Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Always Maintain Professional Decorum: The pitfalls of open forums, cell phones, and social networks

Teachers bear a professional, legal, and ethical responsibility to set and maintain appropriate boundaries with students. Although staff members have a sincere interest in students as individuals, partiality and the appearance of impropriety must be avoided. School personnel shall maintain a reasonable standard of care for the supervision, control, and protection of students commensurate with their assigned duties and responsibilities, but may not allow students to regard them as peers. Specifically, three areas of concern are creating open forums during class time, having inappropriate personal relationships with students involving cell phones, and teacher involvement with social networking sites.

Open Forums: The concept of an open forum can be misleading. When it comes to learning, an open forum allows the free exchange of ideas in a civil manner, leading to students becoming aware of alternative perspectives and developing a greater sense of empathy and understanding. However, the classroom is not an open forum in allowing a teacher or a student to disseminate the propaganda of his or her personal beliefs. This is especially true concerning the teacher, for students are not in the habit of challenging the teacher and will often remain respectfully quiet, even when they do not agree. The teacher is to be neutral when discussing topics, thereby allowing students to examine the facts related to an issue and to draw their own conclusions. The teacher is to refrain from announcing personal beliefs regarding the State, the community, the school, or any such topic. As educators are neither to deny nor promote a specific religious belief, neither should they deny nor promote any specific political agenda.

Others consider an open forum as a place where students are free to tell a teacher about personal issues and troubles. Students develop a special trust in teachers; therefore, adults must not take advantage of students’ vulnerability or confidence. A teacher’s impact as a mentor in a student’s life outside of class is important, but a teacher encountering students with personal issues needs to refer the student to a qualified counselor. In fact, teachers who become aware of students in potentially harmful or illegal situations have a legal obligation to report the situation to a counselor, administrator, or the Department of Child Services.

Teachers are cautioned to maintain professional decorum in the classroom and whenever relating to students.

Cell Phone: Cell phones are culturally permeative. The anomaly is the person who does not have a cell phone, the person who does not send text messages. Many teachers and coaches have found the cell phone to be a good tool for contacting students, answering questions about assignments or passing along information about a change in practice. It is reasonable to expect that teachers will communicate with students through the use of cell phones.

However, teachers are not to engage in inappropriate personal relationships, having private conversations, texts, or instant messages with students. Teachers have an obligation to report improper communications with students to their supervisor immediately. Many authorities consider such communication to be “grooming,” a gateway to improper relationships between students and teachers. At the very least, these personal after-hours conversations with students lead to the perception that there is a double standard—every student does not have an equal opportunity to communicate with his or her teacher. This fosters the image that teachers have favorites.

There are times when communicating by cell phone—whether talking or texting—is appropriate and times when it is not. The teacher, as a professional, is to know the difference and not to cross the line.

Social Networking Sites: Social Networks are like cell phones in that they have become a part of the culture. Also as with cell phones, the educator must maintain proper professional boundaries with students. When a teacher uses his personal account to communicate with students, he is inviting the students into a closer relationship, which can be helpful in promoting learning but may also be misinterpreted. Therefore, it is not advisable for teachers to use personal accounts for school purposes. The school provides teachers with e-mail and Moodle accounts for professional correspondence.

If a teacher is enrolled in a social networking site, then the following restrictions should be followed:

  • Keep privacy settings high so that only people chosen to relate to can see it.
  • Use discretion; do not post comments on a site that would not be said face to face.
  • Refrain from communicating with current students.

Currently there are court hearings in other states addressing whether schools may restrict teachers from communicating with students through the use of cell phones and social networks. A judge in St. Louis recently declared that doing so is limiting the freedom of speech of teachers. I tend to agree. But let us not forget that with the freedom we are granted comes responsibility and accountability. The line between what is right and what is wrong is not always clearly marked, but we, as professionals, know when we have crossed that line, and we know that consequences that we would rather avoid may well follow.

Remember to exercise discretion when communicating with students, whether that is in your classroom, on your cell phone, or through a social network, such as Facebook or Twitter. Always maintain professional decorum.

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