Adults who work with young people often walk a fine line between being friendly and remaining an authority figure. While being liked is important for a positive student-teacher relationship, demarcating clear boundaries and keeping professional distance is required to maintain respect.
But in the online world of social networking, where adults and teens coexist, teachers and students can connect to each other as peers, sometimes blurring the line between professional and personal. And while many students seem eager to “friend” a teacher on a social network, educators find themselves divided on teacher-student communications on social sites like Facebook and MySpace.
For some states in the U.S., public outcry against teacher-student electronic communications is causing the legal system to respond. In Missouri, the House of Representatives is currently reviewing a bill that would ban elementary school teachers from establishing online social-networking relationships with their students.
Although legislation and school board regulations can provide guidance in some districts, most teachers are left to their own discretion to gauge what would overstep into unprofessionalism.
The Risk of Connecting Online
For teens, finding and friending teachers on Facebook is no big deal. Many teachers however, discourage teacher-student interaction online altogether or instruct students to hold off sending any friends requests until after they graduate.
Other teachers are concerned with the breakdown between their private and professional lives. They maintain that relating to students through one-to-one text messages, emails and wall posts can radically change the student-teacher dynamic, and the casual correspondence of social networking sites can transfer over to classroom interactions.
Then there’s the community who might recognize that teachers are people with lives beyond the classroom, but still hold them to a high moral standard. Teachers are expected to be role models for their students and when public information threatens their good standing, it can become professionally hazardous.
“A teacher needs to be a role model, mentor and advice giver – not a friend,” says Rabbi Avi Schwartz, an educator at Magen David Yeshiva in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Joe Jamieson, Director of Investigations and Hearings for the Ontario College of Teachers, warns against social media relationships, maintaining that communications on these social platforms are inherently informal, accessible, often longstanding, can easily be taken out of context, and lack in decorum.
All of these characteristics can spell a recipe for disaster for teachers, and unfortunately, in some cases, it already has. Here are just a few of the recent headlines:
• Calgary teacher reprimanded for posting comments about drug-using mothers on her Facebook page.
• Several teachers in North Carolina disciplined for inappropriate Facebook pages, which featured photos of female teachers in suggestive poses and comments like “I hate my students”
• BC principal temporarily removed from his position after a nude photo of him was discovered online by a student’s parent.
Benefits of Social Networking Sites
Despite the potential risks, many educators see value in using online social networks to connect with students. Melanie McBride, a web-content writer, consultant and teacher, argues that “there is far too much fear and negativity around these tools and technologies” and asserts that “these media can serve educational purposes”.
In fact, some believe that it is the personal nature of online networking that makes it so valuable for building trust with their students. One 52-year-old teacher commented that “just the very fact that I have MySpace makes [my students] think, well, maybe we can talk to this guy and open the lines of communication”.
As a result, many teachers use online networking to connect with students about homework, tutoring and other school matters. Some teachers have established group pages for students to post pictures of field trips and sports games, and many who use these resources believe that their professional relationship with students is stronger as a result.
Helpful Guidelines for Teachers
Teachers who choose to communicate with students online need to take proactive steps to protect themselves, their professional reputation, and their students. In order to enjoy the benefits and mitigate the risks you should:
• Consider your role. If you are invited into the social networking world of your students, what will your role be? Is it your job to police these students and notify their parents if you observe troubling behaviour? Remember that many teens are secretive with their parents, yet are very comfortable disclosing private information and thoughts online.
Ask yourself what you would do with that information and whether your professional obligations extend to your online activities.
• Treat the connection as an extension of your classroom. The Internet has a unique way of breaking down social inhibitions. As a result, people often find themselves saying things online that they would never say in person. Teachers should guard against this practice and ask themselves – “would I say this while standing at the front of the classroom?”
• Select your forum carefully. Some social networking sites are better at maintaining the teacher-student relationship than others. For example, Twitter allows teachers to send quick notes to their students, without disclosing any personal information. Teachers should choose a site that students will access, but that also allows for clear boundaries. Continue reading for information about social networking sites that are strictly professional in nature.
• Establish clear rules and expectations. Let everyone in your network know what your rules and expectations are. Just as you would in a classroom, your online rules should foster an atmosphere of respect, trust, and clear professional boundaries.
• Talk to the parents. If you are connecting with their children online, you should notify parents and receive specific permission to do so. Make sure the parents understand why you are making yourself available online and what boundaries you have put in place to make sure the relationship remains professional.
• Protect yourself. Children aren’t the only victims of online bullying. Teachers with online profiles can also be subject to verbal abuse and even threats. Don’t leave yourself vulnerable to personal attacks by posting or disclosing anything too personal or intimate. Report any incidents of online harassment to your local police or your Internet Service Provider if you feel your life or safety is in danger.
• Remember that even “private things” can become “public things”. Online information is always at risk of being exposed. Don’t rely solely on security settings. Adopt a minimalist approach to what you share online, and that applies to contact information, photos, status updates and wall posts.
Tips for Teachers on Facebook
Facebook is one of the most popular social networking sites online. If you choose to use this site, here are some ways to keep the teacher-student relationship within a professional context:
• Keep work and personal life separate. Consider maintaining a strictly professional profile on the social networking site. Create a username that is in keeping with your professional designation – one that you would have your students address you as in the classroom. Keep this profile as public as possible, making it accessible to parents and other teachers. On the other hand, if you choose to use Facebook for your personal life, select very strict privacy settings, with the understanding that these do not ensure complete privacy.
• Disable your news feed and make it known. Facebook allows users to disable the news feed function, which means that you will not receive notification when your “friends” update their status or send someone else a message. Teachers can avoid placing themselves in a 24-hour policing role by ensuring that the only information that they receive is information that the students send to them directly.
• Teach students how to protect their online privacy. A quick in-class review of available privacy settings will help students to understand that they can limit your access to their personal pages.
• Limit the profile information your students can access. Facebook gives you the option to hide part of your profile (e.g., “About Me”, “Posts by Me”, “Posts by Friends”, “Personal Information”, tagged photos and videos, and photo albums) to certain friends or friends list. First, you will need to create a new list specifically reserved for students in your network.
• Consider a group page. Instead of establishing a personal profile for you students to access, consider establishing a group page for your class.
Alternative Ways to Connect
Some teachers are choosing to avoid the popular social networking sites, choosing alternative Internet resources to supplement classroom time. Here are some ideas that other professionals find useful:
• Blackboard. This resource allows teachers to establish an online classroom and invite students to join. Teachers and students can communicate through private messages, discussion forums, and post documents. It also supports assignment submissions and online feedback.
• Personal Forums. If you have access to a school-hosted web space you may choose to create a class website. Consider adding a forum feature for communication.
• Email. This one-on-one communication tool provides quick access, but still allows the student and teacher to control the amount of information that they share. It also allows teachers to keep records of their communications.
• Office Hours. Don’t forget about the old fashioned face-to-face conversation. By establishing regular office hours, you can provide your students with a scheduled time and place that you can be contacted.
The Internet provides immeasurable opportunities for education, but its public nature can also be a liability for educators. Whether you choose to network with your students online or not, you should remain careful about how much of your personal life is showcased on the Internet. Behave online as though the world were watching, or at the very least – “Don’t post anything that you would not want your principal to see”.