Hey! Let’s be careful out there!

Like other folks in my field, I frequently come across stories of K-12 teachers getting themselves into some right-nasty professional pickles because of technology, or closer to the point, because of how they’ve chosen to use it.

This post is not about the ones who wound up in jail through online misbehavior or behavior consequent to online communications. To the best of my knowledge, those folks belong there, and the technology only served to give them access in a way they would have set their predatory hearts to anyway. This is also not for those of you who teach second graders by day, and produce online porn in your free time. That’s just stupid, and I wouldn’t want you teaching my kids either.

No, this is about how to avoid inadvertently falling into tech age briar patches. I’ve written about this before in the context of Facebook and such.  Also, K-12 school districts issue policies and guidelines, states pass laws, and courts make rulings, but rarely are they in language that leaves us with a sense of “What to do?” lest they assume liability for giving advice that doesn’t work.

So I’m not assuming any liability for you here either. I have no doubt you could treat my advice here like gospel and still get yourself into trouble, but I’m hoping it makes you aware on a more useful level.

As a prudence rule-of-thumb, it’s a good idea to try to imagine the world pre-Internet. I first taught in that, and it offers a useful template. In those days, you could “size up” a kid as to whether a private conversation might be risky. For those you couldn’t, you sat fairly near to the classroom entrance, positioned a desk between you and the student, and left the door propped open. Witnesses. Also, there were certain conventions of behavior that kids and adults followed, so it was easier to read the danger signs early.

Online, those days are irretrievably over. When relationships go digital, you need to assume that every student is that 1:1000 student who will see you fired, dance on your termination notice, and sleep like a baby.

So I offer you here a list that hopefully will not be obsolete the moment I push the “publish” button. I will not offer technical justifications here. If you want the detail behind my assertions, just ask.

1. You still need witnesses. Do not use services that (a) would prevent you from reproducing a record of transactions and (b) that would permit private, back-channel, undocumented conversation. Stay away from private chat environments. Do not Facebook Friend your students. Period.

2. Be ready and able to shut down online classroom discussion. You cannot turn off an unsupervised Facebook page, and you cannot delete others’ Facebook posts. Corollary: Make certain you have collegial backup to be able to shut down discussion on your classroom interactive page should you wind up in the hospital. You are responsible for any bullying or flaming that happens in your space.

3. Make obvious for any insect brain that which is work, and that which is instructional.  A teacher in the media today (and the muse for this post) is out of a job because he posted some sketchy material on a blog site he created for instruction ten years ago. He can claim he wasn’t requiring his current 7th graders to read his erotica (which I do believe), but when he posted excerpts of it to his old blog entitled “Room 210 Discussion,” he was inviting a visit from HR. He got it, along with a police escort out of the building. Had he taken 30 seconds to create a fresh blog for his new stuff, he would be working tomorrow.

4. Everything a student produces and everything a teacher documents about that production is consider a “student record.” Now, I’m no lawyer, but I know this to be the case in many states, including my own. Student records need some level of discoverability. This is an issue that complicates the Google Apps discussion for school districts. Can Google guarantee discoverability?

5. Your name is your connection to your teaching credential. If you pursue activities that might not line up with being a teacher and mentor of minor children (the penning of erotica, for instance), consider using a pseudonym. Should your students or their parents (or employer) Google “Mr. John Jones” only to discover Mr. Jones published a sci-fi parody of Debbie Does Dallas, he might have significant ‘splainin’ to do. If, on the other hand, he discovers a comet, “Comet Jones” puts a bit of a shine on that credential.

6. Be careful with inflammatory rhetoric. As teachers, we inevitably engage in speech that ticks people off. Our profession is, at its root, political in nature. Consequently, we need to guard our speech, meaning those words attached to our valuable name need to carry the same value and respect we hope to receive in our position. Whether school-related or personal, take good care of that handle you were given.

7. Keep your cell phone number to yourself. If your number circulates, you could be in the kiddie porn business in pretty short order. I realize policies differ district to district, but that’s my personal take on it. Of course if you’re on a trip with a sports team, rules have to stretch.

8. If you use Twitter, do everything you can to keep your teaching account separate from your private account. Personally, I would find a different tool because of the potential for undiscoverable communication.

9. Manage your files so that personal material does not get mingled in your various cloud-based services. This may seem obvious, but if bad things can happen, they will happen somewhere.

10. Think of your newest cool tech tool like holding a pit bull on a short leash. Yes, you will look really good, at least until the pit turns and sees you as the juiciest prey it’s seen all day.

Be careful  out there.

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