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Katherine Bindley
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Teachers Texting Students: Should Schools Ban Or Encourage?

Posted: 04/16/2012 2:47 pm Updated: 04/17/2012 4:56 pm

This year has already seen a slew of controversial incidents involving teachers texting students. Earlier this month, Pennsylvania teacher Timothy Moll was accused of texting one of his students and offering good grades for naked pictures.

In March, authorities discovered that Michael Zack had allegedly sent four of his students a total of 4,000 texts, including some with inappropriate pictures of him. Then there was James Hooker of California who left his wife and kids for a student; those two exchanged 8,000 texts.

Meanwhile, school districts and lawmakers around the country have been developing or revising policies on electronic communication and social media interaction between teachers and students. And with no shortage of scandals, many are erring on the side of caution by crafting stricter regulations. But some educators say such limitations can be detrimental to the young people they're trying to protect and could prevent teachers from taking advantage of one of the most valuable tools they have to interact with students: the text message.

"There's a lot of administrators, policymakers and elected officials trying to put out these ban dates -- a banning mandate," said Lisa Nielsen, who works in education in New York and authored "Teaching Generation Text: Using Cell Phones to Enhance Learning."

"It makes their job easier but it's not necessarily what best for children," Nielsen added.

Many policymakers are placing blame on the tools used to communicate rather than the person behind the communications, Nielsen said. "What we need to be doing is making policy about behavior. It's not because of these tools that teachers are engaging this way," she said. "If a teacher has said something inappropriate to a child, are we going to ban teachers from talking to students?"

Texting is far more effective as a means to engage students than email, which young people have found outdated for at least five years, Nielsen said.

"Teachers can send thought-provoking questions to their class for what it is they're going to be learning that day, and let students respond with their thoughts," Nielsen said. Every student gets a chance to respond and later have his or her ideas discussed, as opposed to what happens in the classroom when the teacher might not have the time to call on everyone or shyer students might be hesitant to speak.

Texting is the communication mode with which young people are most comfortable: The Pew Research Center recently found that teens exchange 60 texts a day, a hike from 50 a day in 2009. And a suicide hotline in Minnesota set up a texting option in January, resulting in the receipt of more text messages in one day than phone calls in an entire month.

So, while many are pushing back against the texting between teachers and students, some educators are embracing the medium as a way to more directly connect with students.

When former Harvard professor Mica Pollock collaborated on research for the OneVille Project with students and teachers at Massachusetts alternative school Full Circle/Next Wave, they began exploring the potential of text messages for providing students with support.

"It was the most obvious way to reach young people," said Pollock, now at the University of California, San Diego. "They were saying, 'If you need to reach me, texting is the way to do it.'" While not every student has a computer or a smartphone, most have phones with texting functions, she added.

As part of the continuing research project, two teachers have been texting frequently with their students -- about everything from students' needs to school events.

"Students started to ask questions about all sorts of school support issues," Pollock said. "We also started to see students and teachers using the channel to build relationships that were very valuable in motivating young people to come to school and to sort of feel valued by their teachers and to feel more committed."

Despite such touted advantages, some schools districts remain in a tough spot when it comes to encouraging the use of texting and social media, especially if the wake of a scandal: After the arrest of a teacher in Redmond, Ore., the Oregon School Boards Association last month spoke out against letting teachers send individual texts to students.

The New York City Department of Education will release a new social media policy later this month. Richard J. Condon, the special commissioner of investigation for New York City schools, told The New York Times, just eight complaints of inappropriate communications on Facebook arrived from September 2008 to October 2009. But from October of 2010 through September 2011, that tally jumped to 85. In recent weeks, rumors have been swirling that the city's policy might ban student-teacher Facebook friendships altogether.

Eric Sheniger, the principal at New Milford High School in Bergen County, N.J., and a Huff Post blogger, maintained that despite these incidents, technology can be incorporated into schools without compromising the students' safety.

"Many educators don't know that there are avenues out there to securely communicate with students via text messaging," Sheniger said. "It comes down to a lack of information."

Some members of Sheniger's staff use Tweet text, which turns public tweets into text messages that show up on a phone. Last month one of Sheniger's teachers started using Remind 101, a texting service that blocks phone numbers so that personal information isn't exchanged.

"We have the tools and we have the means. Many schools just don’t have the will to move forward," he said. "We're missing a golden opportunity."

Mike Simpson, a general counsel for the National Education Association, said he encourages members of his organization to find a middle ground: communicate only about professional matters and use tools that can be tracked by the schools.

"We encourage users not to use personal cell phones or laptops and to go though the school servers," said Simpson, whose association is the nation's largest teachers' union. "Knowing that there is an administrator looking over your shoulder is going to make a teacher think twice about saying something, even in a joking manner."

At the same time, Simpson said, if states and school districts try to be too restrictive about what teachers can do, they risk being met with resistance.

Last fall, Missouri lawmakers overturned a pending law that banned teachers and students from interacting on social media sites.

"It may be a tough area to legislate in because believe it or not, teachers and other school employees still have some free speech rights," Simpson said.

Just last week, Scott McCleod, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky, asked readers for their opinions on a proposed Iowa social media policy. The policy proposed banning the exchange of all personal information between teachers and students.

"I hate this policy, and I could never work at a school that thinks this way about managing its teachers," wrote one commenter. "It is not wrong or illegal to give personal info, so don't stop me."

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