Sunday, December 11, 2011

Teachers Union Advice Protects Teachers Rather Than Prepares Students to Use Real World Tools

In a recent story on NPR, New Jersey teachers union spokesman Steve Wollmer became the latest to completely miss the point and give bonehead advice suggesting a variety of policies for teachers to follow when using social media.

His advice:
"Don't ever friend or follow your students on Facebook or Twitter, never post during work hours or use  work materials such as a school computer, and certainly never post anything about your job online, especially about students," Wollmer says. "I think that's where some of these teachers have found themselves in difficult situations."

Ignorant advice!!!
Someone needs to educate Wollmer and the teachers he is advising that social media doesn’t cause inappropriate behavior; it catches it.  

The story, Friendly Advice For Teachers: Beware Of Facebook features teachers who were caught being inappropriate. Is the teacher’s union head really suggesting that we don’t want to catch irresponsible educators? Is he suggesting teachers can’t be trusted to act appropriately so they should just stay away from using 21st century communication tools?  

Here is what the teachers were caught doing:
  • Union, N.J., high school teacher Viki Knox posted comments on her Facebook page about a gay history exhibit at the school suggesting it should be removed; she then urged her friends to pray and eventually called homosexuality a perverted sin.
  • In the Paterson, N.J., case, a judge ruled that teacher Jennifer O'Brien can be fired for calling her students future criminals on Facebook.
Do we really want these people teaching our children? Is the answer really telling teachers not to use social media or is it that teachers, who are intolerant and make disparaging comments about their students, should leave the profession

This is another case of a union trying to protect teachers that are not best for our children. Wollmer is suggesting educators do what will make his job easier rather than doing what is right for students who will need to know how to effectively use social media to succeed in the world.  After all, it’s social media that enabled our president to be elected into office and Egypt to have a revolution.  Social media is the top source for information and current events. It is also one of the most effective learning tools available to young people and teachers. Policymakers and educational leaders must stop keeping students prisoners of the past by disconnecting them from the tools that are a part of their everyday world.

Instead of Wollmer’s moronic advice, how about this advice from The Innovative Educator:

“Your students need you to connect to them in their worlds whether online or face to face.  Accept their friend requests.  Teach your students how to develop an appropriate digital footprint that will lead to their professional and social success.  Use social media during school hours with your students. Work with them to think critically about the message they are conveying online.  Help them use social media to develop their personal learning networks and connect with those who share their passions.  Remember that as a teacher it is your responsibility to serve as a guide and a mentor.  Model appropriate use and behavior online and in life.”


  1. Okay, so where do I begin? Were the two teachers who got in trouble in the NPR article behaving unprofessionally? Yes. Am I surprised they're in trouble? No. Do they deserve to be fired? That's a matter for debate. Should teachers avoid using Facebook and Twitter? No. Should they use it wisely? Yes. Is Wollmer's advice correct? In a sense, yes.

    Let me break it down because you have completely misinterpreted his comments as well as the actual purpose of a teacher's union.

    While the best interests of the students are important, a teachers union is not set up to protect students; it's set up to advocate for teachers in the case of such things as labor matters, whether that be collective bargaining or potential legal issues such as this. What Wollmer meant in his comments was not that bad teachers need to be quiet to protect themselves; it's that everyone needs to watch out for themselves because most reactions to what's online are very knee-jerk and can potentially ruin someone's career.

    He is basically pointing out the reality of the situation: administrators are scared of lawsuits and bad press, so they will come down on social media use and in some cases it will be ridiculous and no-tolerance, so you need to be careful.

    Teachers aren't the only professionals who have been Dooced, and as harsh as their comments were, since I don't know the individual teachers in each example given, I can't say that they were bad teachers. At a glance, it appears that they simply made very stupid decisions that had very dramatic reactions. No teacher will deny passing negative thoughts about their students, especially after a tough day; we're only human.

    There's a difference between putting your foot in your mouth and making advances toward a student, but those in charge of buildings increasingly do not have our backs and crumble at the sight of an angry parent and that's what Wollmer was getting at. And that's where I think you may have missed the point.

    Also, did you just refer to yourself in the third person before block quoting your own text?

  2. I didn't miss the point Tom. Wollmer says teachers shouldn't use social media because they'll get in trouble if they're inappropriate. He should have just said don't be inappropriate.

  3. He is basically pointing out the reality of the situation: administrators are scared of lawsuits and bad press, so they will come down on social media use and in some cases it will be ridiculous and no-tolerance, so you need to be careful.

    Teachers aren't the only professionals who have been Dooced, and as harsh as their comments were, since I don't know the individual teachers in each example given, I can't say that they were bad teachers. At a glance, it appears that they simply made very stupid decisions that had very dramatic reactions. No teacher will deny passing negative thoughts about their students, especially after a tough day; we're only human.

    There's a difference between putting your foot in your mouth and making advances toward a student, but those in charge of buildings increasingly do not have our backs and crumble at the sight of an angry parent and that's what Wollmer was getting at. And that's where I think you may have missed the point.

  4. @ Tom
    I actually do not know where to start. I can not say I am shocked, just scared for the future generations when comments like these are acceptable.
    First, I guess I would ask you to define a "bad" teacher. If a teacher thinks the kids are "future criminals", then as a parent, I would not want that person teaching my child. No discussion, if a teacher does not like my child, that teacher should NEVER be teaching my child.
    Secondly, students are not in school to provide teachers with jobs. The teachers are there for ONE reason only, for the children. If someone does not respect ALL children, they should not be teaching.
    I a flabbergasted by your comment "a teachers union is not set up to protect students;". Again, schools must at all cost protect all students. Any organization which by definition does not protect the student, should NEVER have any authority in a school.
    As for the post by Wolmer, he like you is misinformed about the role of teachers in the school system. I will fight to my dying day to ensure, if schools exist in their current capacity, that all teachers are their for each and every student.
    Schools are not factories, they are nurturing centres. Perhaps the students would not be "future criminals" if the factory approach to school was eliminated.

  5. I should add that everyone has the right to voice their opinion. However, if their opinion is that some children in their care are unworthy of care, then they should withdraw from teaching. This is not about teacher's rights, it is about the best possible environment for students.

  6. Tom, I agree that the purpose of a union is to be an advocate for the teacher, not the student, and that many teacher's have found his advice to be too true to tell others to ignore about social media and parent/administrator over reaction. When new college of ed graduates are regularly told to hide or delete facebook profiles before job searching because principals can and do use even having one against them in the hiring process, then that is what the field looks like from a teacher's point of view. It is simply easier to avoid having students as friend's on facebook or block them from following your personal twitter feed than to need to worry about over zealous parents, administrator's, co-workers, (or cruel students) etc. taking information gathered and using it against you for other purposes. If individuals feel comfortable after having the facts, hearing stories about the result of what has happened in a range of instances, then that's great that they have made an informed decision that aims to understand both sides of the issue. I don't think students need to be my facebook friend or twitter follower for me to be able to teach them about social media, and I am not interested in having to super adjust everything I post for the student audience or to guard my facebook wall from what friends may want to post because a student or parent may not agree with my personal views.

    Schools are nurturing centeres? I'm not sure where I've seen that in an analysis of the purose of schools. Can schools nuture interest, understanding or creativity? Sure.

    I truly do not understand the idea of respecting all chilren. The one who slammed a door in my face and the glass broke? The one purposely kicked a football into the classroom window and scared younger students who were there for a meeting? Nope. If teacher's have to earn respect, so do students. I believe in earning the respect of students and in-turn their behavior and actions can earn them my respect as well. Do I provide help and guidance in areas related to my subject for all students? Yes, that is my job.

  7. @ Anonymous - I do agree with one point you make: there's no _need_ for students to be Facebook friends or Twitter followers of yours in order for you to teach them to use social media responsibly. I can also understand young teachers' concerns, in a terrible economic time, about anything that might cause them not to get a job -- or to lose a job once they've finally found one.

    But as I read the first paragraph of your comment, I kept wondering "What is Anonymous so afraid of?" If I misinterpreted your tone, I'm truly sorry, but that's the impression I got: Anonymous is almost paralyzed with fear that someone, somewhere, somehow, might misinterpret something that s/he said and, somehow, Anonymous might get in trouble as a result.

    As for your last two paragraphs -- again, I may be misinterpreting you, and if so, I sincerely apologize. But I don't see how schools can perform any of their educational functions if they don't begin by providing SOME degree of nurturing and safety for students and teachers. I'm sure we're all familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs; regardless of the overall validity of the theory, it just makes sense that you can't concentrate on the INTELLECTUAL content of a class if your physical and emotional needs aren't met. The students you mention in your last paragraph -- like many students of mine over the years -- were clearly desperate for some kind of attention. They didn't think they could get positive attention, so they settled for negative attention -- and I'm sure they probably got plenty of that.

    To me, there's a big difference between basic respect / regard for a PERSON, on the one hand, and respect / regard for the person's BEHAVIOR, on the other. Clearly your students' BEHAVIOR didn't deserve respect -- but a person who behaves disgracefully is still a person. As such, I want to show as much unconditional, positive regard for the PERSON as I can, even while I'm dealing with appropriate consequences for the BEHAVIOR. Over time, that will often turn the student's behavior around.

    @Jo-Anne, I agree with you -- even if a student is making terrible choices of words or behavior, I still need to care for him/her as a person. In fact, he/she may need MORE care at that time.

    Looking forward to continuing this conversation.

  8. No, I don't live in fear, I appreciate you allowing me to readdress that idea, I’m sorry that the tone appeared to show that. However, I am aware that I post things that parents and administrators wouldn't like as part of my facebook "life" and so I am not interested in having students as friends, even past students because your past student is the cousin of a current student. I share things about my life when appropriate in the classroom, but facebook is an amalgamation of my life since college and I’m not deleting things or censoring my page so that I can have students as friends. When I see articles of teachers being fired because a friend tagged them in a post from a wedding reception where a container of alcohol was on the table, then I know that administrators will overreact to the fact that teacher's are not saints who live in a sealed room.

    I am aware of the hierarchy of needs and am frustrated that we can't do more to address those needs and that we are held accountable for results that have more to do with lack of access to resources than to our work. However, the student who behaved poorly (slammed a door in my face) made active choices to do those things, even after having plenty of positive attention in terms of support in developing ideas and yet when told that behavior was unacceptable chose to do that.

    What I dislike about the notion that teachers must respect and nurture students is that it acts as if that is my sole purpose as a teacher to be a replacement for a parent, which I am not. Of course there is the base line of acknowledgement of the fact that, as a class we need to have a working relationship, but it may turn out that we clash and still need to get on with the business of school. And I do get that the more respect you can give, the more you can get and I strive to be able to do that as a teacher, but I am also a person who doesn't appreciate poor behavior towards me or other students, regardless of the reason the student is exhibiting it. Of course I still worked with the student and helped him to complete his work after we was allowed back in school, but the idea that I’d continue to respect someone who treated me poorly just doesn’t jive with me or how the real world works.

  9. The reason I will never be a friend with a student on Facebook or Twitter is because there is too much grey area. Am I responsible for online bullying then? Am I supposed to police the comments between students on my wall?

    Then there is the issue of my beliefs. Lets say I am an atheist and it has come up on Facebook in my personal conversations. I work in a very Christian town, they find out and I am wrongly run out of the town based on my beliefs. Crazier things have happened with Facebook accounts and teachers.

    I think the unions advice is sound until there is a better understand of how teachers and students are supposed to interact in cyberspace.

  10. @Anonymous,
    The conversation should not be about the tool, it should be about the behavior. You ask if you are responsible for online bullying? The question should be, "Are you responsible for bullying?" I don't know the answer to that where you teach, but like it or not, we're in the 21st century, so if bullying is suspected, there should absolutely be someone at the school responsible for investigating that. It sounds to me like perhaps you're asking, if you see bullying online are you responsible. Answer, of course you are. Why on earth would you look the other way if students were in danger. Teachers are mandated reporters and it is exactly because of situations like bullying, where teachers can help students stay safe, that they should be using Faceook.

    You ask about what happens if someone finds out about your religious beliefs. If you're in the closet about your beliefs in life, which I find unfortunate, then yes, that should carry to your online world. You are the same person regardless of whether you communicate with your mouth or your fingers.

    Finally, there wouldn't be a better understanding of how teachers and students should interact in cyberspace if everyone is taking the easy way out and banning. However, I the reality is we should already have that understanding. Teachers and students should interact in cyberspace the same way they interact in any space.

  11. Other :) Anonymous if your comments about atheism and your local community are true (and not just an example) and you feel uncomfortable having students or colleagues as friends because you don’t want to censor your online postings about it, then I would absolutely not have them as friends on facebook. As said before facebook and social media awareness and good use can be taught without a student having you as a friend. You can look at many public examples of positive and negative ways of using facebook, twitter, etc. and have students decide what they want their social media footprint to look like. Many students are opting to keep their lives online private from people who aren’t their friends, while others are more open to allowing anyone to see. It’s everyone’s personal choice and as a teacher I don’t think are obligated to move relationships with people to a level that you are uncomfortable with.

    I disagree that you have to make your religious views public knowledge in any format and that if you are discrete about your belief in an area where your beliefs could make life difficult for you that somehow you must give up your more openness about it online because someone who has absolutely no connection to you told you to do so. You control the information you post and want to post and the audience that it goes to. You curate your audience and your social circle and choose people that you feel you can be yourself with. If you don’t want students to be a part of that, it is perfectly acceptable and you can be an amazing teacher regardless of which way you choose to go forward.

    In terms of online bullying, I’d recommend reporting what you see, taking screenshots, etc. Facebook is very good about closing down accounts of those who bully others, as it is against their user agreement. Unless I saw something specific that would cause me to investigate further, I would look at it as I would at school, if I come across the behaviour it is then my responsibility, but unless I suspect something specific I don’t go around searching for it.

  12. I am an educator in NJ. With the political climate here and the general hostility toward teachers at this point, as well as the negative connotations surrounding social media, I think the advice is very appropriate. However districts like mine have not only all social media blocked but also all web 2.0 tools so there is NO social interaction at all. There are in-house email, blogs, and forums, but it hardly constitutes a real-world situation with publishing for a larger audience. Three things need to occur for educators in NJ to feel comfortable with what you propose. Educator witch-hunts must end (in NJ our world is filled with gotcha-moments), school administrators must recognize the importance of teaching social media and open up their tight lock on the internet or pay for a special school-only type service (they are out there), and finally parents and the public at large needs to be educated in the importance and necessity of teaching socially responsible online behavior. But right now, to strike off on my own and just begin friending because I can teach students something is just plain irresponsible. Not to mention that what I post on my FB or Twitter is for adult consumption, I have no children on my services. With out curriculum and other school policy to protect teachers, this won't happen, especially in NJ. It's so bad here teachers do not put their names to posts that could potentially be seen by anyone in their district or by the state and misconstrued. Yes, it's that bad here.

  13. I shouldn't be responsible for patrolling the internet. I have 100 students in 7th grade. If I am friends with half of them and one of them gets bullied online and I don't see it and report it, that becomes my fault?

    I am responsible form my students during the school day, not for what they do at home. That is what parents are there for. This just adds to the stereotype that I am a glorified babysitter.

    Technology is great, and I use it almost everyday in my classroom. But there has to be a line drawn. Personal sties like blogs and Facebook and twitter should not be connected with students.

  14. @Anonymous, it is true. You shouldn't be responsible for patrolling the internet. Anyone who understands social media wouldn't expect that. Those that ban it and have no idea what it is may say such things but the reality is that if it is decided the internet should be patrolled schools need a plan. Those who use Facebook understand that being friends in social media doesn't mean you sit glued to someone's wall or timeline stalking them for an update.

    Let me provide an analogy. If you speak to your students you are not responsible for everything they speak about even though you can hear, however, if you hear your students engaging in something dangerous, you should be responsible for helping to address the issue.

    Regarding your line that should be drawn...the logic doesn't follow. We use our mouths and our pens for personal reasons. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't be used for educational reasons. Many careers require social media savvyness for success. If we don't use the tools of real life in schools then we are not preparing students for real life.

    If you were just a babysitter perhaps taking the easy way out would be acceptable. You are not. Teachers should be responsible for incorporating the tools of student's worlds into the school environment. After all, if it wasn't for Twitter and Facebook our nation's president wouldn't have been elected and there wouldn't have been a revolution in Egypt. If educators aren't taking on the role of preparing their students to change the world, they're not doing their jobs. Legislating against using 21st century tools is easier for policymakers but leaves our students behind and unprepared.