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Great Teaching

Communicating Online

Ontario Certified Teachers reflect on the College's electronic communication and social media advisory.

By Stuart Foxman
PHOTOs: (shayle) Carlos Osorio; (alan) Peter Fujiwara; (krista) Krista Sarginson

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How do you stay professional at all times? For Cédric Van Den Akerboom, OCT, it often comes down to this reminder: weigh your words.

That's good advice for any interactions, and maybe more so when communicating online, where nuance is often lost. On a class platform, Van Den Akerboom may take as long as 10 minutes to word a post just right. He wants to ensure he's using the same professional tone he'd employ face-to-face in the classroom.

"You need to be extra careful," says Van Den Akerboom, who teaches a Grade 3/4 split for Conseil scolaire Viamonde. "Keep it positive and straightforward, in a way that can't be misconstrued."

Van Den Akerboom defaults to what he calls a "professional vocabulary." During off hours he remembers that too, in his choice of words and images. He posts infrequently on social media, and even then avoids hot-button issues or anything overly personal.

"As an educator, in how you conduct yourself in person or online, you need to be a model," says Van Den Akerboom.

In 2017, the College issued an advisory called Maintaining Professionalism — Use of Electronic Communication And Social Media. The goal was to help Ontario Certified Teachers understand their professional boundaries and responsibilities in the appropriate use of these tools.

Shayle Graham, OCT
Graham has taught Grade 4/5 and knows students that age can already be engaging in bullying. "It can go unchecked because people think they're too young." — Shayle Graham, OCT

Newer media are creating new ways to extend and enhance education. There are innovative opportunities for teaching and learning. But can the casual dialogue of our Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/YouTube world lead to more relaxed and, possibly, unprofessional conversations? When teachers are communicating outside the usual classroom environment, can boundaries blur? Teachers have private lives but serve in a public profession, so how much does sound judgment and due care matter in off-duty conduct?

Electronic communication and social media are ubiquitous. The advisory mentions messaging or video chat software, websites, apps, email, texting, blogging, and the range of social media networking platforms. Consider how some Ontario Certified Teachers are reflecting on the advisory, and doing their best to remain professional no matter the context.

Start with creating a civil environment. Part of the advisory talks about modelling digital citizenship, which can mean leading by example and setting expectations.

That's important to Shayle Graham, OCT. For many students online communication can feel like the Wild West: no rules and little accountability. Graham has seen it. She has taught Grade 4/5 for the Toronto District School Board (she's now an equity and anti-oppression coach), and knows that students that age can already be engaging in bullying and inappropriate comments online, which spills into the classroom.

"It can go unchecked because people think they're too young," she says. "I've done community circles in the classroom, where we talk about appropriate conduct. I partnered with social workers, and we did a lot around feelings and the power of words."

Van Den Akerboom is happy to use electronic media for his classroom to post and share students' work; that's part of modern education. To him, the various platforms shouldn't change how he or anyone else behaves and presents themselves.

When remote learning started in the spring of 2020, Van Den Akerboom ran the students through a code of conduct for communicating online. He uses a class Instagram to allow parents (with their consent) to see pictures of class activities.

New vehicles should mean the same decorum. Once, a Grade 4 student used the classroom feed to ask Van Den Akerboom a question, using no punctuation and a slang salutation. All the students could see. Van Den Akerboom replied to the student privately, politely, but clearly reminding him to work on his wording. "Even with online tools, students need to know how to present themselves and act in a respectful and responsible manner," he says.

That's true for teachers, too. Graham says things can come across differently than you intend in electronic communication. There's no intonation or facial cues to help with interpretation. So, what happens if she needs to email a student? Not only does Graham analyze her message ("I give the least amount of reasons possible to interpret anything the wrong way," she says), she also copies a teaching partner on the email. "Just for my added protection."

Is your message professional? Does it inadvertently cross any lines? Alan Yeung, OCT, uses a simple test.

"Anything you communicate with a student, you have to consider if you could say the same thing to a group of students, or with the administration present," says Yeung, head of technology at St. James Catholic High School in Guelph, Ont., part of the Wellington Catholic District School Board.

Alan Yeung, OCT
"Anything you communicate with a student, you have to consider if you could say the same thing to a group of students, or with the administration present." — Alan Yeung, OCT

Krista Sarginson, OCT, has a similar philosophy. When she started teaching, she always imagined talking to students as if their parents were standing right behind them. (These days, with online sessions, she says the parents may actually be right behind the students, and you'd never know.) Just carry that ideal through, no matter the type of interaction.

At St. Leonard Catholic School in Manotick, Ont., part of the Ottawa Catholic District School Board, Sarginson teaches Grade 5. She has a classroom Twitter and web page, and uses Google Hangouts. Students use the chat to further their inquiry, and she does too, to provide feedback. Either way, she emphasizes that communications should be two things: "purposeful and accountable."

It's prudent to err on the side of caution, says Mykael Jackman. If you send a message with a smiley emoji, congratulating a student on their work, that can be likened to putting a happy face on a returned assignment. No problem. Tell a student not to forget that an assignment is due, using all caps and three exclamation points? It can feel aggressive, like you're screaming.

"Why take the chance," says Jackman, who teaches hairstyling at Durham Hairstylist Academy, which is a college-level program run through the Durham District School Board and located inside G.L. Roberts Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Oshawa, Ont.

Being careful is just a good habit. Inappropriate emails, texts and other forms of electronic communication have been used as evidence in disciplinary cases, and cited in findings of professional misconduct. Examples range from using informal and unprofessional language with students (such as profanity), to intimate texting with students, all the way to sending students graphic sexual materials electronically.

Other smart practices: decline (and avoid issuing) "friend" or "follow" requests with students on social media; and avoid exchanging private texts, phone numbers, personal email addresses, videos or photos of a personal nature.

Krista Sarginson, OCT
Sarginson always imagined talking to students as if their parents were standing right behind them, and says just carry that ideal through, no matter the type of interaction. — Krista Sarginson, OCT

The advisory talks about operating in all circumstances online as a professional, just as you would in the community. That means if you're using a web page or social media site professionally with students, treat the space like a classroom. Apply the same rigorous professional standards. It also means that if you're active on social media, consider how any content may reflect poorly on you, your school or the teaching profession.

That should be true more broadly. Graham has heard teachers say inappropriate things in front of parents, like being condescending toward students. That's not OK. Doing the same on social media only amplifies the message.

"Social media isn't a diary where you have to vent," says Graham. "What I've seen on Twitter is a lot of teachers being displeased with the profession, a lot of disdain. You might feel that way, but does it need to be publicly posted? What are you gaining?"

The College has disciplined teachers for social media conduct. One (reported in the June 2020 issue of Professionally Speaking) received a suspension and reprimand for retweeted posts that included offensive comments about, among others, Muslims, immigrants and refugees. The Discipline Committee panel stated that, "The Member's behaviour had the potential to jeopardize his professional relationships with students and erode the public's trust in teachers."

In the U.S., other teachers have landed in hot water for tweeting (supposedly in jest) that they want to stab a few specific students, for calling students by an expletive on Instagram, for sharing photos of themselves on social media in highly provocative poses, and for hosting a white supremacist podcast.

Are teachers ever fully off the clock? Lisa Commisso, OCT, who's a teacher with the Halton Catholic District School Board, has seen Facebook posts where teachers count down the days to school ending, or post about being impatient to crack open a bottle of wine when classes are over.

Maybe that pales compared to other egregious acts. Still, Commisso wonders what kind of message even that sends. "Use your professional judgment," she says.

There's an old saying that the true test of integrity and ethics is what you do when no one is looking. It's about consistent behaviour, in public and private. It's a good credo, but the fact is that a lot of people are looking. Being a professional is a privilege, and operating that way at all times comes with the territory, says Commisso.

"We're in a public role and we've chosen to be," she says. "You have to be cognizant of what you're doing. Whether you're on duty or off duty, you're the same person. You're a role model."