Monday, October 18, 2010

Facebook Doesn’t Get Teachers Fired - Inappropriate Behavior Does

Today’s New York Post story, "Teachers fired for flirting on Facebook with Students” chronicles three educators who were fired for having inappropriate dealings with students on Facebook. The Post plays up the sensationalism of the story by making it seem, the tool is in part the culprit, further spreading the fear so many adults already have of the digital worlds in which their students thrive. While ,”They threw the Facebook at 'em!” makes for a nice headline, it was the teacher’s behavior, not the medium that is at fault.

According to the article, one of the teachers had been cut loose because of the social-networking scandal. The reality, is this is not a social networking scandal. It is an inappropriate conduct scandal, like all the others we’ve seen for years...pre-social networking. These teachers would be fired regardless of whether they were acting inappropriately online, on paper, through email or via face-to-face conduct. In fact, in most cases, these teachers also engaged in inappropriate activities off line as well.

The problem here is that the media is confusing the issue and policy makers and school administrators look like they’re doing a good thing when they take the easy way out enforcing bans and mandates in the name of child safety. The reality is that when we remove the ability of adults to exist in children’s worlds, we are doing just the opposite of keeping students safe. Enabling students to operate in online environments devoid of the watchful eye, guidance and advice of adult family members, teachers and mentors, is not in the best interests of children.

These teachers weren’t behaving inappropriately because of Facebook. There have always been inappropriately behaving adults. Facebook, in the case of these adults, didn’t cause their behavior, it just made it easier for them to get caught. The danger we run in to when we ban the tool rather than address the behavior is that without teaching students to appropriately harness the power of communication and technology tools available today, we aren’t preparing them for the world in which they live and not only survive, but also thrive.

We all know that the U.S. President wouldn’t be in office had he not had social media savvyness. Don’t we want our children to be educated in a way that would prepare them if they one day wanted to run for office, start a movement, change the world? You betcha! And, adults shouldn’t fool themselves that one must be of a certain age to harness the power of social media to make a difference. Kids around the globe are using social media to affect positive change today.

Fortunately, more and more adults see past the media hype and are not falling prey to the sensationalism. Instead they are harnessing the power of online media to connect and engage with students in important ways. In fact, I was recently mentioned in the New York Times after they came across a post I wrote about Friending Students on Facebook. In the piece they shared how Facebook enabled students and teachers to make meaningful connections with each other. Or, take for instance first grade teacher Erin Shoening who helps her elementary students harness the power of Facebook. You can see how she and a colleague do this in the below video.

The answer is not to follow in the footsteps of reactive states like Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Ohio who have ordered or urged teachers not to "friend" students on social-networking sites. While it may be an easier solution for schools, it is not what is best for our students. If we want to ensure students are empowered to successfully communicate, operate, and make a difference in the world, we need to stop trying as The Post suggests, “to find policies that address teacher-student communication on Facebook” and instead enforce policies that address appropriate and inappropriate behavior regardless of the medium. That doesn't mean removing adults from the online worlds of students. It means ensuring that adults and children interact in safe and appropriate ways regardless of the medium that empower them to be self-directed, globally-connected learners and leaders.


  1. I agree. Good post. I read somewhere that when we want students to be empowered around water, we teach them to swim. We don't tell them to stay away from water for the rest of their lives. We should teach students how to swim the sometimes dangerous waters of Social Networking.

    I don't want to get too controversial, here but the same argument could be made about gun laws - Guns don't kill people. People kill people.

    PS - Even though I agree, I still don't friend students. As an administrator, I am afraid I will read a post or picture that I would have to take disciplinary action on. I already do enough of that at work.

  2. Thank you! It's getting really ridiculous. Like I said in an interview last week, interacting with students via social media like Facebook should be perfectly fine as long as both the educator and the student understand appropriateness and boundaries that are easily observed in the classroom. Like you said, don't blame the tool. Very nice post. Thanks!

  3. @Eric, thank you for the feedback and I have heard the pool analogy too. Makes a lot of sense. I don't agree w/the gun analogy because the primary purpose of the device is to kill. The primary purpose of social media is to communicate. But, agree...don't want to get too controversial/stray from the initial topic.

    Regarding your "PS" comment, it is one I respect but it saddens me. Students need you to see their post or picture and guide them. Even if we don't look, it's still there. If all the educators are too afraid to see what students are doing, aren't they in essence swimming in uncharted waters without a lifeguard?

  4. @Amanda, not surprisingly, I agree! It would be wise for school districts to mandate that educators, parents/guardians/families, students understand and exhibit appropriate use that empowers students to succeed in digital worlds.

  5. As with all tools of every sort, it's how you use it. I seem to remember that teachers were perfectly capable of inappropriate behaviour in the old days too!

  6. Thank you for posting this. I read the article on a twitter link but I didn't have the energy to comment on it. If I had, I would have said just what you said :-)
    I do have student contacts on facebook ( and I call them contacts, not friends because it helps explain the difference."Friending' is a social media term that means something very different from the Oxford definition of friend.)Those that ask to add me tell me it's for several reasons. 1. Because it allows them to contact me easily and they and their parents often do, to ask questions about homework, to report absences etc. 2. Because it makes them feel safer to have an adult they trust in their online space.3. Because they enjoy having an insight into my life away from school and they enjoy having me make positive comments on things that they do.
    Sometimes, as Eric suggests, it puts me in a difficult position when re online disclosure. More often though, it gives me an insight into issues that are occurring online and allows me to nip them in the bud before they get out of control.

  7. @Sheep Rustler - Absolutely. The behavior always existed. We need to deal with that rather than take the perceived easy-way-out and blame the tool...which actually, makes it easier to catch these creeps.

  8. @kwaussie, You are welcome. Terrific points. You've inspired me to write a follow up post sharing reasons responsible educators do "friend" students and also address the redefinition of the term. I'll be sure to include your advice.

  9. I researched whether there are State laws/guidelines in Wisconsin, Ohio or New Hampshire. It does not appear to be state-wide but, rather, board-by-board or county-by-county. The line "Wisconsin, Ohio and New Hampshire" appears to be just a soundbyte.

    It's interesting that people are split on this issue. I wonder if the split is political, generational, or something else.

  10. Okay - now you are forcing me to rethink my previous personal policy. I see the contradiction in my own decision not to friend students. Just another benefit of online dialogue - LEARNING! Thank you for helping me to think through my beliefs.

    It is interesting that this discussion is going on concurrently with a discussion that we are having at school. Our school just won a $5 million dollar grant, 1.1 million needs to be spent on technology by Sep.of 2011. We have hired a consultant that is asking us questions that that force us to envision what learning looks like in 5 years at our school.

    I used this discussion thread as an example of how we should be looking past the fear of the unknown.

  11. @Eric, how inspiring/exciting that you are rethinking policies. I think this is so important for educators and educational leaders. Chris Lehmann and Eric Sheninger are two leaders who I very much respect. If you aren't already, you may want to consider friending them and following their blogs.

    I do understand and respect the fact that some educators want to keep personal and professional lives separate (I'm not in that category, but I get it), but even if that's the case, I know kids need us in their online lives...even though it's hard. That might be through a regular Facebook page, a professional page, a fan page. All work well. It doesn't need to be every teacher / administrator, but having some adults watching out for students in their worlds is powerful!

  12. Great post. I subscribe to the idea of not friending current students on my personal Facebook. I do however believe it is alright to set up a classroom Facebook page and I friend current students and parents with this. I make some suggestions on my website about privacy settings for the students but leave it up to them to follow them. So many educators spend time discussing ways to increase student and parent communication and then over look this incredible resource. Websites, Moodle pages, and the like are great, but parents and students have to make a conscience decision to visit those pages. When a parent or student friends a classroom Facebook they are giving you the opportunity to post information about your classroom into a place they check frequently. This year my students have thanked me for reminders of classroom assignments, used facebook to communicate with me when they are sick, and asked for clarifications on assignments. When I discuss this with other teachers I often hear how they don't have time or don't want students intruding into their personal time outside of school. Personally I have found that the few minutes it takes me to post updates (via Twitter) and to respond to students saves me more than enough time to make it worthwhile. By using Twitter to update facebook, I can also have those updates appear on my websites and classroom Moodle pages. Essentially updating four online resources with one post. Add to that Google Voice (a teachers personal secretary) and it is pretty easy to create a very transparent classroom for students and parents. I'll post a link to my communication page below in case anyone is interested. I hope you don't mind...

  13. I think this is a clear black and white issue with no room for gray. Teachers should not be allowed to communicate with their students in any way on Facebook. With that said, some 'bad' teachers will always find a way to circumvent any policy or restrictions that might be placed on them. ‘Good' teachers will be smart enough to stay away regardless. The slope on this one is just too slippery.

  14. Thank you so much for this article. You have hit some of of my own main points and my own ideas that Students need to learn to behave appropriately no matter the situation or the medium- Facebook is classified as public domain- even lawyers have acknowledged that. So if they are in a Park down the road, or on Facebook (twitter, bebo etc) laws governing behaviour still apply. The problem is so many people are afraid (particularly teachers) of going into those areas, that we are now faced with a lack of supervision, and a lack of guidance using social networking sites- rise in cyber bullying, rise in sexual predators, etc. Personally, I care about my students online and offline, and if I knew they were going somewhere that could potentially lead to harm, I'd want to do all in my power to make sure they were protected and knew what how to behave and what to do if an issue arises.
    Retreating or tying our hands behind our backs doesnt do any good in the long run, neither does ignoring the issue and doing my own (sometimes reckless) things online just because I can and I'm an adult.
    Facebook is PUBLIC and what we post online is PERMANENT. Actually, I think this is a good thing for keeping me accountable, if my actions and everything I do online are transparent, then I shouldn't need to worry about privacy issues.