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Virginia Journal of Education


Don’t Get Trapped By Social Media

 

While it’s a great way to communicate, do so with caution and foresight.


By Heather Ashley

Few things can ruin an educator’s career faster than a slip-up on social media: It can literally happen overnight. Something you post in the heat of the moment, or even a gentle post that at first glance seems so innocent, can have long-lasting ramifications. In the cyber world, once information is “out there,” you’ve lost control of it. It can spiral almost immediately, whether it’s actually true or not, or whether it’s taken in the context you intended or not, and evolve into something extremely damaging.

It used to be that we educators could vent our anguish to each other after school. Teachers would debrief in the workroom before we headed home, usually over coffee, photocopies and bubble-sheet machine beeps that sounded like popcorn. Today, we are just as stressed as teachers before us—if not more so. We still have the same problems, such as poor student behavior and a lack of support, but we have less time to connect with each other and talk about those issues. Enter social media, the perfect answer to connecting during a busy life.

While this relatively newfound mode of communicating can certainly be used well, it can also present significant risks to our professional careers if we’re not very thoughtful about how we use it.

Because we’re educators, we’re used to embracing new learning tools and we quickly realized the many positive uses social media offered for our students. Many of us have found ways to bring it in the classroom, we’ve brought it into the academic conversation, and most of us use some form of social media in our own daily lives. Both we and our students are so familiar with it that it can sometimes be hard to draw a line between the personal and the professional on social media. After all, most of us have some kind of technology at our fingertips nearly 16 hours a day.

Anyone who keeps up with the news knows of situations involving educators and their technology mishaps, which have sparked intense debate about the free speech and privacy rights of school employees. We know the harm that can come from a simple Facebook posting of a personal photo or from dashing off a quick status update after a difficult day. Not long ago right here in Virginia, a teaching assistant was reprimanded for a phrase she posted to describe her stressful day, which someone interpreted as a threat to do harm.

And it’s certainly not just educators new in school that are making social media missteps, creating problems for themselves and bringing their careers to premature ends. Recently, a 30-year teaching veteran found herself on her third course of antibiotics not long after the school year had gotten underway, and expressed her frustration online about constantly getting sick. In her post, she referred to her kids as “germ bags” and described their parents as “arrogant and snobby.” She believed she was just posting to friends and family, not realizing her posts made it to everyone on her list as well as their friends.

University professors are not immune, either. Just because you’re thinking it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to post it: A professor in Pennsylvania posted, “Does anyone know where I can find a discreet hit man? Yes, it’s been that kind of day.”

Even if you don’t get fired, you can still end up in deep trouble. These two postings are reported to have led to suspensions: A 15-year veteran teacher in New York, referring to a drowning incident on a school beach trip a few months earlier, she wrote, “After today, I am thinking that the beach sounds like a wonderful idea for my fifth-graders. I hate their guts. They are the devil’s spawn.” Another teacher, well known for using humor in and out of the classroom, referred to her class as “suicide inducing.”   

Though many of us fail to take this precautionary step, it’s always a good idea to step back and re-read anything we’re posting to see if it can be seen in a different context than we meant. We seem to leave out a lot of our own internal conversation which would explain where we were going with the few sentences we posted, so it’s good to check and be sure readers will “get it.”

Perhaps the most glaringly obvious piece of advice is that some things are best not shared.

Most of this is common sense, but not everyone takes the time to use their internal filter. It’s different online: Before social media and even now, if you talk bad about your boss and it gets back to him or her, things will probably not go well but at least you can claim it was hearsay. When you post on social media, you have provided documented proof of exactly what you said. And remember—once you post something online, you no longer control who sees it and who sends it out to others.

 In addition to the proper-use tips in the boxed item included in this article called, “Staying on the Social Media ‘Straight and Narrow’,” these pieces of advice should also be considered:

• Never post to social media during school time or use a school device to post something during off-hours.

• If you have an old account from back in your wild college years, lock it down tight with a private setting or delete it altogether. Even this, in some cases, may not be enough to keep it from being a part of your history.

• There’s nothing wrong with creating a good social media presence, but it’s wise to resist the urge to comment or post frequently.

• And remember, once you post something on the Internet, you can’t take it back.
 
There is another side to the whole social media issue, as well. If all we had to worry about was our own postings online, we could begin to train ourselves to err on the side of caution. However, we can also face problems because of what others post about us. An upset parent may make a comment about an educator; a student may go public with a false accusation; someone may even bring up a legitimate legal problem we’d rather no one hear about. Because many people think, “If it’s on the Internet, it must be true,” some will judge you before you get a chance to explain.

While there may not be as many options as you’d like, you’re not helpless when someone posts something unflattering about you online. Consult your local UniServ director for some advice, and check the ground rules established by the sites themselves. Facebook maintains a site dealing with what’s acceptable and what’s not when using its service. You can check this link to read the Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities www.facebook.com/terms.php?ref=pf. Threats, for instance, violate Facebook standards and can be reported. Derogatory remarks, in some cases, can be cause for legal action for defamation, though that can be a difficult charge to prove. On Twitter, you can find “The Twitter Rules” here: https://support.twitter.com/articles/18311-the-twitter-rules#.

 Here are some other options when someone is posting about you, from the National Education Association:

• Set up a Google Alert or other service to monitor use of your name or identity.

• Ask your school to block access to social networking sites and teacher “rating” sites from school computers.

• Urge school officials to discipline an offending student. Be prepared to show how the student’s online speech substantially disrupted the educational environment.

If school officials attempt to fire or suspend you because of, for example, a parent's complaint about you online, you'll have support if you're a VEA member. The Association provides eligible members with legal representation for the notice and hearing state law requires for dismissal or suspension, says Dena Rosenkrantz, VEA’s director of legal services.

Because the law on social media use is still evolving, there is almost always room for interpretation. Rosenkrantz, like any lawyer, will tell you that this is the case with just about every kind of law. What that means, unfortunately, is that there is no foolproof set of rules to follow, although following the tips presented here should be adequate protection.

Perhaps the best overall advice is to be sure that any online interactions you have with students, if any, are entirely professional and entirely available to parents and school administrators.

School divisions should have social media policies in place to offer clear guidelines for employees—in Virginia, some do and some don’t. Some divisions currently rely on state law, which remains fairly limited, and others, in the absence of a policy, handle social media incidents on a case-by-case basis. Nearly all Virginia school divisions require employees to sign a technology “acceptable use” policy, which may or may not contain clear information on social media use. And what about school division policies dealing with showing the faces of students in the media? That could be a ticking liability problem for schools and for educators on social media sites, as well.

Ashley, a member and former president of the Shenandoah County Education Association, teaches computer and information sciences in county schools.

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Staying On the Social Media 'Straight and Narrow'

Here are some social media best practices for wise online behavior both on and off the job, from the National Education Association:

On the job

• Use your school address to communicate with parents and students.

• Direct students and parents to a work sponsored website, not your personal website.

• Maintain professional boundaries in online communication, just as you would in face-to-face communication.

• Be aware that emails, messages and other postings using your employer’s system may be disclosable to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

• Be aware that messages concerning an identified student could be disclosable to parents under the Student Records Act.

....................................................................................... 


Off the job

• Don’t email, text or communicate to parents or students using your personal account.

• Avoid using employer equipment for private business.

• If you receive a communication on your personal account from a student, ask that they communicate to you through a work account.

• Avoid identifying your employer on personal websites, social networks, blogs, etc. If you do identify your employer and are communicating on a controversial topic, state that you are not speaking on behalf of your employer.

• Be cautious when communicating on controversial topics such as political preferences, sexual preferences, abortion, race, sex, criticism of students, school or colleagues.

• Avoid using profane or vulgar language or images.

• Use appropriate privacy settings. Regularly update and check those settings since the provider may change them.

• If you give students, parents or the general public access to your social network site, maintain professional boundaries and activities on that site.

• Request that others’ questionable pictures or statements about you that are publicly viewable be taken down.

• Contact the social media provider if you believe someone is violating the terms of use.

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Blogging Do’s and Don’ts

 

If you maintain a personal blog, here are some good guidelines:

DO:

• Be aware of your employer’s blogging policy.

• Limit access to your blog.

• Understand that blogging anonymously does not necessarily protect you. Your identity can be discovered through litigation.

• Monitor postings to your blog constantly, and remove any that are inappropriate.  Educate yourself on the comment approval/disapproval functions of the particular blogging site.

DO NOT:

• Post materials about your job duties, colleagues, administrators, or students.

• Blog about disciplinary actions that have been or may be taken against you.

• Blog about anything that might adversely affect your employer or disrupt your workplace.

We Can Help
VEA staff members have developed a social media training presentation and are available to help members use technology wisely.
 
For more information or to bring the presentation to your area, contact Robin Gardner of the Mountain View UniServ office at RGardner@veanea.org.


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