It's every teacher's nightmare. Your reputation, your integrity, and your character can suddenly and irreversibly be damaged with the touch of a fingertip or the click of a mouse. Whose to blame for that gut-wrenching feeling of dread and anxiety when the news breaks? Most likely it's you.
Of course, there are exceptions. Last year, a school principal in Maine was spoofed on Twitter by a student who created a phony account. The profile included a picture of the principal taken from the school website. The situation was resolved quickly, but the incident has left lasting impressions on the minds of many parents and community members.
In 2013, a first grade teacher at Paterson Elementary School (Paterson, NJ) garnered national media attention after calling her first grade students "future criminals" in a Facebook post. A teacher at Newark Memorial High School (Oakland, CA) used Twitter and said she wanted to stab some of her students and pour hot coffee on them.
School districts continue to struggle with social media policies and rules because the boundaries between personal behavior and public behavior are blurred and confusing. What is said by a teacher on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ using their personal accounts may seem beyond the reach of school policy, but it's not. If the statements are being made if a forum that is public or includes any members of the larger school community, then the teacher is acting a spokesperson for the school district.
Beyond the sensational cases that grab the headlines, there is a larger and more permanent social media issue plaguing school districts. Unofficial school groups and pages on Facebook have become an underground pipeline of information and misinformation about schools. With few resources dedicated to marketing and public relations, schools face an uphill battle when competing for the attention of stakeholders. Even worse, school administrators rarely know what is being discussed in these forums until it's become a problem.
There are also good things happening on social media. Teachers are collaborating with others from around the world, students are involved in meaningful discourse with other students, and parents are able to stay in close contact with school groups via automated notifications and updates. The immediacy and pervasiveness of social media is both a blessing and a curse.
In reaction to some of the growing concerns over social media and poor judgement exercised by educators, some school boards have considered a ban on the use of social media. "I think that train has already left the station, and it left a long time ago. It's not humanly possible to stop people from using social media." says Evelyn McCormack, the social media expert for Southern Westchester Board of Cooperative Education Services. "They've tried it some places and it didn't work."
Educators that use social media should take the following steps to protect their online reputations and keep from making the kinds of mistakes that could end their teaching careers.
- Use only school provided accounts for student and parent communications.
- Don't 'friend' students.
- Don't talk about school on your private social accounts.
- Filter your content appropriately. Be professional.
- Turn on privacy settings and become familiar with security options.
- Search for your name on Google. Protect your online reputation.
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