Blog on, Principal, but Relationships Come First: Lessons from RISD’s Maeda

Does our community follow us on Twitter?  Do tweeting and blogging serve as valuable school leadership vehicles?

A lovely conversation is happening this month about the question of principals and other school-leaders blogging and tweeting.   Does this really add value to school community and to our students’ learning?  Or is this just a vanity project, without substance or value?

These are great questions to ask, and I appreciate Ryan Bretag for posing the question and Justin Tarte and Lyn Hilt for continuing the conversation.

It surely comes as no surprise to anyone who reads me (and thank you to all who do) that I think there is great value in blogging by school administrators.   I have written about it at some length (Why I Blog: A Principal’s 13 Reasons), and I have enjoyed many conversations about it.   Especially affirming to me have been several terrific discussions I have enjoyed with Bill Ferriter: as a teacher Bill values Principals blogging because he believes teachers crave more transparency from educational their school’s educational leadership.

Presidents have an obligation to give press conferences and newsmedia interviews frequently;  everyone working in a school has a certain right to know more about the thinking and understanding that lies behind the many decisions a Principal has to make daily, and blogging is a fine way to provide this transparency.

At the same time, nearly everything Ryan says about what he prefers his principal to be doing during the work-day makes perfect sense to me. We ought to place the priority upon, to quote Ryan:

  1. Getting to know and connect with 2,100 learners
  2. Getting to know and connect with hundreds of educators
  3. Participating in and attending activities, events, and athletics endeavors by our numerous clubs and sports
  4. Being active in the community
  5. Maintaining an open door for advice, support, and celebrations in which many, many take advantage of daily

I rarely blog during the work-day.  Blogging is more of a hobby than a part of my job; it is what I do in the later evening instead of watching TV.    As Lyn says,

what about the teachers and administrators who spend their evenings zoned out in front of the television? Couldn’t they be better spending their time to enhance the education of their students? Why are we not critiquing their evening hour activities? The simple reason is that we don’t know about it.

Yet our online presences can clash with our our in-person relationship building: this is not easy to acknowledge but we have to grapple with it.   A powerful reminder of this was published recently in Fast Company, in a fascinating and important piece entitled RISD Old Guard Clashes with its Tweeting President.

To the best of my knowledge, RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) President John Maeda is the university leader most like us— the “us” being those of us here on Connected Principals and elsewhere who blog and tweet regularly as educational leaders.   Maeda has 173,000 followers on Twitter, and blogs at “Our (and Your) RISD.”

Upon becoming President at RISD in 2008, Maeda went online as part of his communications strategy:

Maeda immediately launched a president’s blog. He was a manic tweeter, delivering a stream of poetic aphorisms on leadership and creativity in 140 characters. And he was one of a tiny number of college presidents with a personal Facebook page.

Maeda has a forthcoming book that argues for the value of online and networked leadership entitled Redesigning Leadership (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life); I look forward to reading and writing about it.

According to Fast Company, however,  it has been a rocky road for President Maeda, and he recently suffered a hard-hitting and lopsided vote of no-confidence from the faculty.   It is not clear that his blogging and tweeting has been entirely for the good in his leadership; the article, (and it would seem the article itself is much contested in what I imagine is a heavily polarized debate about his leadership), argues that Maeda’s

cyberstyle leadership was a misstep at a conservative campus battered by the recession. “He got off on the wrong foot in a superficial way,” says Kyna Leski, a RISD architecture professor. “The culture at RISD doesn’t put much weight in fast tweets.”

Maeda, who is to be commended surely for his own transparency and his willingness to reflect and acknowledge error to a magazine reporter, offers wisdom gained from his own mistakes– and his wisdom echoes Ryan Bretag’s arguments in My Principal Doesn’t Need to Blog.

Maeda acknowledges that he now understands that social media can only take you so far in redesigning leadership.

All those great hopes for leading by blogging, tweeting, and emailing proved inadequate to the gritty business of persuading an actual living, breathing constituency to follow his direction.

People don’t want more messages; they want more interactions. There’s no perfect memo where you can press send and get connected, or Facebook group you can join to be committed.”

Maeda has scaled back his blogging. .. Instead, he says, he’s going about leading in the old-fashioned way: building relationships one at a time, having coffee with faculty, jogging with students late at night, offering free pizza as an inducement to get them to show up and talk.

One of my intellectual priorities is to resist binaries, to resist zero-sum analysis.   I refuse to accept that blogging and tweeting exist in a zero-sum dynamic with relationship building, you can have both, and one does not come necessarily at the expense of the other.

But nonetheless, do I need to reminded, often, of what Maeda has learned the hard way: that interactions come first, by building relationships the old fashioned way, one at a time? Yes I do.

Fortunately, I learn and relearn this here at Connected Principals.   George Couros writes beautifully about his deep affection for and relationship with his school community: George puts a priority on interactions. In We Are all Connected, he writes:

Relationships are the key foundation to the success of students in our schools. The more we connect with them, the more likely they are to succeed. This is not only true with our students, but also essential with our staff. If we know those we serve, the more likely we are to all be successful.

Dave Meister, too, demonstrates regularly that It’s About Building Relationships:

These teachers and administrators do little things every day to try to make kids feel good about themselves such as: greeting kids at the door, saying hello to students by name, going to see them participate in extra-curricular activities, or finding something special to do for kids that need a little boost.  Above all, giving the gift of time to a student who needs it.

Cale Birk too writes that relationships are essential:

The relationship between the teacher and the student: What the research says:  Of the 138 factors, this ranked #11, with an impact factor of .72.  This is based on nearly 230 studies and more than 350000 students.  Some behaviours that are particularly important for teachers are empathy, warmth, and ‘non-directivity’: allowing students more student-initiated or student-directed activities for learning.

My new thought:  This is even more important than I initially believed (and I believed relationships to be tremendously important), and something that I want to emphasize at our school.

Blog on, Principal, but relationships and interactions come first. I don’t expect to be jogging with students at night anytime soon, but I do want to enjoy more coffee with faculty members and I am going to try to expand my pizza budget.  Thank you President Maeda.


[image from Creative Commons]




  1. David Wees said:

    That relationships come first should be no surprise to anyone who has participated in a tweet-up, a meeting of Twitter users. I love meeting the people I’m interacting with in person, and getting to know them on a deeper level. While I feel “close” to many of the people I follow on Twitter, I don’t really feel that I know them until I meet face to face.

    Our digital selves are not separate from our analog selves and we need to remember that it is still by far our analog (real world) interactions which matter, whatever narcissism we may satisfy keeping track of our Twitter followers and the reach of our tweets.

    April 25, 2011
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    May 1, 2011

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