Yesterday there was an article in the Greenville News about development of a policy for teacher use of Facebook. The article stated that the board was holding off on approval of the policy because some members had raised “ethical, legal and technical questions.” The new policy would put into place a procedure for dismissing teachers for improper behavior in social networking sites.
According to the policy, teachers €œshould recognize that they are being continuously observed by students, other employees, parents, and community members, and that their actions and demeanor may impair their effectiveness as an employee.€ It goes on to state the following:
The personal life of an employee including the employee’s personal use of non-district issued electronic equipment outside of working hours (such as through social networking sites and personal portrayal on the Internet), will be the concern of and warrant the attention of the board if it impairs the employee’s ability to be an effective teacher, effectively perform his/her job responsibilities, or if it violates local, state, or federal law or contractual agreements.
That phrase “impairs the employee’s ability to be an effective teacher” is the bit that gets me. It was used by one of my counterparts in another district over a lunch discussion about this same issue. The phrase is overly broad, and open to interpretation. If a one parent takes offense at something I’ve posted, does that meet the criteria? I have experienced first hand some of these dangers, and I know that it’s possible to make the wrong decision and wreck someone’s career for no reason.
I’m not talking about things that are obviously wrong, such as drug use or illegal activities. I’m talking about teachers getting in trouble for normal adult activity. Take, for example, the case of Ashley Payne. The Appalachee High School teacher from Winder, Georgia posted the following photo on Facebook…
The photo was taken while Payne was on vacation and posted on a supposedly private portion of Facebook. Elsewhere on her site she mentioned “Going to Bitch BINGO,” the name of a game played at an Atlanta restaurant. A parent complained, and this was enough to get her fired – one photo of the teacher with a beer in her hand while on vacation and one word that caused offense.
Last year my Facebook profile photo was my infamous “Santa Martini” photo…
I was told by another one of my counterparts that I would have been fired in her district. The “effectiveness as an employee” clause would have been invoked. I’m sure that I’ve used language just as offensive on this blog as the unfortunate teacher above used. Fortunately, no one has said anything about this blog or the photo as to either being amiss or diminishing my ability to teach.
However, my situation is a bit different. As a district administrator I’m less likely to have a kid who’s curious about their teacher Google me. Children (and parents) are naturally interested in their teachers, and want to find out about them. And sometimes it can have unfortunate consequences.
Here’s another example of leaping to conclusions – a case in which I was directly involved, and I was able to prevent some problems. I received a complaint about that a teacher had inappropriate material on his Facebook page. This was a well-respected, veteran teacher, and I had a hard time believing this to be true. I checked out the page (which was NOT set to private), and there was a picture of a young lady, a student, with her skirt hiked up indecently high and showing her legs with colorful stockings.
On the face of it, this was incriminating. However, there was more to the story. The young lady was proud of her silly, colorful stockings and was showing them off for one of her friends. The friend took a photo with her cell phone, then uploaded the photo to HER Facebook account. Somewhere in the background of the show you could see the teacher’s left foot. The student tagged the foot as with the teacher’s name, causing the photo to show up on his profile. The teacher had nothing to do with it, and was even unaware that his name was associated with the photo.
In this case I recommended to the teacher than he not friend his students. In fact, this is what we recommend in general for our teachers. Unlike Greenville County, we currently have no plans to make this into policy. Our district even allows some leeway when students are family friends, or are related to teachers.
When I do workshops on blogging and social networking I always tell teachers to be circumspect in what they post, because it may come back to haunt them. However, in the case of our teacher, he was an innocent bystander who had unfortunately friended his students. I can see this happening more and more, though, and I blame digital cameras.
People don’t share photos in print format anymore. Online photos galleries are the most common way to share vacation photos, etc. Someone may take a photo of a young teacher at the lake or beach in a bathing suit and post it online, or take a picture of a teacher with a drink in their hand, and some parent may find that offensive. So what’s one to do? Completely abandon any online life, or just make sure than no photos of them are ever taken?
I’m really glad that the Greenville County School Board decided to take a step back. The line between public and private lives gets blurred with everything now being online, and there is really no going back. Some members of the board have recognized that teachers have rights, and that they can’t/shouldn’t try to control all teacher behavior. I’m glad our district has also come to that conclusion, and I just wished that other districts were as enlightened.