Washtenaw County school districts ask: How should teachers approach social media?
Saline Area Schools superintendent Scot Graden said his district doesn’t have a policy, but he encourages staff members to be on the sites.
“We’ve tried to look at how the tools can be used and instead of being concerned, we try to say, ‘What are the positive things we can do with it?’” Graden said.
Graden has a Twitter account, which he uses to interact with members of the community along with posting links to his blog that he keeps on the district’s website. The district also as its own Twitter account, along with a number of district administrators and teachers.
There are many different uses for the social networking devices and Graden said he knows of teachers in the district who post homework assignments on Twitter and others that create Facebook groups for their classes or athletic programs to communicate with students.
On a personal level outside of the classroom, it seems to be a different story.
Graden said he’s had many informal conversations with staff members who say they will not accept friendship requests on Facebook from current students. He said it’s usually a high school issue, as those are the students who are most active on Facebook, but teachers at younger grade levels are also experiencing the same debate, as users of social networking sites get younger and younger.
Ann Arbor Education Association president Brit Satchwell said he was “swamped” with kids that wanted to be his friend on Facebook when he joined the site 2 or 3 years ago.
“I refused to friend any kids, but that was my own personal thing,” he said. “I have seen training sessions at the MEA (Michigan Education Association) that allow it or teachers with their own personal Facebook pages that put too much on it. I know of teachers who have been fired for what they post. There are special laws that apply to teachers that don’t apply to other people.”
The MEA does work to educate its members on how they should conduct themselves on social networking sites.
Among the scheduled lectures during an MEA training session is “School Employees Gone Wild: The Internet, Social Networking Sites, E-mail and the First Amendment.” The program will focus on what First Amendment rights teachers have on social networking platforms and “how to use these tools without creating employment problems,” according to the online description.
The MEA also published a number of tips for teachers on how to conduct themselves online. Among a number of suggestions are to remember the roles teachers play in the school building and society, be aware of privacy settings and that employers and students will be able to see most, if not all, postings on those sites.
“What you say in cyberspace - about yourself, about your job, about your beliefs, about your activities - is easy for others to find and read,” the tip sheet states. “In an increasingly digital world, the line between what is public and what is private, between your professional life and your personal life, is no longer clear.”
According to Michelle Machiele, co-president of the Huron High School Parent Teacher Support Organization, it’s a message that Ann Arbor teachers she’s connected with on Facebook take to heart.
Machiele said she knows of teachers who are friends with current students on Facebook that she is also friends with and she has always believed those teachers have been acting appropriately.
“The teachers I’m connected to do various things and are appropriate,” she said. “It’s really nice for them to keep an association with students over time as they graduate and move on to the first year of college and the students are reflecting back.”
Machiele said Facebook is a major part of the Huron PTSO’s activities, as she’s able to engage with other parents and get to know them and their families though social networking.
It also provides benefits for Huron athletic teams, with coaches of teams able to friend their players and provide notices about practices being canceled, various fundraisers or simple encouragement to keep improving.
Unlike some other states, there is no state policy in Michigan on how teachers can interact with their students on social networking platforms, according to Michigan Department of Education spokesperson Jan Ellis.
Ellis said Michigan is very much a local control state, “in which districts have the lion’s share of control” in setting their own policies.
“That is very much a local district issue,” she said.
Earlier this year, the Virginia Board of Education voted to encourage local school districts to set policies regulating social media use by teachers. According to The Washington Post, the debate began after a teacher at Virginia’s Manassas High School was found to be exchanging personal messages with several former students, eventually molesting one of them.
Without the decree from the state, several local districts said they're taking a similar approach to that of Saline.
In Ann Arbor, district spokesperson Liz Margolis said there are definitely teachers using Facebook and Twitter but there is no district policy setting guidelines on their conduct.
“We don’t have anything yet, but we’re talking about it,” she said.
In Ypsilanti Public Schools, Superintendent Dedrick Martin said his district also hasn’t determined a formal policy.
Martin said conversations have taken place among district administrators about social networking and how to give guidance to district teachers, but said it was still developing.
Gretchen Reist, the director of technology for YPS, said the expectations for teachers on Facebook and Twitter are the same as they would be in the classroom or in public.
“Teachers are being told the same guidelines for conduct that would apply for other areas would apply in social media,” she said. “Any contact with a student would be of a professional nature and they should maintain professional conduct at all times.”
Local school districts so far have not reported any incidents with teachers behaving inappropriately on social networks, either posting unprofessional comments or interacting with students in inappropriate ways. Most incidents have been between students that eventually spill over into the school buildings.
Reist said the district is in the process of making a formal policy on social media. She said she knows of a few teachers who have friended students on Facebook but she is also friends with them so she's able to see if there is any inappropriate conduct going on.
At least one education expert says observant teachers are realizing social networking platforms aren’t just simple annoyances but a way to interact with students.
Michael McVey, assistant profession of educational media and technology at the Eastern Michigan University’s teacher education department, said many teachers are following edicts from their school districts and avoiding social networking in the classroom.
“Observant teachers are noticing that students do a huge amount of socializing in those spaces and researchers are finding that much of the online socializing, during the school year, is related to school work and school issues,” he said.
McVey said prospective teachers at EMU are being told the most important thing to remember about social networking is safety — both for students and their professional reputation.
“We have regular discussion about topics such as cyber bullying and my students, by and large, take such issues quite seriously,” he said, adding that there are three major issues to remember are the importance of adjusting privacy settings, the awareness of the image being presented in cyberspace and the fact that malicious words or inappropriate words have permanence in the online world.