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Teaching In a Social Media World Where Transparency Changes a Teacher’s PG Rating to R

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This article originally ran in Adviser Update Fall 2010. It is a prequel to the recent series on the same subject.

As a younger teacher, I’m comfortable using whatever technology I can to increase my “cool factor” with the students.  Any way we can connect and I can demystify myself is appreciated. At the end of each day, I don’t unroll my cot and take up sanctuary in my classroom void of a personal life.   This is vastly different from a generation ago when what happened outside of school was never fodder for discussion on either end of the conversation; students didn’t want teachers to know about their “other” life and teachers certainly didn’t find it appropriate for students to understand they were human.

However, with this new connectedness, teachers are online with students all day and sometimes all night long.  There is Facebook, Twitter, My Space, Blogger, Nings, and email which make a teacher readily accessible for questions and conversation. There is a constant question that tares at me while I talk to my students: How much is too much?

iphonesFacebook has allowed me into the lives of my students in a way that the classroom never has. The four walls created clear, impenetrable boundaries and likewise students can now see me as a whole person instead of the 1-dimensional squawk box that flits before them.

Students weigh in

Some students believe that “friending” teachers on Facebook is not a good idea. Senior, Raymond Arroyo at World Journalism Preparatory School (WJPS) said, “No, I don’t friend my teachers because it’s not professional.  Relationships between teachers and students should stay in school.”

“Students shouldn’t be ‘friends’ with their teachers until they graduate because pictures people post can be inappropriate,” said Erica Castagliola, senior at WJPS.

Other students think that is okay for teachers and students to communicate outside of school in this fashion. “Yes, being a friend [of a teacher] is okay, but teachers should keep some stuff private as should students.  Plus it offers students a chance to quell their curiosity about teachers’ lives outside of school,” said Marlyn Sanchez, senior at WJPS.

“It’s not a problem for teachers and students to be friends, but privacy is an issue.  There should be limitations to what is shared from both sides,” said Fernando Echeverri, senior at WJPS.  He also said that a person’s reputation can be at stake.

Parents weigh in 

Parents think that it can be both good and potentially harmful. “My children and I all looked on Facebook this summer to find their teachers.  Most were private however there were some that we had access to.  It was really nice to see the teachers and their photos of their families and friends.  It shows the kids that teachers are “normal people” just like everyone else.  My daughters’ teacher shared her page and she came home and told me that she loved looking at pictures of her teachers’ son.  It brings them together,” said Ann Whyte, parent and biller for New York Digital Print Center, Inc.

Nancy Cicciariello, Bayside, NY community parent said, “Social media can help or hurt [a professional] relationship. As a parent there is a constant connection which can aid the student or can be a nagging experience for a teacher. The social media allows one another to see how a person’s life outside of work is about which then can lead to passing judgment. As long as websites are used positively and lightly it should be a useful tool.”

Although there is an upside to the social media, there seems to be some trepidation about the sharing of information. Mrs. Whyte said, “Unfortunately, I think with the venues the way they are, it could hurt both the child and teacher if not used properly.  Some people become “delusional” about the statements and pix they put on their sites.  It is much easier to be stupid on a computer screen to a lot of people than it is in person. I think people would use much more discretion if they realized the impact of what they put on these sites.”

Teachers weigh in 

Alejandro Sosa, high school social studies teacher believes that students have a strong desire to actually know their teachers and feel accepted by them. “Students yearn to know that their teachers are human beings and go through the same problems that they go through. There's also the curiosity factor - many students want to know what might be in store for them. I believe the third and probably most important factor is that teenagers want more importantly than anything else to have friends and be accepted and respected by others. Friendship with a teacher through any social media site or in person is a powerful form of acceptance.”

For teachers, though Sosa thinks it is a personal decision. “I think that varies from teacher to teacher. Personally I'm uncomfortable with letting students know too much as I think the barrier in the teacher/student relationship is critical for getting students (especially more difficult ones) to learn and work hard. But many times, allowing that barrier to be too rigid can have the opposite effect and dehumanize the teacher to the point where students want nothing to do with them. Each teacher really needs to decide how comfortable they are in unveiling their personal lives.”

Many teachers surveyed on the national JEA listserv have various social media accounts, but don’t include students until they have graduated or moved away.  Most journalism teachers who do allow students, are extremely selective and use the medium as another way to contact their staff at the last minute.  It is the consensus however, that giving students too much access to a teacher’s personal life can offer more harm than good while the student is still in the school.  According to many of those teachers, keeping things uncomplicated by not permitting students into their outside world just is the best way to avoid controversy.

Administrators weigh in

Administrators have more apprehension about the practice and believe that school wide protocols would greatly help.  Principal Cynthia Schneider of WJPS says that protecting teachers is her main concern.  “I’m always worried about the call from the superintendant with an allegation of ‘inappropriate’ emotional contact.”  Schneider also stated that technology and social media is the way the world is moving and as educators it is our responsibility to teach students how to use these mediums responsibly.   Teachers need to be the role models.

The danger is real and administrators have expressed concern. There has been no Supreme Court test case around this yet the way there are distinctive rulings on other free speech topics.  Schneider called attention to walking this fine line in addition to the possibility of misinterpretation.  She said, “the room for error grow exponentially because tone is hard to read online.”  Students have a hard time reading tone when it feels obvious to adults, so the lack of personal attention where the reaction can be gauged creates more room for problems in the minds of administrators.

So far there are no standards set nationally for “good practices” on this matter.  It varies from state to state, district to district, school to school, teacher to teacher and student to student.

Tips for using privacy settings on Facebook effectively:

  • Make sure you create lists within your friends (sorting is often easier if you place the people in the list as you friend them. Otherwise, you can go back through the friends list and select all people you’d like on the list)
  • Create a “limited” profile list where teachers/students are listed –
  • Go through to manage privacy settings
    • Status updates – make sure to put your limited list as blocked (you can also add individuals that you don’t want to see)
    • Repeat this for wall posts, videos and personal information (and any other “questionable” information)
    • Photo albums can be made private on an album by album basis
    • Don’t post anything that you may regret later – a good question to ask is, “How would my parents feel about seeing this? My future children?”
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Starr Sackstein currently works at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, N.Y., as a high-school English and journalism teacher. She is the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective, Blogging for Educators, Teaching Students to Self-Assess, Hacking Assessment, The Power of Questioning and Simply May . She blogs for Education Week Teacher on “Work in Progress” in addition to her personal blog StarrSackstein.com where she discusses all aspects of being a teacher. Sackstein co-moderates #sunchat and contributes to #NYedChat. In speaking engagements, Sackstein speaks about blogging, journalism education, throwing out grades and BYOD, helping people see technology doesn’t have to be feared. Follow her @MsSackstein on Twitter.
  • Guest
    John Sawatzky Monday, 11 January 2016

    This balancing act between respect for teachers and seeing them as real people has been heightened by the options that social media now provides, but it is not a new dilemma. Going to grade school 30 years ago, respect for teachers was, to a large extent, assumed. It was also supported by a veil if mystery about any staff member's private life. To see a teacher in the grocery store with his or her family would blow a student's mind. And yet, perhaps because of its rarity, when a teacher got to know us in a personal way and showed their vulnerable side, they became ones we all wanted to spend time with.
    Fast forward to today, and the pendulum has swung to the point where some staff members are sharing too much of themselves for their students (and the world) to see. Setting the example of care and caution when using social media is a great guideline for teaching staff to adopt. Thanks for the article.

  • Starr Sackstein | @MsSackstein
    Starr Sackstein | @MsSackstein Monday, 11 January 2016

    There is so much to learn from all of this. The has to be a balance between our lives and our work and how the students see us particularly as they get older. We are role models but we are also human and remembering our responsibilities is important. I do remember as a student thinking my teachers had no life. It's so different now for sure.
    Thanks for reading and sharing your ideas.

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Guest Friday, 21 October 2016