March 13, 2011

Wichita-area teachers walk delicate line online (2011)

Last month, Pennsylvania high school teacher Natalie Munroe referred to unnamed students on her personal blog as "rat-like," "annoying," "out of control," "frightfully dim" and "disengaged, lazy whiners."

Last month, Pennsylvania high school teacher Natalie Munroe referred to unnamed students on her personal blog as "rat-like," "annoying," "out of control," "frightfully dim" and "disengaged, lazy whiners."

The posts got her suspended. And they got educators nationwide talking about how teachers should conduct themselves online.

"I've been in every single school here, talking to staff" about Internet privacy and the use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr, said Deanna Gooch, human resources director for the Maize school district.

Her No. 1 bit of advice in all those discussions: "Imagine the content — whatever you put out there — being on the front page of the newspaper."

While most teachers are quick to warn students against Internet dangers — predators, pornographers, bullies and the like — few talk about their own challenges navigating an increasingly digital social world:

Should teachers friend students on Facebook?

Should they tweet from their classrooms?

Should they share political opinions or vent frustrations on blogs or social media sites?

And how should districts balance freedom of speech with their desire for teachers to be responsible, professional and above reproach?

"There are a lot of benefits to Facebook and any of the social media," said Velma Davis, an instructional specialist who teaches Internet safety and helps Wichita teachers use the district's new blogging platform.

"But just like any tool, it can be used for good or for negative."

Districts' policies on Internet use vary. Many, including Wichita, block Facebook on school computers and ban "inappropriate use," such as transmitting obscene material. In general, Wichita's policy requires employees to use computers "in a professional manner" consistent with state and federal laws.

But there is no clear code of conduct for teachers on social media sites such as Facebook. Some automatically accept any student's friend request; some decline them all. Others accept requests from former students but not current ones. Some establish one account for personal friends and another for students and colleagues or classroom business.

"I've never seen anything that is an official dos and don'ts. It's left up to the teacher," said Larry Landwehr, president of United Teachers of Wichita.

"But we would suggest that they don't friend students. ... If your friends take pictures of you at some football party and you're acting goofy or doing something inappropriate, someone else could see that and make it an issue."

"Teachers are held in high regard," Landwehr said. "So you have to be very careful and mindful of that."

Munroe, the Pennsylvania English teacher who was suspended with pay, said she blogged under the name Natalie M. with the idea that only family and close friends would read her posts. She did not identify her school or name students on the blog, which has since been taken down, but it did include a photo of her.

She now blogs at a new site, nataliemunroe.com, where she defended her actions:

"The same way millions of Americans go home at the end of the day and complain about select co-workers or clients or other jerks they had to deal with, I came home and complained on my blog about those I had to deal with," she wrote.

Mary Whiteside, assistant superintendent of human resources for Wichita schools, said the district's first priority is ensuring students' privacy.

"What we're really talking about is a communication tool," she said.

"We've been emphasizing social networking because of the ease of it. But with any communication, first and foremost, we need to abide by and follow the guidelines of (student) confidentiality."

Gooch, the Maize human resources director, wrote her master's thesis on teachers and social media and blogs about the topic. Social sites can be great tools for teachers to relay information, collaborate, speak their minds or just make learning fun, she says. But they should always be aware that what they post could have consequences.

"I'm like, 'Guys, it's still a job, and they can require certain things because you're being paid,' " she said. "There's an expectation of professional behavior."

Mark Walker, a vocal-music teacher at Heights High School, says his personal Facebook policy — he only accepts friend requests from students who have graduated — makes life easier.

"I feel like it's going across the line somewhat of the teacher-student relationship" to friend students on Facebook, Walker said. "Mr. Walker needs to be Mr. Walker, at school.

"They don't have the maturity to understand my life outside of school completely, so I just don't let them in there. ... That's just my policy, and the students all know my policy."

Walker sends e-mails or text messages to his choir students to remind them of special rehearsals or tell them if a location has switched. "They know that my texts are all business," he said.

In contrast, Johnny Martin, a social studies teacher and soccer coach at South High, started a Twitter page for his soccer team expressly to avoid text messaging.

"The Twitter page is there and open for everyone to see — students, parents, whoever," Martin said. "To me, that avoids some of the problems" or suspicions surrounding private text messaging, he said.

Another Wichita high school teacher accepts Facebook friend requests from students he trusts and says it's often easier to contact them through the site than by phone or e-mail.

He's careful about what he posts, said the English teacher, who asked that his name not be used in order to avoid "a flood of total strangers checking me out on Facebook."

If students see on his page that he went to a concert or graded papers or supports the teacher protests in Wisconsin, "I don't really mind," he said.

"The whole idea that teachers aren't real people who have real lives and that those lives don't affect who they are and how they think and what they do — that's kind of an antiquated and ridiculous assumption," he said. "But truthfully, my life is kind of dull."

Whiteside would not say whether a Wichita employee has ever been disciplined or fired for online behavior that was legal but unprofessional. "Those are personnel matters," she said. Officials handle any allegations "on a case-by-case basis," she added.

Some school districts around the country have responded to the Pennsylvania incident by proposing stricter regulations.

A school board in Gainesville, Fla., is considering a new policy that would discourage teachers from engaging with students on social media networks without administrative approval and another that would prohibit them from commenting about or posting video of students.

Gooch, the Maize director, said her district is considering more specific guidelines. But it's a struggle, she said, for districts wanting to embrace the online world and social networking.

"Every district in the country that has any technology," she said, "is going to have technology issues."

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