While some people do not have to consider their job when it comes to what they post on social media, teachers are in a somewhat unique position. As an educator myself, this is something that I have to consider pretty carefully. In my case, I am an adjunct faculty member for a local university. That is still very different from teachers of pre-school to 12th grade students. In their case, it may not even be a question of what they should or should not post onto a social media account, but should they even be using social media at all.
Only you can decide if social media is the right thing for you. There are benefits and risks associated with using social media for everyone; even more so for teachers. Before deciding however, there are some issues that need to be addressed. What I will do here is address some of those issues and then review some of the social media platforms and review how they can impact you, both personally and professionally.
Should Teachers be on Social Media at All?
This is a tough one. Just by having a social media account, teachers open themselves up to a variety of issues. Most social media sites have privacy settings that help prevent others from seeing what you post online. It is important to realize that I said “help” prevent and not “will” prevent. Despite the most stringent privacy settings available, it can all come undone if even one of your online friends shares your content onto their own account. Your privacy settings are only as strong as your weakest link!
Also consider that even if you teach at a primary school, where students should be too young to use sites such as Facebook, that does not prevent their parents from seeing what is on your account. The principal at my daughter’s elementary school closed her Facebook account after parents saw pictures of her enjoying a drink while on vacation. It was a single drink, but people started asking if it was appropriate behavior. I know this woman well and have the utmost trust in her and in her ability. She is an excellent principal.
Assuming that you decide to use social media, which platform(s) are best for you? With over 1 billion users, clearly Facebook is the leader in social media. It’s where your friends and family probably are and if you want to share updates with them, you’ll want to be there too. Of course, it’s likely that many of your students and their families will be there too.
Despite many stories about how kids are leaving Facebook, the reality is that they’re not leaving it altogether, they’re simply using it less as they migrate to other platforms, such as Snapchat, Instagram, Vine, etc. All of these sites provide a faster paced environment, which appeals to younger generations, but they can and do continue to use Facebook.
If you think that LinkedIn is kid-free, you should know that last year, LinkedIn lowered their minimum age requirement from 18 to 14. Why, you ask? Read this article that I wrote for my local paper about it in October 2014. And again, even if you don’t run into your students on LinkedIn, you still run the risk of running into a parent. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t use the site, but I want you to understand the reality of the situation, including the risks.
Another issue facing teachers is that there has been an increase in the number of incidents where students have actually cyberbullied their teachers.
Should I Friend my Students?
In my opinion, this is a no-brainer. The answer is no. Teachers are held to a higher standard than people in many other professions; for good reason. By friending students, it can lead to a breakdown of the teacher-student relationship. Even at the college level, I require that my students do not use my first name. Imagine how students might interpret being your “friend”, even if it is online. If you’ve ever read Tony Danza’s book about teaching at Northeast High school in Philadelphia, it’s a school policy that students are not allowed to address teachers by their first name.
Even the hint of inappropriate behavior can destroy a teacher’s hard earned reputation and career. Last. Carol Thebarge, a teacher in New Hampshire was fired from her position because she had friended students via social media. She had over 250 students as friends on Facebook. As this was against the school’s policy, she was asked to un-friend them. When she refused, the school district terminated her. Despite support from many in her community, even if she was offered her position back, Thebarge has indicated that she would not accept it.
Similar to friending students is if you should connect/friend their parents? Again, I say that the answer is no. This can become a bit trickier, as you may have been friends with them even before their kids started going to your school, particularly in a smaller town/school district. That applies to any social media platform, such as LinkedIn or Twitter also.
If you do use social media, be sure to check your school/district’s policy regarding social media. For any organization looking to create a social media policy for its employees, I always recommend Chris Boudreaux’s site: Social Media Governance.
Many employers conduct background checks prior to hiring someone. More frequently, this includes potential employees’ social media. As the New York Law Journal reports, “there are no laws that prohibit the use of social media to screen or recruit applicants.” That means that school districts can view your social media accounts and see what you have posted.
It also means that they can only see what you make available to the general public. They do not have the right to demand that you provide them with your passwords so that they can see what you have hidden behind your privacy settings and other content, such as private messages that are not visible to the general public. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, only four states have passed laws that specifically forbid employers from requiring a person to provide this information.
When using social media, teachers must employ some common sense techniques to keep their private life separate from their work life. As I wrote on another site, there are three easy things that you can do to help protect yourself:
Minimize your digital footprint
Regularly check your accounts’ privacy settings
Improved password management
Too many people fail to minimize their digital footprint, perhaps because they naively think that nothing bad will happen to them. Beyond the issue of cyberbullying, making too much information available on your profile can help facilitate identity theft. I’ve seen people provide their name, address, birthday, phone number and more on their Facebook page. That’s way too much! Additionally, they left it open for the entire world to see by not adjusting their privacy settings – another big mistake.
Proper password management is something that pretty much everyone could benefit from practicing. Here’s a great article that I read last year by Popular Mechanics on password protection. For another perspective, here’s an article written by another member of the Social Media Club’s editorial team, Kunal Mathur.
I consider these three steps actions that everyone, not just teachers, should take into account when using social media. Too often, people place a virtual bullseye on themselves and the repercussions can be far more reaching than they expect – not just for themselves, but for their friends and family!
Answering the First Question
I never did answer the first question that I posed here: should teachers use social media? Yes, I believe that they should be allowed to use it if they wish to do so, however, they need to realize that their vocation brings certain responsibilities with it. Just as a teacher could expect to face repercussions if they were intoxicated in public or any other questionable behavior, what they do online and who they interact with online is a major issue that they need to consider before doing so.
By following the three recommendations from the previous section, people can minimize the risks associated with using social media. Again, I did not say, avoid or eliminate the risks because the only way to do that is to not use social media.
A teacher in my own county was fired in 2012 because of comments she made on her blog, where she called her students "disengaged, lazy whiners”. I remember when the story broke; there was little support for her in the community. That’s not to say that people did not empathize with her, but they were amazed that she would actually post her comments in such a public manner.
Using Social Media Platforms & Features
Edmodo is a social media platform that is exclusively used by teachers and students. With over 34 million users, it’s a great resource for teachers. While the company tries to sign up entire school districts, they told me that individual teachers are welcome to use it even if their district does not use it as a whole. Beyond the obvious advantage of having a platform that is specifically geared to meet the needs of teachers, it also helps in that it keeps your personal usage of social media separate from what you do for school.
YouTube is a great social media platform for education. I love using this site for school and often show videos to my students. What I like best about YouTube is that you don’t even need a Google (they own YouTube) account to use it. Simply visit the site, search for what you want and then copy/paste the URL to where you need it. I typically embed them into my PowerPoint presentations as a Flash object so that they can appear on my actual slide, but you can also bookmark it, paste the URL as a hot link onto your slide or create an “action” that will open YouTube and take you directly to the video. Want to know how to embed a video? Watch this video to learn how.
That’s the other thing that I love about YouTube – with some searching, you can find a video to teach you just about anything! It’s not just about watching cute pets.
Another great tool, while not really social media, is to download one of the free applications that allows you to record your on-screen activity (and your narration) and then play it back as a video. That’s how the woman that just showed you how to embed a PowerPoint video did it. While I don’t know which application she used, you should check out CamStudio, Screenflow or Screenr. You could then embed the videos in class presentations, include them in emails, etc.
For students and faculty members at a college or university, Facebook has created a special feature, called “groups for schools”. With it, you can share files, create events, message other members and stay up to date on what's happening around campus. You need to have an active “.edu” email address to use the feature.
For teachers that are not in a college/university setting and wish to use a Facebook group, I recommend using a “closed” or even a “secret” group. I find them to be a very helpful way to share information. I am currently a member of several Facebook groups and am the administrator of one group. Last year, I created a closed group for the parents at my daughter’s elementary school.
We now have over 140 parents in the group and it has been a very helpful place for the parents to find out about school events, homework assignments and more. As a teacher, you could create a group for each of your classes or a single group for all of your classes.
The biggest issue that I have running the group for my daughter’s school is knowing who to admit into the group, but that should be less of a problem for teachers that know their students. Facebook does not allow you to invite non-friends into a group and as I’ve said already, I don’t recommend that you friend your students. As an alternative, you can ask your students for an email address and send them an invitation to the group via Facebook – no requests from unexpected users would be accepted.
Going back to the topic of friending parents, several of the teachers in my daughter’s school are also teachers there. As such, they are members of the Facebook group. One of my own daughter’s teachers is in the group, as she has two kids in the school. While not everyone, myself included probably, realize if a member of the group is also a teacher at the school, some parents may know.
I could have done most of what I wanted by creating a Facebook page for our school, but I wanted to keep strangers from seeing what we were discussing and keep local companies from posting advertisements onto a page. I had seen a page that someone created for the school that was regularly getting such postings even though the page itself had been inactive for quite awhile. In a few years, I will need to recruit someone to take over the group when my daughter moves on to middle school, as well as many of the current parents in the group.
LinkedIn also uses groups and I highly recommend them. I am a member of 17 groups, mostly regarding local networking and online safety/cyberbullying. For Twitter, there are no groups, but you can use “lists” to keep track of content by a specific segment of Twitter users.
Another very helpful tool that can be used by educators is paper.li. I use this site to create electronic newspapers on a variety of topics – everything from Grilling and BBQ to a newspaper to help fight against cyberbullying. The site takes a little time to create a newspaper for the first time, but after that, it populates itself as directed and can automatically send it out to Twitter, Facebook, etc. Best of all, the site is free to use! The Tweeted Times is another content collector, but I’ve never used it. I’ve read some papers from it and I like the design better than paper.li, so I will probably try it soon.
I could go on for quite awhile and still not run out of material to share with you. There is a plethora of information available on how social media and education interact with each other. Here are some links that I recommend you look at as you evaluate how social media might impact your career.
The first is my own Facebook page that I have created to help educate parents about keeping their kids safe online. Primarily about social media, I also share information on topics such as how to use search engines while reducing the amount of inappropriate links that get returned, internet privacy, tips about texting/sexting, legislative updates and more.
Next is an article that I wrote for my local newspaper informing people that New Jersey is the first state to implement mandatory social media classes for students, starting in the 2014-2015 school year. This law was passed out of concern for cyberbullying and unethical use of social media by kids. Perhaps more states or school districts will do the same. If so, they will be monitoring the situation in New Jersey very closely.
Related to that is a story about a school district in California that is now monitoring students’ social media sites to help identify cyberbullying and students at risk of suicide or other alarming behavior. Critics argue that it is a violation of their civil rights, with one person comparing it to stalking the students. Supporters claim that it has helped diffuse situations before they went too far. Regardless of anyone’s personal opinion on the situation, the courts have been pretty clear that anything that is publicly available is fair game with regards to monitoring it.
Teachers have the right to use social media as much as anyone else. However, they need to exercise more common sense than most other people, as Natalie Munroe, the former teacher from my county should now realize. Additionally, social media can be a tremendous resource to you when it comes to presenting material from other sources or from your own, self-made videos/content.
I’m going to finish with two links that should give you a chuckle while still showing the value of not turning your brain off when you’re online. The first is to a piece that I wrote in 2014 about people that did not use common sense and ended up losing their job as a result.
The second article is another from last year about people that got arrested for what they did on social media. I’ve actually written several articles about this topic – it’s a personal favorite of mine. It’s amazing how some people, even educated professionals, lose their ability to use common sense when they’re online. Do your best to make sure that I don’t get to include you in a similar article in the future.