Contribution from the Association of American Educators
Since its inception in 2004, Facebook has grown from a college photo sharing website to household name and education tool. A growing percentage of teachers and students are actively using Facebook–along with countless other social media platforms, raising questions about appropriate use, professional standards, and far-reaching school policies.
National examples highlighting teacher run-ins with social media are commonplace. One teacher in Missouri sued the state over a new law which prohibits teachers from contacting students over Facebook. In her suit, Christina Thomas suggested the law violated her rights under the 1st and 14th amendments by telling teachers that they cannot have “exclusive communications” with students via the social networking site. The wording of the law defines the prohibited parties as anyone under 18 who attends or used to attend the school where they teach. By that logic, Thomas alleged, she wouldn’t be able to speak to her own children.
Across the country, Jerry Buell, a former teacher of the year in Florida, was suspended and removed from the classroom for comments made via Twitter against same-sex marriage. Despite his stellar record and the fact that the comments were made on his personal page and not directed toward any students, the district argued the words could make future students uncomfortable in his classroom.
Regardless of your point of view in these two cases, clearly in an age where social media is ubiquitous, states and localities are struggling to find a happy medium between outright banning potentially useful websites and protecting children from misconduct and harassment.
The fact is that teachers have for years been migrating to online social networking platforms. What better way to communicate than to meet students where they are? For many teachers, it’s an effective way to chat outside of class, whether it is about projects or a means to share notes and video clips related to course work. Additionally, studies have found Facebook can boost educational opportunities and make teachers approachable in ways that make students more comfortable when asking questions.
Is it possible that in trying to protect students, policymakers may be taking away an avenue that may be beneficial to students? Some think so. “We hold teachers to certain expectations, in terms of keeping communications with students professional. Restricting the environment in which communication can take place is not going to eliminate the potential for inappropriate behavior. On the contrary, barring teachers from using social networking will only cut off an effective tool. We must find a solution that addresses both end goals,” said Association of American Educators Executive (AAE) Director Gary Beckner.
While technology and curriculum advocates see the potential for increased productivity in social media, attorneys familiar with teacher liabilities and situations like Mr. Buell’s warn educators of the risks. My recommendation (to teachers) with respect to social media is always the same. Don’t do it. Period,” said Director of Legal Services for AAE Sharon Nelson. “Proving innocence in these cases is often impossible as the records are easily lost or not accessible at all.”
While this debate is destined to continue as technology develops, it’s critical that teachers read up on any new social media policies mandated by their school. Well meaning teachers who see no harm in giving out their personal Facebook or Twitter handles can often be caught in the crossfire of changing rules and regulations. Limit your contact to class-related subjects and always err on the side of caution when contacting students.
In today’s changing world, it is imperative to be protected by a professional educator liability insurance policy. Your family physician wouldn’t dream of practicing without malpractice insurance, teachers need to be equally careful in protecting their careers. Be sure to read and understand your specific school’s policy about contacting students and be sure to protect your career with liability insurance through the Association of American Educators. Don’t step into the classroom without coverage.