For most of us, social networks like Facebook and Twitter have become staples in our lives. However, the blending between our personal and professional lives is an art many of us are still struggling with. One profession in particular has caught my attention recently: education.
I came across this article about the Ridgefield Board of Education and its new personnel policy designed to limit staff communication with students through social-networking media like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. It got me to thinking: Is this really the approach we want to take? Members of the board interviewed for the article seem to have conflicted ideas of the correct approach to the new policies. For example, one board member stated:
“I’m wondering why we wouldn’t want to encourage the use of social-networking sites to communicate with students,” John Palermo said.
While I completely understand the need for a policy to help teachers understand limits and boundaries, should we really eliminate the use of these new communication tools altogether because we’re afraid teachers won’t be able to use their own good judgment guided by the school’s policy?
The most controversial cases of social-networking use by school staff come from the lack of any protocol from the higher administration on what is OK and what is not. Once those parameters are put in place it gives teachers the ability to utilize the communication tools without having to worry that they will cross an ethical or moral line.
And it isn’t just teachers who will suffer if policy and procedures are not set. A recent report in the Huffington Post details how six middle-school girls were arrested over a Facebook invitation that was sent to other students with the title “Attack A Teacher Day.” The school decided to make an example of these 12- and 13-year-olds. While I completely agree with the need to take these types of situations seriously, does the blame lie solely with the students? The girls claimed it was a joke and they weren’t serious about the invitation. My question is: Would these girls have carried out this act if they clearly understood that it would result in serious consequences?
It is the obligation of the school district to make clear what is appropriate and what is not when it comes to information that is shared online. Should these girls be punished? Absolutely. Do I think they are the only ones at fault in the situation? Absolutely not. Ambiguity creates confusion and is the biggest obstacle to overcome.
For example, if 100 students were invited to attend this “event,” why were only the six girls arrested? Why not arrest all the students who accepted the invitation to “Attack a Teacher Day”? What about the students who RSVP’d “maybe” to the event? Or how about the students who declined to attend the event but wrote hateful comments about a teacher on the event’s Facebook wall?
You get my point. It can be a very slippery slope with no guideposts to grab on to. Until schools put serious priority in creating, implementing and practicing the guidelines for social-media use within their walls, events such as this one will continue to occur. Just as students know what happens if they ditch class, they should also know what happens if they talk about attacking a teacher on Facebook. It is the obligation of the school to make that clearly understood — not to assume it is understood.
The lack of clear policies might also be a factor in many teachers’ hesitancy to use these tools within the classroom. It is a shame that our educational system isn’t embracing communication tools that have brought so much good to organizations all over the world. Just think of all the creative ways nonprofits have embraced social networks and the amazing things that have been accomplished by their application. Incorporating social networking into a lesson plan can have outstanding benefits for both teacher and student.
One example of this is choral director for Lincoln-Way Central High School, Mike Bultman, a former teacher of mine who I interviewed to obtain perspective on how to use social-networking tools to connect with students and alumni.
“It has been a good tool to send reminders, anything from a rehearsal date to a concert date to a reunion or alumni meeting," Bultman said. "I use it the most with my current students who are in many of my groups/activities, mostly to remind them of responsibilities.”
When asked about any problems that had arisen from his use of social media, he said: “I have only one account, and I do allow current students to 'friend' me. I have a couple of self-imposed policies: I don't 'friend' my students, but if they find me I will accept their request. I do not go on my students' walls. On the rare occasion when a student's status update has mentioned anything that might get them in trouble, I will gently remind them that they are my 'friend' and that I saw it.
"I think that I'm more comfortable with this than I would be if I were a younger teacher, particularly if I knew that there were digital photos out there of my college years, etc.,” he added.
Bultman brings up several interesting points. Are younger teachers — many of whom used Facebook while in college — in a potentially more dangerous situation? Should they be held to a different standard? This is another instance of the importance of a school-imposed policy. While self-imposed policy is better than no policy at all, one that is created and backed by the school administration would have a greater weight should a teacher’s or student’s activities on social networks be called into question. I asked Bultman if Lincoln-Way had a school or district-administered social-media policy:
“Officially no, but that may be on the horizon,” he said.
I also spoke with several other teachers and a principal. Most, like Bultman, had similar self-imposed policies. Some younger teachers have deleted their Facebook accounts altogether after recent stories hit the news about teachers getting fired for their Facebook posts. None of the teachers I spoke with are working at schools that have formal social-media policies governing teacher and student conduct.
Social media is a powerful tool that offers multiple opportunities for teachers and students alike. Therefore, schools should think carefully and act deliberately in instituting comprehensive policies that would allow these opportunities to be realized. Your organization should do the same for its staff and supporters.