Teachers on Facebook: Professional Roulette

roulette wheelThe use of Facebook by teachers has become such a deeply felt and inflammatory topic during this time of budgetary hemorrhage – Facebook is powerful and free, after all – that I felt it high time it was addressed from the practitioner perspective.

Now, before you dismiss this out of hand after deciding I’m just another set of bureaucratic flapping gums, allow me the following bona fide:  At the outset of my teaching career as a high school teacher, my district strongly advised teachers to unlist their phone numbers from the public phone book lest we subject ourselves to crank calls and toilet papered houses.  I ignored this directive, as I was the kind of teacher who took my relationship to my students beyond what happened in front of the chalk board, providing mentoring and adult friendship to those kids who needed it.  My phone was used by students only to report crises, their own or another students’, and that access prevented at least one suicide attempt, and that in my first teaching year alone.  Besides, I’ve always thought of toilet papered houses as loving acts.

So I truly get the vital role teachers play in adolescent lives, a role that goes way beyond content standards.  We dig deeply into our emotions, intellects and bank accounts to serve these young people, and when we find a tool that works in their service, narrowly-cast district policies and even our own self-interest often fade into the background noise of the teaching profession.  We particularly search for avenues to make as vital a connection to our students as we can, knowing in our gut that learning happens best in the context of emotion and relationship to peers and mentors.

The dynamic and immediate interactivity of Facebook makes it a natural medium for teachers, and the web is full of teachers extolling its power and virtue.  However, and this is a pleading however, Facebook provides a quality of access to a student’s personal life and actions that can be truly career-ending for a teacher.  All your caring and expertise will matter little if you find yourself outside looking in following the trauma of a communication nightmare.

The organizational intricacies that contribute to the teacher’s ability to walk into a room, turn on the lights, have minor children walk in and face an expectation imposed on them by parents and wider culture are not random circumstances.  Your ability to teach that class is the outcome of a long and complex political and social process, and imbedded in that process are certain conditional facts driven by law.

Facebook fails you as a teacher because it ignores the following conditions imposed by the structure that provides for public schooling:

  • Teachers are responsible for what occurs in their teaching environment.  When teachers set up a space in which to conduct instruction, whether it is their classroom, on the grass under a tree at the park down the street, or a page on Facebook, they assume responsibility for words uttered there.  It is expected that in the course of instruction and interaction that you are present at all times.  Facebook is a public space, and by definition it is free of structural supervision. If a teacher cannot actively supervise student interaction in a space the teacher uses for instruction, the space should not be available to students.  This is a no-brainer when we’re using a brick & mortar classroom; we carry keys.  In our professional role, social media is no different, but Facebook has no keys to distribute.
  • Individual interactions between students and teachers must be above suspicion and reproach, with guidelines provided by law and a clear code of professional conduct.  We have all had students with whom we should not meet with alone, with private conversations occurring with a door open to the hallway. We have also all had students who seriously misinterpreted our words leading to uncomfortable confrontations, extending eventually to their parents.  Facebook provides a necessarily private, “windowless” space for such interactions, and it is only a matter of time before things will go wrong and a teacher finds him or herself in desperate defensive mode.
  • Teachers need to be able to design the learning environment to optimize learning.  Instruction on a Facebook page is like gathering your class in the middle of Time’s Square before NYC got rid of the strip joints.  While you think you are interacting as teacher, students are chatting, the ads are rolling (marketed specifically to each student’s “Likes”), and they’re checking out your FB profile page.
  • Parents have the right to access the learning environment taxpayer-paid teachers provide.  It is the rare adolescent who “Friends” a parent.  Even rarer is the parent who provides a computer conditional on being their child’s Facebook Friend, and even then kids respond by maintaining separate “parent-safe” pages.  Consequently, when teaching happens on Facebook parents are structurally denied access to an environment they are indirectly paying the teacher to provide.
  • Teachers need to be able to provide a record of interactions they supervise.  By “supervise” I mean providing any learning environment that is part of a teacher’s professional role.  Once provided, under the law, supervision is assumed.  If students control the permanence of communications by being able to delete their posts, nothing short of a court order (good luck with that) can recover any toxic, threatening, libelous or injurious communication posted by a student.  Also, given the miracle of Photoshop, there is nothing short of a court order that can disprove a created private conversation between student and teacher.

So what’s a teacher to do?  In my next post I look at how Edmodo addresses these very issues.

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One Response to Teachers on Facebook: Professional Roulette

  1. Pingback: Hey! Let’s be careful out there! | Bill Storm on Ed Tech

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