We live in a deeply polarized time with conflicting information and even more conflicting perspectives on how to address crises, both real and manufactured. Schools, as microcosms of society, feel this pressure as much—or possibly even more than—other institutions charged with maintaining social balance. The most obvious case-in-point is the COVID-19 pandemic. K–12 school leaders have been responsible for making quick judgments about the safety of their school community and navigating the larger social and political consequences of each decision. As the expression goes, the weight of the crown is heavy, and in moments like these, the loneliness of school leadership becomes even more pronounced. Albeit a drastic example, COVID-19 is emblematic of unique, fast-moving issues that school leaders will continue to face. Their ability to make supportive, knowledgeable, and trust-based decisions at a moment’s notice is not only critical but essential.

Making sound decisions when faced with acute difficulties or significant crises becomes more manageable with a support system to help generate coping strategies. Leadership support systems have historically existed in the form of trusted phone-a-friends, district and state meetings with colleagues, and professional conferences. However, the speed and consequences of many emerging issues—a byproduct of a technologically interconnected society—can create short timelines for developing and implementing workable solutions without the luxury of extended inquiry. For instance:

  • A parent calls and demands to meet with the high school principal to talk about a video her son shared with her. The video shows a school bathroom being vandalized, which was prompted by a TikTok dare. Before the principal has a chance to schedule the meeting, another parent sends an email with a similar video clip, and a custodian has just reported more destruction in another bathroom.
  • Two parents show up in the office of an elementary school demanding to meet with the principal. They are upset about both of their sons being bullied for wearing masks during lunch. According to the parents, their children had their masks ripped off, were accused of being “liberal sissies,” and coughed on.
  • A middle school student takes a video of her math teacher talking with the class about how preferred pronouns are unnecessary and confusing. And even though the principal has asked all faculty to be respectful, this teacher has no intention of trying to remember the preferred pronouns for her students. A parent has uploaded the video to a popular social media app and comments are blowing up before the principal even hears about it.

These examples touch on aspects of traditional school discipline—vandalism, bullying, inappropriate recording—and historically, school leaders would process these types of incidents by calling trusted colleagues or waiting to break down their decisions at a future professional gathering. However, the examples above also highlight the “new immediacy” of problems in a technologically interconnected society. Unlike in the past, families and community members may now go public with their displeasure on districtwide discussion forums; students can simply grab their phones and unleash a barrage of discontent on a handful of apps; or someone miles away with no association to the school can write one anonymous post affecting the entire community.

Such actions can leave even the most seasoned of school leaders feeling lost and frustrated; they underscore the need for school leaders to seek different levels of support and relevant resources for providing nimble, responsive, and targeted solutions in short order. The ability to quickly reach several trusted colleagues with diverse experiences and perspectives could make the difference between an astute resolution or full-blown crisis that can manifest in a matter of hours. Unsurprisingly, solutions to these decision-making quagmires may lie in the same fast-moving technologies that amplify such challenges in the first place.

Everyday instant messaging apps on one’s phone or device can offer multiple practical solutions that meet the needs of the moment, address more than one issue at a time, allow for quick responses, and provide safety and trust where colleagues can speak openly.

Variations of online communities have been a part of the internet almost from its beginning but were initially reserved for those with the knowledge and capacity to create shared, topic-driven online forums like blogs and discussion groups, and who could sustain an active community over time. However, new user-friendly apps have opened and extended online communities to larger populations of potential users. Social media apps, web-based platforms, and texting are salient examples of users’ abilities to engage peers with shared interests online anytime and anywhere. With this technology in mind, we outline a process for school leaders to establish communities of support through everyday instant messaging apps on their phone or device. We also provide a step-by-step guide to create and maintain these ongoing communities of practice to help school leaders handle fast-moving and unexpected issues in their schools.

Creating Communities of Support for School Leaders

Step 1: Find others with similar professional backgrounds.

The first step is to find school leaders with similar experiences and interests—a crucial aspect of community success since the earliest days of the internet. Connecting with other leaders at professional learning seminars and from nearby school districts is a good place to begin. Invite others from similar districts and across elementary, middle, and high schools to create communities with a common understanding of emergent issues and to build solutions to vexing problems on the fly. Approaching colleagues to mobilize collectively can sow seeds for a productive online support community to discuss controversial topics affecting schools, such as mask mandates.

After an initial cohort is committed, these individuals should invite other trusted professionals who would be strong contributors to and beneficiaries of the community’s shared knowledge base. Adding new members will allow the group to gain momentum as experiences are shared, and members benefit from being part of it. This first step toward creating a shared community of practice can inform immediate decision-making. Over time, members will take a more active role by sharing perspectives, solutions, and their own professional stressors, so they can ultimately find support from others in the field.

Step 2: Find a secure app well-suited to meet the needs of community members.

Good news! There are plenty of apps to choose from. Ease of use and access are often more important—especially for those who are new to developing online communities of practice—than more specific functionalities like member moderation, tracking user participation, and live chat. Through a simple search, leaders can find an app that provides a high-level of flexibility in communication. Due to the potential for discussing sensitive issues, school leaders should pay special attention to privacy and security offerings when choosing an app.

Text messaging software, such as WhatsApp or Apple’s iMessage, offer opportunities to send messages, GIFs, voice notes, and pictures, as well as threaded comments in closed communities with advanced encryption technology. Applications that only allow new members to join if they are sent an invitation provide another layer of protection for honest, open discussion. It is important to note that accessibility from a school building due to firewalls should also be considered when selecting a suitable app.

Step 3: Set guidelines for your community.

Remember, you can have the best intentions and find the best technology, but in the end, the most important aspect of a well-functioning community is how participants treat each other and trust one another. Simply stated, the human component is critical. A single dust-up or miscommunication can damage a community irrevocably if left unresolved. Every community needs a set of guidelines to stay on track. For instance, moderators can establish rules and members should agree on overall expectations when engaging in difficult discussions.

It takes time and effort to align user-friendly apps with appropriate guidelines that help communities function at a high level. In our work, leaders have suggested that sending a text was their preferred mode of communication, rather than posting to a private forum. In these texting groups, guidelines would only be known to the first participants unless reminders are sent, and moderation of individual comments is more unwieldy, but, as stated above, ease of use is key. Regardless of the app selected, maintenance of community standards relies on underlying respect, empathy, and trust. To that end, we suggest four basic principles to guide every member’s online behavior:

  1. Be clear in your responses.
  2. Be respectful with word choice.
  3. Be open to varied or diverse responses.
  4. Be supportive of each other.

Step 4: Share your own experiences and build upon the experiences of others.

Once members are committed, an app has been selected, and guidelines of participation have been established, you are ready to engage as a community of support. Individuals from varied backgrounds and school settings are now positioned to come together to share their experiences and learn from each other. As interactions begin, members will gradually feel secure enough to share their own concerns and solutions, and even be vulnerable enough to admit mistakes without judgment.

For example, one principal might be dealing in real time with the consequences of a TikTok dare. A second principal who never heard of TikTok offers a solution based on a similar situation involving another app, and a third principal warns that these issues might initially seem insignificant but can easily become more complicated. It is important to understand how simple problems can instantly become complex, and very public, in the information age. Finding alternative solutions by sharing knowledge and experience with the (few) people who understand their meaning in the context of a school day can be invaluable. These communities not only help in meeting immediate and future needs, but can be seen as emerging, shared social spaces. This sharing of information and shared problem solving can also be archived so that it is available to a wider population of school leaders around the country to learn from as well.

Final Thoughts

Our work in this area suggests that seasoned school leaders are not yet comfortable with the full range of technology that exists to help them resolve emergent, controversial issues. Apps with more advanced functionalities do not appeal to many experienced leaders for a variety of reasons—accessibility, comfort with use, confidentiality—and given the sensitive nature of most issues, they prefer to process them in person or on the phone with trusted individuals. This is in stark contrast to younger, relatively inexperienced educators, who are more eager to use online apps but are not yet in a leadership position to implement such communities of practice in their schools.

Regardless of their views on technology as a means to build communities of support, school leaders believe trust, efficacy, and motivation can develop slowly and incrementally in an online community of practice and that all these aspects take time to establish. They understand that such a community will not emerge all at once and will require patience and targeted strategies for sustaining its intent. Through everyday instant messaging apps, communities of support lie at the heart of professional learning and can position school leaders as fast and agile responders to the ever-changing educational landscape.

Dustin Miller, PhD, is an assistant professor of clinical educational studies and the director of the EdD in educational administration program at The Ohio State University. Michael Glassman, PhD, is a professor of educational studies, Marvin Evans is a PhD student in learning technologies and educational psychology, and Shantanu Tilak is a PhD student in educational psychology at The Ohio State University.