How Student-Led “The Next Step” Helped TEL’s Social Media Strategy

by | Jun 10, 2021

​When we started building our courses, we knew we needed to do more than help students understand US History. We needed to give them tools that would be valuable in real-world situations. This year, we had the opportunity to provide those real-world experiences to a talented group of high school students.

In early 2020, TEL Education launched our sister site, TEL Learning, which houses our free library and our courses on demand. Because that site is focused on our homeschool audience and independent learners, TEL Learning requires a slightly different social media strategy.

And to be honest, we fell behind early in developing that cohesive strategy (as the Marketing Director, I can say that).

In a stroke of fortuitous timing, Jen Chiou reached out to me at SXSWedu, in March 2021, about helping TEL launch an Instagram account. We had one at the time, but it had been neglected to the point that she couldn’t find it. So we were definitely in need of some help.

Finding The Next Step

Jen runs CodeSpeak Labs, an organization that introduces coding and all aspects of bringing a technology product to market to students in K-12. On top of providing coding classes for students, CodeSpeak Labs is dedicated to helping students find real-world applications for the skills they are learning through internships and partnerships.

In the midst of the pandemic, most of those internships and partnerships were canceled or postponed. “Students told us that the continued lockdown made them feel like their dreams and goals were on hold. They felt stuck,” Jen said. “At the same time, they found solace in social media and creating digital art at home.”

Instead of waiting for the pandemic to end and traditional internships to start again, the students (with the help of the CodeSpeak Labs team) started a creative agency so they could build their own real-world experiences.

The Next Step was designed to enable students to use their passion for art and love of Instagram at the same time. They came up with the name “The Next Step” because they are eager to make progress in their education and careers. This group of BIPOC high school students work with professional mentors from CodeSpeak Labs to create social media content for mission-driven organizations. Students involved in The Next Step are paid, just like they would be if they were in a traditional internship.

Zoom screenshot with the faces of The Next Step team

The Next Step team during a strategy session

Restarting TEL’s Instagram

With TEL Learning, our audience is high school students, often homeschooled, who want to earn college credit while finishing their high school course requirements. Working with The Next Step allowed us to get insight from students at a similar stage of life. The partnership also provided these students experiences they can take with them in college and their careers.

The processes started with sharing our brand standards and giving Jen and the mentors an overview of our organization. Every week, the students design Instagram posts and write the accompanying content. The mentors present the concepts to us at TEL, and we provide feedback. (We weren’t able to meet with the students directly because they were in class during our meeting time.)

Once the posts were updated with our feedback, we would schedule them to our Instagram account.

“They’ve learned from the TEL Learning brand guidelines and the feedback from the TEL team how to create content that is not only engaging but also fits with the narrative, messaging, and brand tone and voice,” Jen said. “They’ve gotten practice writing ‘real world’ content that aligns with TEL’s mission and values. It’s a radically different experience than assignments that they do for school for a grade. And, unlike most internships, they’re able to quickly see their hard work actually being used in the world as the TEL team posts their content.”

More Than Just Engagement

Since working with The Next Step team, our Instagram engagement is up over 500%. They’ve helped us establish a steady cadence for posting and brought us creative ideas for AAPI month and for incorporating our partners into our strategy. We’ve also been able to cross-post some of the content to our Facebook account, helping drive an increase in engagement on that platform as well.

The partnership also provided the experience that the students were looking for, and then some. When Krys, a 10th grader, joined the program, she thought she would be working on digital drawing as opposed to more traditional graphic design projects.

“The process has been eye-opening,” Krys said. “While working with a brand, you get to understand how an artist adjusts and changes their style to fit its needs. TEL does have restrictions regarding colors and fonts, so it allowed us, as students, to learn how to work within those guidelines and adapt.”

Projects that provide students with experiences similar to what they will encounter after graduation can help provide guidance on their career choices. School doesn’t always give students an accurate picture of what types of work will be expected of them.

“I learned a lot about management, communicating as a team, and handling feedback,” said Salma, an 11th-grade student who participated in The Next Step. “From getting a task assigned to you, submitting it, getting feedback, and sending the final draft, I’ve learned a lot about this process. You get better as you practice and continue, and it is not something you can just learn from reading books or researching.”

“I feel like I have learned to fail. I have learned that it is okay to not achieve something on the first go and to not beat myself up,” Krys said. “Throughout this experience, I have learned how crucial it is to not rush, as well as the importance of trial and error. While it may take some time, a design that truly fits what you are looking for will take shape.”

Walking The Walk

Learning doesn’t stop with content knowledge. At TEL, we are dedicated to helping our students learn the 21st-century skills that they will need to be successful long after they graduate. Skills such as communication, critical thinking, and self-management. So when we had the chance to work with an organization giving their students these same opportunities, we were excited to play a part.

We got an Instagram feed worth following and the team at The Next Step got experiences they can use on resumes and interviews for years to come.

To learn more about The Next Step, check out their website at You can contact Jen to see how the team can help you with your social media strategy.

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