By Andrew Hawk
Teacher-student relationships have been under a magnifying glass for several years as case after case of inappropriate relationships have trickled into the news. This scrutiny has also surfaced in the debate over how educators should handle their social media accounts. Should teachers be friends with students on these accounts? Should teachers be friends with the parents of their students on social media? If you were to ask ten people (teachers or nonteachers), you may very well get ten different responses.
Missouri legislators answered the question for all Missouri teachers by passing legislation forbidding teachers from befriending or communicating with students on social media. Some individual school districts have taken similar measures with their policies. My school district does not currently have a policy in place. However, before this school year started, my school district required teachers to participate in several short, online professional development sessions. One of these sessions focused on how to identify if a colleague is having an inappropriate relationship with a student. Inappropriate interactions on social media were one of the signs mentioned during the session.
If teachers are given the leeway to make decisions about social media relationships for themselves, several options are available. Here is a look at these options and my take on best practices for teachers using social media.
Option One: Do not be friends with any parents or students on social media
This was my policy when I started my career. My second year teaching, I taught fifth grade as a classroom teacher. I received friend requests on Facebook from nearly half of my students. I told all of them that I would be their friend when they were adults. This is the safest route for teachers to take. A couple of years later, I ended up relocating to another state. The distance caused me to miss my former students, and they continued to send me friend requests. This caused me to reflect on my personal policy, and I finally reached the conclusion that social media was a way for me to stay connected with my former students. I wondered if the connection might somehow lead to something important in their lives. Maybe it would keep them from dropping out of school? Maybe I could continue to be a voice of encouragement that would help them make good decisions as young adults? After a lot of soul searching, I started accepting friend requests from students.
Option Two: Being friends with parents and/or students on social media
Even within these options are other decisions that an educator must make. Will you be friends with past students, current students, or both? If you are friends with parents, will you be friends with any parent who sends you a friend request or will you leave some parents out?
My policy right now is that I do not send friend requests to students or parents, but I do accept any friend requests that I receive. In doing this, I am accepting the responsibility to represent my school while portraying my personal life. This is not a major sacrifice for me because social media has always been something I approach with casual interest. This is a personal decision, and educators need to be careful if they take this pathway. If you choose to go this route, I recommend that you:
- Don’t post anything on your social media page relating to alcohol or tobacco use. Like it or lump it, teachers are expected to be moral exemplars. If you like to post party pictures, you should probably choose a different social media option.
- Don’t post any adult material. Seriously, don’t even post adult jokes. As teachers, we are always representing our school and our community. If you would not say something in a face-to-face interaction with a parent or student, you should not say it on social media.
- Don’t jump into the middle of any debates or arguments about your school. Half of the reason teachers agree to be friends with their students’ parents is because they want to see what is posted about themselves and their schools. This is fine; have a look, but please do not comment. Parents love to drag schools through the mud on social media. If teachers jump in, it will only prolong the interactions and probably intensify them.
- Don’t post anything negative about your administrator(s) or school system. This is good advice no matter who is on your friends list. On two separate occasions I have seen this happen. Although the teachers who did the posting did not get into any formal trouble for their comments, it hurt their relationships with their principals. One of the two times, the principal actually went to the teacher and told her his feelings were hurt by her comments. No one needs this kind of awkwardness in the workplace.
- Do leave positive comments on student posts and pages. Students enjoy feeling connected to their teachers. If you see it is a student’s birthday, post a happy-birthday message on his or her page.
- Do feel free to reprimand students for inappropriate posts. I guess posting rants full of cuss words makes young people feel grown up. If I see one of these, I usually leave a short comment saying something about how the post reflects on the student.
Remember: What a teacher chooses to share about his or her political beliefs in or out of the classroom is a personal decision. However, you should always remember that students like to believe that their teachers share their political views. This is especially true during presidential election years. Most students know how their parents are planning to vote. Taking a strong political stance on or off of social media will disconnect you from some students.
Option Three: Maintain separate personal and professional social media accounts
I have talked with several colleagues who take this approach. It is more work than I am willing to put into social media, but for teachers who enjoy social media, this pathway offers the best parts of each of the other two options. Teachers can feel free to post whatever they like while still keeping in contact with students.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.
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