No Friends for Teachers Online, by Peter Mitchell

Posted on October 6, 2012



by Peter Mitchell

Should teachers be able to use social networking sites like Facebook to be in touch with students? Education authorities around Australia are moving to stop teachers doing so.  Some teachers have just discovered how useful such sites are. They will now probably have to do without them.

Derek Roberts* was a highly respected teacher in Adelaide. In 2009 he retired after forty years of teaching. At the time he retired, he had about 300 Facebook friends. 75 of them were current students. If he was still teaching in South Australian government schools, he would probably be reprimanded and told to get rid of his student “friends”.

Mr Roberts is just one example of the teachers caught in the middle of a major debate. It is all about social networking between teacher and student.  As many as 30% of teachers in one survey could be using social networks with students.  At the same time, there is a growing trend around Australia to ban teachers from online “friending” of students.

A Monash University team has just looked at students, teachers and parents on social networks. They found that 30% of one group of teachers had used them with their students. A frequent reason was to help students with assignments.  That 30% of teachers, often the most conscientious, would already be in trouble in SA or Queensland.

In both SA and Queensland, teachers are banned from “friending” current students on social networking sites.  Other states are yet to decide. WA has talked of following suit, but is yet to act.

Mr Tom Barlow, Assistant Director-General, Human Resources in Queensland’s DETE, quotes from the state’s Standard of Practice for teachers.  “You must not use social media sites such as Face Book, Twitter, My Space or You Tube to contact or access students enrolled in any state educational facility”.  That message is very clear.

Professor Joan Squelch, Associate Professor in the school of business law at Curtin University, has co-written an article on the topic.  It advises teachers to “think before you post in public space”.  She says teachers could face disciplinary action for posting “inappropriate messages” to students on social networking sites. This could result in the teacher losing their registration, being suspended or being dismissed.

Professor Squelch accepts that teachers are using social networking sites for work-related and teaching purposes. However, they should certainly expect the sites to be monitored by their employer for appropriate use.

Her advice to schools is that teachers be discouraged from “friending” students on social networking sites.  “Teachers should really avoid this.” If they do not, Professor Squelch believes they run the risk of “blurring the professional relationship between teacher and student.”

Professor Squelch says education departments ought to have well-documented policies and guidelines for teachers, students and parents on this topic.  Teachers should also be given training on the appropriate use of social networking sites.

Dr Suzanne Parry, Director of the WA College of Teaching, talks about “increased risks” for teachers with new technologies.  The College suggests teachers take a “very, very cautious approach to engaging with students” on social networking sites.  At the same time, the College is aware that teachers find these sites very useful for organising projects and assignments.

The College has found that in several cases of alleged professional misconduct, electronic communication has been used between student and teachers.

Not all cases of misuse of social networking sites involve teachers doing the wrong thing. Sometimes it is the students who are at fault.  In 2010, there were two high-profile WA cases of students “cyberbullying” teachers on Facebook.  In the second case, more than 600 people signed up to a site set up to attack a senior teacher.

The SA branch of the teachers’ union (AEU) also reports “cyberbullying” of teachers.  Ms Corenna Haythorpe, AEU SA President, says the response of the local education department has been “inadequate”.  She says the department line is that “the individual has to take action to have any offensive material removed”.  This process may differ from state to state.  Tom Barlow of Education Queensland, says that his department has had a “Cybersafety and Reputation Management Team” since 2010.  This group deals with a number of issues, including “inappropriate online content published about teaching staff”.  The Queensland department does not tolerate students “maligning a teacher’s reputation in any way”.

Where does your state sit in this debate? Recently NSW lifted a ban on teachers accessing social networking sites.  In other states, momentum appears to be swinging the other way.  When the NSW ban was lifted, a spokesman for the Minister of Education, said the change would “help teachers combat cyberbullying.”  At the end of last year, the president of NSW’s AEU branch recommended in the Herald Sun that teachers have no Facebook contact with students

Two States Views: click on image to enlarge

Dr John Lenarcic, Lecturer at RMIT and social media expert, has a different view. He believes that teachers need the digital media to understand the language of young people. Dr Lenarcic understands the need for “distance” between teacher and student, but at the same time they need the digital media.

He says, “Teachers are part-anthropologist, studying the customs of each incoming tribe” or generation of students.  So, instead of banning teacher-student social networking, what is needed is a niche site specifically set up for secondary schools, “policed in a more efficient way”.

Derek Roberts felt that the online connection helped him spread a message quickly when major assignments were due.  The word gets out quickly via social networks.

He says that social networking helped improve his connection with students.  “It was less formal, …gave a sense of connection”.   He didn’t request students as friends, they asked him to be their friend.  And he was careful in those he accepted, that they were “positive role models”.

But Derek has felt the winds of change. Since he retired, he has seen schools “actively discouraging” teachers from having students as “friends”. Teachers have also been told to delete students from their page.

The national teachers’ union has responded to this issue on a state by state basis. However, their advice is consistent.  Correna Haythorpe reports that the AEU Australia-wide “formally advises our members not to engage in social networking via Facebook, Twitter, Tumbla etc.”  She goes further to add that it is an “abrogation of duty of care to develop personal relationships via social networking with students”.

Australian high school principals believe that rules are necessary but are only needed for a small number of teachers.  Ms Sheree Vertigan, president of the Australian Secondary Principals Association, says it is about “defining boundaries”.  However, she says that most principals would prefer teachers didn’t engage in social networking with students.

How does Australia compare to countries overseas?  First of all, we appear to have been less touched by the cyberbullying of teachers.  In the UK, a recent survey found that as many as one in seven teachers there had been cyberbullied.

There have been several major issues in the UK with teachers using social networking sites inappropriately. The Guardian reportedin April about a council in Kent which told all its teachers to take down their Facebook profiles.  This followed a headteacher posting a photograph on her site.  Its caption boasted about the size of her breasts.  However, the UK has no official policies banning teacher-student friending.

In the USA, the state of Missouri and the large school district of Dayton, Ohio have been first to ban teachers from friending students. This has led to widespread debate, in a nation that values individual liberties highly.

The trend in Australia is clearly to prevent teachers from contact with students via social networking sites. Some teachers will regret the loss of this method of contact, but union and academic spokespeople support the moves to protect teachers in this way.  The innovative suggestion of Dr Lenarcic for a site specific to secondary schools may be one to examine.

* not his real name