Should Teachers Moonlight as "Brand Ambassadors" for Tech Firms?

A growing number of teachers are using their social media savvy to help tech firms influence and brand their products in public education. There's a right way and a wrong way to do this.

ISTE Vendor Hall
A recent BuzzFeed article focused on the work of several teachers who have leveraged Instagram and Teachers Pay Teachers to promote and sell the classroom resources they make. In so doing, these teachers are serving as social media influencers and creating personal educational brands of themselves.

I’m not sure these teachers’ influencing and branding efforts cross ethical lines, though they could. In reading about these Instagram self-promoters, I was reminded of last year’s debate over teachers who served as brand ambassadors for ed tech companies and the ethical concerns this raised.

The dispute started with a 2017 New York Times article that highlighted a North Dakota teacher who branded herself and her classroom practices and developed a large social media following as a result. The teacher also became a brand ambassador for some ed tech companies, receiving software and company swag in exchange. Another teacher featured in the article had become a brand ambassador for 3-D printing and coding companies in exchange for expensive equipment for his classroom.

In the article, comparisons were made between the teachers and the products they promoted with the way the pharmaceutical industry has leveraged its influence with medical doctors over the years, offering valuable freebies to those willing to prescribe a company’s medications.

Comparing schoolteachers to medical doctors is a stretch, especially considering the salary disparity of their professions and the chronic underfunding of public schools. But it’s a valid point when educators become ambassadors for a particular company or product, raising questions about their objectivity. And depending on the individual’s level of influence within a school or district, purchasing decisions can be swayed.

Apple's Distinguished Educators, Google for Education’s Certified Innovators, and Microsoft’s Innovative Education Experts are all efforts by industry leaders to bring educators into their folds as brand ambassadors, and offer them various honors and opportunities in return. Smaller ed tech companies are also trying to leverage teachers’ influence in similar ways. It’s not unusual to visit the vendor hall of an ed tech conference and find teacher brand ambassadors working in their associated companies’ booths, or presenting conference sessions on a company’s behalf.   

For a school district, having teachers with the expertise required to become a brand ambassador for a particular product can have its advantages — especially if the district has already adopted specific digital tools the teachers are promoting. If a Google for Education Certified Innovator leads a school’s teacher professional development session using Google Classroom, it can add an additional level of credibility to the class.

For those of us who have worked in districts with individuals who became brand ambassadors for a particular product or company, we should be wary of our colleagues’ enthusiasm for their adopted partners. As a district administrator with employees who also served in brand ambassador capacities, I had to manage both the employees’ influence, as well as their leave requests to travel on their associated company’s behalf. (We required staff to take personal days for such travel.)

Over the past several years, there have been several high-level school district administrators in the news who led their districts to make ed tech purchases from companies with whom, it was later revealed, they had relationships that personally or professionally benefited the administrator. Though by scale these administrators’ transgressions don’t compare to a teacher who simply serves as a brand ambassador at a technology conference, nonetheless it can be a symptom of the same concern: public education employees vested with doing what’s best for their students, who may opt instead to focus on building their resumes.

Having employees who work in brand ambassador capacities is not an inherently bad practice for school districts. But individuals interested in doing side work for education-related companies — or for their personal brands — should be sure that in doing so they’re not compromising their objectivity and integrity as district educators. And in dealing with situations or questions where conflicts of interest may arise, educators with brand relationships should be up-front and transparent about their affiliations, and recuse themselves if necessary. It’s not unlike a hiring situation where a person has a friend applying for an open position. Simply “putting in a good word” for the person is a potentially acceptable practice, as long as one is clear about the existing relationship and doesn’t push additional influence on the friend’s behalf.

To prevent possible issues, school districts should have in place clear and well-publicized policies that define expectations for employees’ ethical behaviors and state what constitutes a potential conflict of interest. These policies should also include the types and amount of compensation employees can receive from third parties. By example, the Dallas Independent School District has a thorough (though somewhat dated) employee Handbook of Ethics and Integrity that covers these topics.

With education-related companies seeking educators’ endorsements, coupled with the far-reaching scope and influence of social media, the lines defining educators’ advocacy roles are becoming blurred. As a result, the importance of current, inclusive, widely publicized and enforced school district employee ethics policies are more important than ever.