Teachers and social media: A cautionary tale about the risks

Q: I am not friends on social media with parents. I don’t decline; I just ignore the requests. I feel more comfortable setting that boundary. But here’s the thing. That’s not enough to protect teachers. You have to be smart. Here’s an example. Recently, one of my part-time teacher colleagues got involuntarily transferred to a new school. She then found out the principal had purposely made her position full time to force her out. That’s a whole other drama, but here’s how social media plays into it. She ranted on her Facebook page about the injustice. Some of my colleagues wrote sympathetic comments on her wall agreeing that she was treated unfairly. Unbeknownst to them, she’s Facebook friends with several parents in our school community.  

A few of those parents then chimed in to express their dismay. One or two even said that they’d be contacting the district with concerns about the principal. That’s when the teachers who had made those early comments realized they had screwed up. It hadn’t occurred to them that she had friended parents on Facebook because most of us just don’t do that as a personal policy. Obviously, that was a dangerous assumption. They panicked when they realized their comments could get back to their principal. They also were furious with the departing teacher for not warning them! So here are my questions. Did the teacher do anything wrong? Did she have any obligation to warn her (soon-to-be-former) colleagues? And is it ever OK to friend parents on Facebook or other forms of social media? 

A: There are multiple layers of poor judgment here. There’s no such thing as privacy online. Once you post an opinion, you give up control. It wasn’t the departing teacher’s responsibility to warn her colleagues that parents follow her. It’s 2018 — they had to know that anyone could end up seeing what they wrote. They chose to ignore the risks. 

That said, the departing teacher’s initial post was immature and reactive. She acted impulsively and out of anger. She’s entitled to her feelings, but she chose an inappropriate forum to air her grievances. When her colleagues followed suit, they were equally short-sighted. They may have thought they were bucking her up, but instead they heightened the drama and made it more difficult for her to move forward. They also endangered their own reputation. It would have been safer and more empathetic to take her out for dinner. Then she could have shared her raw emotions without creating a public, permanent digital record. 

You also asked if it’s OK to accept parent friend requests on Facebook or other forms of social media. If I were forced to give a “yes or no” answer, I’d say don’t do it. But it’s more complicated than that. First, not all forms of social media are the same. Someone might be opposed to parents following them on Instagram or Facebook but feel less guarded about Twitter. Or they might have a separate Facebook page for parent and student communication. Some teachers might accept parents’ Facebook friend requests but set restrictive privacy settings. Other teachers might go to even greater lengths to protect their privacy, such as using a pseudonym. And of course, many choose to stay away from social media altogether. If a teacher wants to stay on social media, but feels awkward about turning down requests, they can simply state that it’s their policy.  

There’s a lot of variability in how teachers approach this question. If a school culture is informal, parents friending teachers might be more common. In other communities, friending parents might be viewed as inappropriate and a violation of boundaries. Some teachers only will accept requests when the child isn’t in their class or has graduated, or when they have outside ties to the parent. 

But let’s return to my first point, which is that there’s no such thing as privacy online. Whether or not you choose to accept parent friend requests, there’s always a chance that someone will gain access to your feed, including a student. Be thoughtful about what you post. Take down any sketchy stuff from your past. Keep it G-rated. Teachers have been fired for comments they’ve made on their personal page. Just as you’d advise your students, don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t tell a grandparent, publish in the newspaper — or say to your principal. 

For more Career Confidential: http://bit.ly/2C1WQmw

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog.

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