deserving to be seen in a more flattering light, shouldn't most people by now have caught on to the ploy? The tugging of the heartstrings? The triggering of patriotic rage?
Call me a truth snob. Stereotypes, prejudices, misrepresentations, lies, and other marketing ploys really aren't hard to spot for adults. "Girls aren't good at science." "Those Chinese kids always excel at math." "A woman can't be president because she'd be too emotional." Bovine. Fecal. Matter. Consumers just want to feel something, and fear, anger, jealousy, and hate are easy sells. Within our schools, students rely upon us to be good stewards of accurate information as we teach them to navigate all of the content that is available. This makes it necessary in my opinion, to weed, guard, protect and continue to educate ourselves as teachers, even when we're outside of the classroom getting our social media groove on. Being vigilant about information and knowledge we impart is a significant part of our profession. CommonSense.org has resources for challenging confirmation bias here.
Eventually, I unfriended almost three-quarters of my contacts on Facebook and experienced the visceral gut-punch of having a much smaller audience. I, the person who for years has sought out affirmation from others as a gauge to measure whether or not I'm actually deserving of anything, doing my job correctly, or creating content that helps others, did something that immediately shattered a significant conduit by which I had been feeding myself the idea that who I am and what I do matters. And I survived. Not unlike other addictions, there have certainly been some withdrawal symptoms to work through, but without the mob, there's much less BFM through which I have to sift, making it easier to ground myself and identify any new evolutionary change that might be occurring in my life and pedagogy. As it turns out, I'd like to move from the classroom into the library. Until then, I'm still a kindergarten teacher, ranter, and sharer of good news. And the good news remains this: knowledge is power. Know how to find the truth, and be brave if and when it challenges your own confirmation biases.
Though you may need to take some Dramamine (good grief, he never puts the camera down) this video from Veritasium, "Why Facts Don't Matter Anymore," is a great opener for those needing or wanting to learn more about confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories. Initially interested because of the negative effect my own social media use was having on my mood and optimism, I quickly came to realize that other educators and our students would also benefit from the following point being made explicitly: our biases aren't the truth.