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Posted on Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Washtenaw County school districts ask: How should teachers approach social media?

By Kyle Feldscher

Youth culture embraces social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, but Ann Arbor-area school districts are still defining what that means in the classroom and among educators.



Most local school districts don’t have formal policies regarding how teachers and other staff members use social networking platforms.

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.

Kyle Feldscher covers K-12 education for He can be reached at or you can follow him on Twitter.


Macabre Sunset

Tue, Aug 2, 2011 : 4:58 a.m.

I don't think we have to worry about this - can't even get a teacher to return a simple email in Ann Arbor. I doubt most of them can even create a Facebook account without considerable help from their kids.


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 10:02 p.m.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if the teacher hadn't used the site for future coutrships from his student?


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 9:38 p.m.

Twitter, Facebook: More blessings from our Free Market System, no doubt. (ha-ha). The old adage applies to Twitter and Facebook: if your best friend jumps off a high bridge, it doesn't mean it's OK for you to do it, too. The problem centers around the question of identity more than it does about specific behaviors. Facebook is NOT a "social media" - it's an environment to replace face to face conversations, to offer opinions and engage in behaviors which are either prohibited or punished when done "in the classroom" or in someone's living room, for that matter. Social media: is when you have (in this example) a teacher and their students interacting in a controlled environment which is also monitored by others with authority. Social media: is when someone makes a phone call, writes a letter or sends an email or converses directly with some person who they choose to have a relationship with. Students: do not have a choice of that kind when relating to teachers. Many are too young and inexperienced to have a "friendship" with ANY adult not in that youngster's family. Facebook's and Twitter's creators may have "tried" to make these technologies a new kind of social network, but they are also by definition businesses whose primary interest is in making money. They are on the same level as motel operators and bar owners, nothing better than that.

Jack Gladney

Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 9:09 p.m.

I think educators should be encouraged to be on Facebook and Twitter, etc. That way they can spend their down time playing Farmville, Mafi Wars and becoming the Mayor of the Teachers Lounge on Foursquare.


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 5:37 p.m.

@obiouscomment; Go with the knee-jerk reaction. Little upside and a LOT of downside for any teacher that would be foolish enough to friend a student. If they feel they must, I would suggest getting a seperate account for that reason. Facebook is forever changing the program and you never know what will show up where. Somebody hits the wrong button and you are all of a sudden in trouble.


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 5:32 p.m.

I would not friend my students. I would create a group that all the class could subscribe to. The class could communicate to the group, the teacher would be the moderator. The teacher could post homework, reading assignments, and answer simple questions.


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 1:17 p.m.

It says something that schools are still trying to figure out how to deal with social networks. Facebook was launched eight years ago; Twitter was launched five years ago. Schools are of course important social systems, but now more than ever before they face serious competition from other social systems. The idea of in-class and out-of-class has changed significantly. Graden's perspective seems to me to get it right: adapt these platforms for the positive in them, invest in professional development to support the responsible use of these platforms, and teach students how to use them well (i.e., including that their online actions are consequential). Excessive caution and worry isn't going to prove helpful for students who are already using these platforms regularly.


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 3:03 p.m.

Kids figure this stuff out fast. Alarmist lecturing falls on deaf ears but we need to keep kids constantly aware of the need for caution. The technology is so much more exciting than anything else. Kids will zoom ahead, as nature intends them to do, without realizing all of the ramifications. Embrace it and give guidance.


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 1:02 p.m.

I am a middle school teacher and constantly received "friend requests" on Facebook from my students. I didn't accept them, but what I did instead is set up a separate "teacher page" where all my friends are students past and present. Like the article says, it is a great way to keep in touch with former students I would have otherwise lost track of.

Bruce Madej

Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 12:41 p.m.

How about teaching students about social media? The history of social media, how companies are using social media to 'brand' themselves, how it has been used properly, how it has been used improperly, etc. Readermom is on the right track. I believe communications should be part of the curriculum and social media is a major focus

Wolf's Bane

Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 11:57 a.m.

How should teachers approach social media? Carefully! Avoid approaching Social Media from behind and from behind and being particularly careful not to make any sudden moves when feeding a treat to Social Media. Also, keep the palm of the hand totally flat when feeding to avoid losing fingers.


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 11:17 a.m.

My knee-jerk reaction would be to say: "NO, teachers should NOT be interacting with students through social networking sites." One reason for that reaction is that I think it is counterproductive to encourage students to use those sites, especially students younger than high school age (even though I do understand that bad things happen with high-schoolers online too). But, then again, I start to think that maybe it wouldn't be terrible because if the teachers are "friended" by students, they will see what is going on with the students' pages and maybe have the upper hand when it comes to catching cyber-bullying. Bottom line is, IF teachers are going to be using social network sites to communicate with their students, there needs to be strict caution taken so as not to expose students to too many aspects of the teachers' lives outside of school. It would probably be advisable for teachers to have separate sites for school and for their personal lives. As far as sharing homework assignments goes...I've heard of schools that allow for each teacher to have a webpage on the school's site where they post class information. I think that is a much better forum for that sort of thing since it is directly related to the school and can be monitored more closely by the school. Either way, this is a topic that schools should have strict guidelines about. It would be nice if Michigan would pass legislation on this so there aren't as many gray areas where things could go wrong.


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 11:12 a.m.

this is ironic since facebook was originally developed and intended as a way for teachers to learn about what students they had in class, and communicate to students in an academic setting about academic matters.


Thu, Aug 4, 2011 : 11:43 a.m.

I hope you're not a history teacher, unless it's historical fiction . . .

Jack Gladney

Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 9:05 p.m.

Really? Hmm. Did not know that.


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 12:14 p.m.

That's not true at all, facebook was developed for college students for social purposes while I was in college....


Mon, Aug 1, 2011 : 11:09 a.m.

I was really disappointed with the lack of depth in this article. It focused on the standard dangers of posting too much personal information for anyone on social networking sites. An opportunity to really discuss what is available to teachers and students to help enhance education was missed. For anyone who would like to do some research and learn about the possibilities for technology in the classroom, check out <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> (free technology for teachers).