by Michael Benedict
by Bronwyn Chester
by Stuart Foxman
When an Ontario teacher was disciplined for exchanging overly personal and intimate instant messages with a student, it wasn’t just a matter of professional misconduct. To Joe Jamieson, Director of Investigations and Hearings for the Ontario College of Teachers, the case also raised the issue that some modern forms of communication can be a danger zone.
Yes, some incidents clearly cross the line. But to Jamieson, the very nature of online social media and electronic messages – informal, accessible, easily taken out of context, sometimes lacking in decorum, often existing in perpetuity – should cause teachers to proceed with caution.
Consider a few cases from across North America that have recently made headlines:
Some transgressions are not quite so clear cut. What about the Halifax teacher who used Facebook to connect with his students? An innocent practice? He had to stop after school administrators discouraged it as unprofessional.
The issues are multi-faceted and aren’t going to go away. Web 2.0 will only grow and may well have a positive role to play in education. Among newer generations of teachers – those who grew up in the Internet age – electronic communications are second nature.
For teachers, using Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, blogs, instant and text messaging, e-mail and the like raises at least one critical question. How does your online presence reflect on your professionalism?
Start with your public image – because you have to assume that everything on the Internet is public. Twittering can reveal your location in real time and even what you may think of as your private life can end up in circulation when a photo is posted or tagged. As Ontario’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner notes, you may intend to share your online existence solely with your own network, but in theory anyone can access your musings, photos and information.
Certainly, private electronic communications can be easily misdirected or redirected. That’s what teacher candidates at Laurentian University learn from their very first day of school.
“We tell them they have an electronic footprint and no matter what their privacy settings or how hard they try to delete material, it will exist somewhere,” says John Lundy, Director of Laurentian University’s School of Education.
At Nipissing University, Ron Wideman, Dean of Education, says that such issues are widely discussed under the rubric of professionalism in several courses.
The question of whether what’s on social networking sites should be respected as private was recently debated in a Toronto court. During a civil lawsuit emanating from a car crash, Justice David Brown ruled that the plaintiff had to submit to cross-examination regarding the contents of his Facebook page. Justice Brown said the plaintiff couldn’t hide behind self-set privacy controls when the web site is all about revealing your life to others.
For teachers, that could mean your students and their parents, your colleagues, and both current and potential employers.
In one Missouri school district, a superintendent has been known to ask teaching candidates if they have a Facebook or MySpace page. If the answer is yes, the superintendent says, “I’ve got my computer up right now – let’s take a look.”
“As educators, we must protect our privacy, both online and off,” says Wendy Hirschegger of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. “Don’t post anything that you would not want your principal to see.”
Collette Dowhaniuk of the Ontario Principals’ Council agrees. “If you are posting pictures showing how you partied hard on the weekend,” she says, “it’s out there for everyone to see. Teachers must be aware that their behaviour can make it appear that they should not be trusted with the development of young people.”
Whether that behaviour is merely open to misinterpretation, as opposed to being crude or offensive, doesn’t necessarily matter. Like Caesar’s wife, teachers are held to a higher standard than non-professionals, even when the forum is a web site rather than the classroom.
“My personal life is my personal life – but I try to keep in mind that I’m a teacher and that people will view me through that lens,” says Andrea Powers, a Grade 7 teacher at Bonaventure Meadows Public School in London and a Facebook user. “I keep my profile as professional as possible and would never put up anything with questionable language or subject matter. Once something is out there, it’s hard to take it back and undo a bad impression. So I err on the side of caution.”
Caroline Cantin, also a Facebook user and an education consultant with the Conseil scolaire de district du Centre-Sud-Ouest, agrees. If teachers are role models, not just for their students but for their co-workers, then they are never 100 per cent off-duty in a public space – and regardless of any privacy settings, the Internet is public.
“I always remember that I am working for my school board and would never use offensive words or post pictures that could give me a bad image,” says Cantin.
Freedom of speech comes with a responsibility to use it prudently. “Remember,” says Dowhaniuk, “what ‘conduct unbecoming a member’ means – and its consequences.”
To some, it seems clear that social networking sites can help teachers link with their students regarding homework and other school matters. But simply using these sites can imply a social relationship, something that teachers should avoid, says Jamieson.
Hirschegger concludes, “Never invite a student to be your Facebook friend and never accept an invitation to be a student’s friend.”
For Hirschegger, even e-mails and text messages between teachers and students are an area of concern. She advises OSSTF members to never e-mail students directly. “It’s too easy to slip into an informal relationship with e-mail, and that’s not appropriate,” she says.
Dowhaniuk adds another consideration: “Your words can be altered, forwarded and misquoted. Once you press that send button, the words are no longer yours.”
Teachers might look at electronic tools as just another way to communicate with students, an extension of the chat in the hallway. But to students, such communications are tied up with their social world. “And that can blur the professional and private boundaries,” says Jamieson.
When a current student sent Powers a message on Facebook (the student noted that her mother and Powers have a mutual friend), Powers refused to even respond to the e-mail. “It would have opened up my profile to her,” says Powers. Powers would consider accepting friend requests from former students but only after they have left her school and only if she felt a level of trust.
In the midst of the legitimate cautions, Melanie McBride, an educational web-content writer, consultant and teacher, believes we should not lose sight of the positive potential of social media for students and for learning.
“There is far too much fear and negativity around these tools and technologies,” says McBride. “These media can serve educational purposes.”
She points out that the Hamilton-Wentworth DSB web site has now incorporated Facebook and other networking tools. And some Ontario teachers have established very useful group pages for schools or special programs, using social networking sites.
The Triangle Program at Oasis Alternative Secondary School – an umbrella administrative structure for three distinct high school programs at three distinct sites within the Toronto DSB – has such a page on Facebook. Triangle was established to provide a safer space for students who had disengaged from regular high school programs because of bullying or problems related to homophobia and transphobia.
Teacher Anthony Grandy created and now maintains Triangle’s group page.
“It started,” says Grandy, “because students wanted a way to share photos from field trips without putting them on a fully public web site. In the end, since all of our students are online, a Facebook group seemed the best way to go.”
This is a group page, not a personal one, and people can join the group only with permission from the group’s administrator, Grandy. But the page allows students to connect and ask questions.
Triangle’s Facebook group also provides a way for students to contact teachers in the school.
“We offer a lot of support to keep these kids in school and learning, and online communication is very important. Some of our students are in group homes and not all of them have access to phones. But they all have computer access, either at home or at the library. They’re always checking e-mail.”
Grandy agrees that students and teachers need to understand and respect the lines between personal and professional, public and private. He spends a couple of classes a year going online with students and showing them what is not private in their online life. “The students quickly learn how to block my access.”
As for himself, “I have a personal Facebook page and another one as a teacher.” It is as Grandy the teacher that he administers Triangle’s Facebook group.
No doubt, teachers and school boards will continue to explore and wrestle with Internet usage and appropriate forms of teacher-student communications.
Perhaps the key is to focus on just that – the message and not the medium. That’s the view of John Malloy, a Superintendent at the York Region DSB. He is less concerned about the communications vehicle than about its content.
“Our message to teachers,” Malloy says, “is that we expect them to maintain an appropriate relationship with strict boundaries, whatever the medium used to communicate. We expect the same standards in the classroom, on the phone and on the Internet.”
The shrug factor
Here’s an exercise for any classroom. Imagine configuring an entire wall to look like a Facebook community. You divide the wall into squares, one for each student. How would the students define themselves? What kind of photos, thoughts and personal information would they share for all to see?
The idea comes from Karen Horsman, a veteran journalist and columnist with CBC’s Metro Morning radio show in Toronto. Horsman has launched a media-literacy program for senior elementary schools in the Durham DSB.
She doubts that students would post anything on the mock Facebook that was vulgar, disparaging or confidential. Why? Because anyone walking by could view it – and that’s the point.
“Facebook is a public space,” she says.
As students embrace social media, the line between public and private isn’t just blurring, it’s disappearing. Many teachers – recognizing the vital role that online tools play in students’ lives – hope to provide guidance to their students on creating an appropriate online presence.
Internet users have a dual role, as passive recipients and active participants, and this raises a legion of issues, from safety to critical thinking.
The solutions aren’t simple, says Horsman, who hints at this by naming her media-literacy program The Shrug Factor.
“Young people have simply become complacent about their online encounters and about media in general,” she says. “The challenge is turning that shrug into a more thoughtful reaction.”
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Crossing the line to misconduct?
The Ontario College of Teachers doesn’t have a specific professional advisory on online social media and electronic communications with students. But the College’s Professional Advisory on Sexual Abuse and Professional Misconduct can be instructive.
Sexual abuse and misconduct obviously can’t be equated to a simple Facebook post. But when you look at the advisory, you’ll find reminders of teachers’ broader responsibility to avoid “an unprofessional and inappropriate relationship with a student” and “activities that may reasonably raise concerns as to their propriety.”
The onus is always on the teacher to take care when communicating with students and to avoid breaching appropriate boundaries. It comes down to using good judgment, says Joe Jamieson, Director of Investigations and Hearings for the College. E-mailing students or inviting them to be your Facebook friends might seem harmless. But given the meaning that young people attach to these tools and media, Jamieson likens it to hanging out with your students.
“Why would teachers need to dwell within the social network of kids who are also their students?” poses Jamieson.
Grown Up Digital, a book by Don Tapscott, explores how the Net generation is reshaping the forms and functions of school, work and even democracy. Tapscott considers how teachers can ensure that technology is properly used and how the traditional broadcast model of education is shifting to one that’s more customized, collaborative and interactive. (www.grownupdigital.com)