A teacher’s guide to avoiding the dangers of cyber-space

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Teachers who use social media are vulnerable to harassment and accusations from parents and pupils. Headteacher Mark Steed offers some advice on how we can protect ourselves effectively.

 

We had an issue last year, when an upset parent “trolled” a teacher. This episode was a timely reminder of the vulnerable position that teachers find themselves in.

We spend a lot of time in schools exhorting and training pupils to take measures to be safe online, but many of the same principles equally apply to the staffroom.

There is little doubt that many teachers need to take much greater care when navigating the world of social media. Forewarned is forearmed.

Staff training, policies and procedures

Our senior team has run an INSET on e-safety for the teaching staff, and with full governor support, drafted a policy and procedure to deal with any future malicious or vengeful acts by parents: a formal warning would be given and any repetition would lead to the “required removal” of the child because of a breakdown of trust between the school and the parent.

Because teachers work in positions of influence with children and young people, society dictates that they conduct themselves as role-models.

Furthermore, some headteachers’ interpretation of child protection legislation and procedures often mean that there are circumstances when a teacher is treated as “guilty until proven innocent”.

For example, a teacher who is subject to a malicious online anonymous accusation potentially could face suspension, pending a full investigation – with all the personal reputational damage that this entails.

In this context, it is all the more important that teachers do all they can to take steps to prevent themselves from being open to accusation by ensuring that their personal life on social media remains private. 

Protecting your digital tattoo

Teachers should take the time to protect their online presence. Most obviously this entails a good understanding of the privacy settings on individual social media sites. 

However, teachers should bear in mind that, while, it is possible to prevent members of the public (including parents and pupils) from having access to personal pictures and posts, it is perhaps safest to assume that, in practice, everything that is posted online is in the public domain.

Once it is out there, rather like a tattoo, it is very difficult to get it removed. The rule of thumb is “don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t want to see in the Daily Mail”.

We are not totally responsible for our digital tattoo, for others can post pictures and write things about us online. This is more difficult to monitor and control. Two useful steps are to search for yourself online to see what is out there about you and to set up Google Alerts that will inform you when your name appears on a website.

RateMyTeacher

The RateMyTeacher website is an area of concern for teachers as it provides an unaccountable platform for malicious comments, unbalanced judgements and the cyber-bullying of teachers. 

Because comments are posted anonymously and the site is now hosted in the US, there is, in practice, no legal redress for any libellous accusations posted on the site (because US law protects the site from prosecution, and it is almost impossible to trace any individual who made the original post). The consequence is that teachers are vulnerable to potentially career-damaging false accusations.

Taking steps to have unwanted posts on the internet removed is quite difficult – it is a combination of “blocking” people and “reporting abuse” to websites – but this doesn’t always work. The most effective way to have a positive digital tattoo is be active on the web by blogging, tweeting and being referenced in good articles.

Keeping professional distance

It is universally accepted within schools that there needs to be a “professional distance” between teachers and pupils.

This is necessary in the classroom, but it is all the more important in teachers’ private lives. Part of this “distance” is that teachers don’t socialise with pupils and that all lines of communication with pupils are through official channels and not through their personal accounts. 

Teachers, pupils and social media

The traditionally clear distinction between the professional and the personal is blurred by social media. 

Facebook “friends” range from close family to passing acquaintances: it is a melting-pot of all who we know and meet. One of the problematic features of Facebook is that it forces us to interact with all our “friends” in the same way, which is not how we interact in the real world.

Should teachers be “friends” with pupils on Facebook? Some may argue that the privacy settings enable teachers to separate professional and personal relationships on Facebook. 

To some extent this is true – it is possible for teachers to prevent pupils from having access to personal posts and photographs. However it opens up a private channel of communication between teachers and pupils and is best avoided.

Facebook friends with parents?

Separating the personal and the professional is particularly difficult for those who have children in the school in which they work. 

Forming Facebook groups can put colleagues into a difficult position, particularly when the group gets up a head of steam on a particular issue. Teachers in these circumstances should maintain a discreet silence, lest their unique position be (mis)quoted to give extra weight to an argument.

Twitter

The way in which many people use Twitter confuses the professional and the personal: one minute the teacher is sharing a teaching idea picked up at an excellent INSET, the next s/he is posting pictures of the family reunion.

If you want to post about professional and personal matters a simple solution is to run two Twitter accounts – and if pupils are following you on Twitter, use the “mute” function (in the settings menu) to disable their ability to tweet on your timeline or to message you directly.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a professional networking site – and is a useful vehicle for connecting with colleagues, parents and former pupils as “professional distance” is built in.

Users have full control of their own profile and it is not possible for others to post pictures or comments on the site that are publicly visible. 

Teachers would be well advised not to link with current pupils because the messaging feature opens up the possibility of a private communication channel.

  • Mark Steed is principal of Berkhamsted School and chairman of the information and communications technology strategy committee for the Independent Schools Council (ISC).

Further reading
SecEd has published previous articles advising on how to avoid problems with social media as a school, including legal advice for schools. See Avoiding Problems With Social Media at www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/avoiding-problems-with-social-media

Photo: iStock

 


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