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Virginia Journal of Education

Lost in 'Space'

by Catherine Paglin

If you teach middle or high school, many-probably most-of your students are hanging out on social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook. They're using the virtual venues to stay current with friends, make social plans, and meet new people.

But they're not the only ones: Chances are that you, or one of your educator colleagues, have staked out some real estate on MySpace, too, or at least thought about it. If so, think carefully before you act. Around the country, educators on MySpace are finding themselves in headlines such as "Teacher fights firing over MySpace page", "MySpace page puts teacher at center of controversy" and "District considers virtual boundaries for workers". A Las Vegas television station uncovered MySpace pages for almost 20 percent of the local school district's newly-hired teachers, and broadcast a two-part story about teachers whose pages contained racy content-in one case, an admission of marijuana use.

At worst, information and communications disclosed on MySpace could impact your employment or even your license, depending on the content. Or material on your page could compromise your effectiveness in the classroom if students find it. MySpace may call itself "a place for friends," but educators should tread cautiously there, as well as on any other social networking site.

With Friends Like These...
Even if you construct a MySpace or other profile that makes you look saintly, consider what others may post there. Would you want your principal, your students, and your students' parents to stumble on offensive content like this?

Yo Bro, wassup, first off If that hottie _____ were calling me I think I would be answering my phone, what's ur problem u gay? Maybe not u didn't answer when i called u either. -Comment posted on a teacher's profile, by a friend

When you return to school on Monday morning, would you want your students inquiring how many beers you drank over the weekend?

Hey man, miss you. I'll be hanging with B this weekend. We should all go get beers tomorrow night. I'll call when I get up there.- Another comment on the same teacher's profile

Even if you go to the trouble of screening all your friends' comments before allowing them to be posted, a visitor to your profile can follow the links to your friends' sites and might find information about you there that you would rather keep private, such as photos or videos taken at a party or during a night on the town.

Professional vs. Personal
The content of a MySpace page doesn't even have to be offensive, suggestive, embarrassing or controversial to have an impact on your image at school.

"Oh!" squealed an eighth grader when she typed her 28-year-old student-teacher's name into the MySpace search function and his profile popped up. The profile and comments contained no four-letter words and no mention of alcohol, sex or drugs. The student-teacher's 25 "friends" were modestly clothed. Yet just his public presence on MySpace, alongside his headline "Ehhh. ya got any gum?" seemed to undo weeks of classroom appearances in a starched white shirt and dark tie. "He seems so much less professional to me now," giggled the girl.

One high school teacher maintained a MySpace page with a blog for half a year, but finally deleted it out of concern it might disrupt his teaching. Though he had kept the page private most of the time, he had occasionally changed the setting so that non-MySpace friends could read the blog. During one of those times a student who had graduated contacted him through MySpace.

"That was a warning signal to me," says the 30-year-old teacher, though he believes it should be an educator's choice if he or she wishes to risk putting personal information on the Internet. "The way our students perceive us has a lot to do with how they respond to us. Our goal in the classroom is to make sure students can learn from us, so we need to be aware of anything that could change our reputation, whether it's the truth or not, and whether or not we believe that we should be able to show these parts of ourselves."

When Students are 'Friends'
hahahahha. like everyone in your friends is one of your students -Comment posted on a teacher's page

thanks for being an incredibleeee PE teacher and not getting angry when we wore our crazy outfits, and giving me an A in the class even though I never made up that running thing. YAYYY. :)- Comment posted on the same teacher's page

helloo mr. ____ you know how creppy this must look, to like someone that dosnt know you're a teacher. grown man+onley kids as his friends on myspace=kreepy stalker guy but you aren't cause you're mr. ______yup- Comment posted on a teacher's page

One of the more controversial aspects of teachers using MySpace is when they create a profile and allow students to become "friends." "I feel more comfortable not going down that road," says Jesse Skinner, a 30-year-old Oregon middle school math teacher, who is studying to become a school counselor. "MySpace is a social network, and that's not the relationship we have with students. A teacher-student relationship--I don't think it necessarily has to be a cold relationship, but I don't think we need MySpace for a good relationship to grow."

Certainly, an inappropriate conversation can happen in person or on school e-mail as well as on a social networking site. But the conversation may more easily veer into questionable territory when "friends" are communicating after hours, seemingly in the privacy of their own homes, and in a highly informal social environment like MySpace, where students--like these in one teacher's friends list--attach their profile photos to headlines such as "I'm so hot you'll need oven mitts to handle me."

"On MySpace it's so easy to cross so many boundaries so fast, and students don't necessarily know what boundaries they're crossing by posting a comment or a picture, and how quickly you've changed the dynamic of the relationship," says Skinner.

The rapid growth of social networking sites raises many issues of free speech, appropriate off-duty conduct, and appropriate student-teacher contact. In the absence of specific district and state policies, consider these common-sense recommendations:

. When possible, use school-sanctioned avenues to communicate with students, such as division e-mail or phones, and educational portals such as Blackboard.

. If a student unexpectedly contacts you through a social networking site, don't respond. Later, ask the student to contact you through school e-mail if it's a school-related matter.

. Document your communications with students.

. When at school, follow your school division's acceptable use policy for the Internet. If your district blocks sites like MySpace, don't use proxy sites or an override password to bypass the district filter and access these sites.

. If you use MySpace or other social networking sites, set your profile to private. Include as little personal information as possible on the part of the page that still appears to the public, and if you use a photo choose one that won't excite comment.

. Don't add students to your "friends" list and don't post comments to their profiles.

. If you have questions about school division policies, talk to your administrator.

. If you have concerns about ethical issues arising out of social networking sites, contact your UniServ director.

Paglin is a Portland, Oregon-based education writer.


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