As I’m sure most if not all of you know, a local teacher was killed, allegedly by one of her students. Few real details beyond the basics have come out but a fuzzy picture of Colleen Ritzer is beginning to emerge. I am not naive enough to try to make sense of such tragedy, nor will I pretend to know someone that I most definitely did not. But a friend of mine here in Worcester on the School Committee (@cascadingwaters) retweeted one of her tweets. I had read about how part of her emerging profile is based on her social media presence, so I checked out her Twitter page.

Wow. Without the sentimentality attached to tragic and premature death (my visit to her page notwithstanding), this was a compelling glimpse into what I suspect is the natural mode of communication and connection of a younger generation of teachers, a mode that I in turn admire and am wary of. But it seems clear from Ritzer’s Twitter page that she was able to balance the natural connections facilitated by Twitter and the more practical side of Twitter that allowed her to use it for pedagogical purposes.

I’d say between 75 and 90 percent of her tweets were school-related. And the majority of these were homework assignments, divided by what appeared to be class but perhaps by some sort of scheduling distinction (a lot of initials were used, initials I assume stand for classes but could have been letter days, bell schedules, etc.). Sprinkled among these assignments were non-assignment but school-related tweets, many of which, because of the time of year, had to do with PSATs:

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 8.47.24 PM Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 8.48.14 PMI appreciate what appears to be an easy mix of directly-school-related and indirectly-school-related material. It shows what appears to be a young teacher with a preternatural appreciation of the balance needed to both help students and endear them to you (which then of course makes it easier to help them); note the hashtag in the second tweet.

It is also clear that she cared about her students in a way that is natural and genuine. More than once on her feed she responds, either to a direct tweet or unsolicited, to what as best I can tell is a student and some aspect of their personal life: the death of a grandparent, a declaration about the difficulty of junior year.

I am conflicted about the ethics of teacher – student contact via social media. On the one hand, I get it. Adults are responsible and shouldn’t / wouldn’t engage in relationships, online or otherwise, that violate the basic compact of our relationships and our vocation (even though, of course, there are examples of exceptions to this rule). And, though I do not use Facebook and do not use Twitter in an outgoing way (i.e. I rarely Tweet and have never sent out a purely personal Tweet), I understand, and have participated in, non-school contact with students (via email or text message) as part of relationship building, trust building, etc. And those relationships are important to me, and I appreciate them and endorse them as advantageous for both student and teacher. But it is clear that Ritzer understood this tension and was able to walk that line in a way that belies her age. Her Tweets are occasionally personal but never in an obnoxious or trite way. And even some of the personal tweets draw connections to her students: one such Tweet about her devotion to Target prompts, again what I assume is, a student to respond that she is working in the Danvers Target.

So as I wrap this up, a few parting thoughts.

  1. Check out her Twitter page: It is tragically now an inert if insightful tribute to what all signs seem to suggest was a teacher with tremendous potential, both realized and, well, potential.
  2. I would love to know more about her use of Twitter as an educator: do her students follow her and so get their assignments from her feed? was it mandatory for students to follow her? was Twitter the only way she disseminated such information or was there a more traditional parallel?
  3. Along with #2, on the one hand I never would have known about her use of Twitter if she hadn’t been killed (that an unfortunate realization in itself), but on the other hand she leaves a tantalizing glimpse into the new generation of educators.
  4. Along with #3, her use of Twitter, and especially the balance she strikes between professional and personal, is emblematic of what teaching is, will, and perhaps even should become, and is emblematic with a comfort level and nativeness (nativity?) that I, and other, older (I’ll just say it) teachers will never possess. Using Twitter for her, I suspect, is as natural as using a dual cassette deck with high speed dubbing to make mix tapes was for me.

I never intended this post to be sentimental or personal, though if it is that I of course have no problem with that. On the other hand, I hope that I have been able to pay some small, professional tribute to one who was clearly already a good teacher who, with her whole career ahead of her, could only become an even better teacher. Ave atque vale.