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.

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.

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.

 

Compliance specialist to principals: Call before it’s a crisis

Q:   I’m a compliance specialist in a large district in New York. I’ve worked in my department for years, so I’ve learned how to handle a wide range of issues. Some of the same scenarios pop up year after year, and very few things stump me. And yet, the same principals reach out to me over and over again, while other principals never ask for help. I wish they’d all call me when it’s a 411 rather than a 911! At that point, I’m extinguishing fires and my job is exponentially harder.

I’m thinking of one principal in particular who didn’t consult me before talking publicly about a sexual harassment issue involving a coach and a female athlete at his school. He violated the student’s confidentiality and gave the false impression that he didn’t take the incident seriously. The parent community called for his head on a plate. I’m not a miracle worker, but that was entirely avoidable. I can save a principal’s reputation or at least spare him a headache. I don’t know what keeps the reticent ones from seeking my guidance. Maybe they don’t understand what compliance specialists do, don’t want to appear weak, or don’t want to bother me. I try to explain my role when opportunities present themselves, but I’m obviously not doing enough. Can you help me figure out how to change this?

A:  Let’s start by exploring the reasons why principals aren’t reaching out to you. You’ve mentioned some possibilities, including not wanting to appear weak, not understanding your role, or not wanting to overstep. They might be too proud — or, conversely, feel unworthy of your help. They might be overwhelmed and scattered, or reluctant to relinquish control, or in denial. Or they may feel they’re handling everything just fine and have no clue they’re in way over their head. In other words, it could be anything.

Even principals who understand that great leaders ask for help may find it hard to admit they don’t have it all together. That may fall far outside their comfort zone. Here are several ways to encourage all principals to consult with you more often:

Talk to the principals who do ask for help. Ask them to spread the word and tell their colleagues that you’re an excellent resource. They can raise awareness of your role and normalize seeking your assistance.

Present at a principal professional day and share revealing stories. One compliance specialist told me about a principal who struggled to help an underperforming teacher. He tried everything from sending in back-up support to documenting her missteps, but nothing worked. This went on for two years as her behavior grew increasingly erratic. Frustrated parents wrote letters to the board, and students asked to be pulled from her class. The principal did eventually seek the compliance specialist’s help, but she wishes he had contacted her much earlier. As she notes, everyone would have suffered less. “Many teachers won’t tell their boss about a personal difficulty. If he had flagged her issues earlier, I would have reached out to her to figure out what was going on and explain her options. By the time we met, she was suicidal. Her mental illness had gone untreated for so long.”

Consider sending out a reminder email at the beginning of the year to all principals, or add a paragraph or two about your department to any newsletter they receive. In the email or blurb, explain that helping principals address thorny situations is your job, and that you want to help. Point out that you can nip problems entirely or at least prevent them from getting bigger.

Enlist the help of directors, consulting principals, and anyone else who mentors principals. Ask them to ensure that principals understand your expertise. Since you’re not in a supervisory role, principals may find you a less threatening source of support.

To ensure you target the most reluctant principals (who may most need your help), could you visit everyone at their school at least once a year? It’s much easier to approach someone if you’ve had a positive in-person encounter. During the meetings, you could pose questions such as, “What challenges are you facing? Are you actively trying to put out any fires? How can I help you?” If there are certain problems that you know every principal confronts, bring them up and talk strategy. Ask, “How do you think you would handle that?” Then share what others have done and how you’ve helped them.

As the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.” You sound like a creative and thoughtful problem-solver, so I suspect you’ll soon have the opposite problem — too many customers!

 

9 ways educators can fight corruption

Q:  A teacher I work with was shaking as he told me a senior had failed his class — one he needed to graduate. My colleague knew his supervisors were upset with him even though he had given the student plenty of chances. I said, “Look, I’m sure you did what you’re supposed to do and the kid legitimately failed.” But I knew where the conversation was heading. Sure enough, he told me his department chair came up with some dumb crap the kid could do to recover the credit. In other words, the teacher had to pass him. Forget the fact that he didn’t show up for class and ignored all offers of help. After filling out a few bogus worksheets — which only required one school day to complete — the senior was able to graduate with his class. Awesome for our graduation rates, I suppose, but that diploma didn’t mean much.

I’m actually a school counselor, but I’ve been frustrated by this padding of academic data. For example, I’m often asked to move kids to higher-level classes when there’s no parental approval. The administration knows that most parents won’t even notice the switch, especially ones who don’t speak English. And the school looks great when lots of kids take advanced classes, so you have to have a really good reason not to put them there. Being in all self-contained classes is not a good reason. Not wanting to take another honors class because you’re overextended is not a good reason. Being in and out of the hospital for suicidal ideation is not a good reason. The thing is, many kids will do fine anyway because we’ve watered down the curriculum to make this all possible. When my colleagues and I protest what we see as unethical or corrupt practices, we’re either penalized or ignored. These orders seem to be coming from the top, so we feel powerless. What can we do?

A:  I’ve been receiving an increasing number of questions from teachers and other school staff who witness corruption. They want to know where they can go with this information and whether their unions, school boards, and local media are aware or even care. In other words, who is dedicated to receiving, sharing, and following up on reports from civic-minded staff members?

There aren’t any easy answers, and options will vary from district to district. Complicating matters, educators may not know who they can trust. Their union rep? An ombudsperson? They may worry that their message will fall on deaf ears or lead to retribution.

Different people feel comfortable handling these dilemmas in different ways. The choices aren’t limited to “explode the system” or “do nothing.” While you certainly could call the media, hire lawyers, and generally blow the lid off everything, you also could start small. Keep in mind that no matter what you do, there likely will be unanticipated consequences. Here are some ideas that could lead to small but significant improvements:

  1. Do what you can on a personal level. You may not have the power to change policy, but you can resist unethical directives. That may mean calling parents before moving a student to an AP class even if you’ve been told to skip that step.
  2. Anticipate situations. As soon as you suspect a student will fail, contact your department chair and try to come up with a compromise — such as a credit recovery plan that doesn’t involve bogus assignments.
  3. Choose your battles. You may decide you’ll put your foot down when you think your student shouldn’t take a certain class, but let others worry about whether that class is watered down. Think about your values and what you will and won’t tolerate.
  4.  When there’s no recourse, learn from the experience. If you had handled anything differently, could you have avoided the problem in the first place?
  5. Do you trust anyone who has authority? If so, start by talking to them. Identify individuals who have the courage to speak truth to power. You also could involve multiple stakeholders, such as members of the PTSA and colleagues at other schools.
  6. In the long term, would you consider working toward management? You could try to become a decision maker.
  7. Does your district have ethics policies in place? How about a vision and mission statement? Are educators governed by rules of conduct? Could you join a committee devoted to creating these types of documents? Organizations need the language and sensibility to deal with corrupt practices before they arise. It’s much easier to push back when a culture of ethics is already established.
  8. Use whatever advocacy skills you have. If you like to write, write an advocacy letter or opinion piece. If you like to present, share ideas at a school board meeting. If you’re an organizer, create a coalition of allies to agitate with you.
  9. If corruption is trickling down from the top and you can’t work within the system without compromising your values, remember that you always have the option to quit.

These are systemic, structural issues that you can’t solve alone. But whether you refuse to comply with demoralizing practices at the personal level or run for a seat on the school board, you’ll feel more hopeful and less powerless.

 

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.

Citation: Fagell, P.L. (2018). CAREER CONFIDENTIAL: Teachers and social media: A cautionary tale about the risks. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (2), 68-70.

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. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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