If you think being a teenager was hard, try being a teacher in the second decade of the new millennium. Not only must teachers navigate hallways, classrooms, and school grounds, they must also be aware of online spaces – social media in particular. A report released by the Ontario College of Teachers outlines new guidelines for teachers’ use of social media and how they should interact with students.
Issued on Monday April 11, 2011, the report provides a number of guidelines for how teachers should engage in social media. College Registrar, Michael Salvatori, notes: “In the current education milieu, e-communication and social media do and will continue to offer engaging and exciting teaching and learning experiences for students and teachers. Their use should be encouraged. […] We want to alert members to its potential risks and provide guidance for its responsible, professional use.” In other words, if you’re a teacher who is also an active Tweeter: user beware.
The advisory makes several recommendations for social media use, including limiting private text, message, and photo exchanges with students, monitoring privacy settings, and avoiding online criticism of students, colleagues and employers. None of the suggestions are exactly rocket science. However, the guidelines also state that teachers should avoid Facebook friendships with students by neither adding students to Facebook nor accepting friendship requests from students.
The recommendation comes on the heels of a New Jersey teacher being suspended for posting a Facebook status that claimed she felt like a “warden […] overseeing future criminals”. While there is likely little connection between this event and the Ontario recommendations (they are in different countries, after all), it is noteworthy that as social media grows, it begins to impact a variety of professions and spheres in different ways.
On the one hand, the recommendations from the Ontario Teacher’s College seem obvious. Why would a teacher want a student as a Facebook friend anyway? Perhaps, more importantly, should someone really be teaching if they don’t see the inherent danger in befriending students online? Because, while Salvatori says they are encouraging teachers to, “represent [themselves] in social media the same way [they] would in person”, the underlying message is also: social media is a record. The difference between “in person” and “online” is that if something goes wrong, there will be a written account of “he says/she says”.
On the other hand, social media use for educators is not black and white. Teachers can be integral figures in students’ lives, and the contemporary student communicates via social media. While it certainly isn’t appropriate to be Tweeting back and forth about hot how Kim Karadashian is, there are situations where a student might be more likely to interact with or reach out to a teacher – who could also be a mentor – online. Similarly, what about once a student graduates? What if a student transfers schools and wishes to keep in touch?
Equally as important, the recommendations point to the complexity of a blurring between private and public space online. In truth, a teacher’s Facebook profile, particularly if set to private, is a personal online space. Should teachers really be forced to give up appropriate personal communications for fear of writing the wrong status update? If they choose to post a status about a hard day at work, is that really any different than having the same conversation at a dinner party? The questions, and the recommendation itself, are important, not just for teachers, but for many professionals who must choose how they will navigate the public/personal divide of social media spaces.