The Ontario College of Teachers’ release this week of a Social Media advisory takes education into the 21st century by acknowledging that teachers and students are using the medium. Unfortunately, headlines like “Teachers banned from friending students on Facebook” and online rants about teachers with pedophilia-like tendencies show several members of the media and public have misinterpreted the advisory. Advisory is “advice”, not a rule handed down through a policy. Why is this distinction important? Because it helps us define purpose. The advice outlined in the document is meant to protect teachers from potential legal ramifications that can take place through misinterpretations of text communications. It also serves as a reminder for teachers to continue to follow, as we have always followed, The Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession and Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession. Although, this reminder should really go without saying. Teachers have always understood that their lives are predominantly public and they must act accordingly. Online social media is much like being in public coffee shops and malls and should be an easy transition for teachers.
The advisory is directed towards teachers as its audience. Unfortunately, some members of the public and media looking in, took it upon themselves to “read between the lines”, believing the advice to teachers was laced with a hidden message warning the public to protect themselves from the misguided and predatory intentions of teachers who troll the online world. However, to be fair, the OCT writers didn't do much to steer public opinion away from the negativity, especially by including phrases like “cellphones are the gateway to child pornography”. Such a bad call on the part of the writers. Inciting fear is a great way to get people to sit up and take notice but it does little to foster public trust in teachers. It also does little to encourage teachers who currently sit on the fence with technology to use social media in the classroom.
Parents already trust teachers with their children every day in the classroom. So, why is it that when the classroom goes online, some members of the public think teachers’ ethics change and the relationships are negatively affected? Do they really think that the technology dictates our behaviour? The public needs to give teachers more credit.
There are 60-thousand teachers in Ontario and only a few, very rare cases of teachers communicating inappropriately with students on-line. In fact, social media actually works completely against this. It encourages people to behave the same way online as they do in person by predominantly taking place in a public space. In these spaces, everyone knows that your words can and will be passed on through the community circle. That’s actually its purpose and so it serves as one of the most transparent communication platforms between teachers and students. Even private messaging doesn’t necessarily present a problem. It is just like the private conferences we’ve always had with students needing guidance on school-work and not wanting to be subjected to the scrutiny of their peers. There are many times when students are too embarrassed to ask for clarification or admit they need extra help in front of their peers.
Outlining your expectations in advance with students and discussing digital citizenship and privacy in class brings everyone in line with the appropriate use for social media in the classroom. Following this practice and modeling appropriate behaviour can only help students. And if anything inappropriate should surface, there is a textual record or paper trail.