By Brenda Sutton-Wills
It’s as if you had three wishes. You wish that there was a way to easily reach your students once they leave your classroom for the day. You wish that your students would be more responsive and open in responding to your communications. Finally, you wish that you could reach students in their comfort zone. Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites have potentially granted all of those wishes — especially if you are teaching students with easy access to technology.
In order to get the most out of social media, there are a few best practices and precautions to keep in mind:
> Keep a separate account for your classroom communications. While it does seem magical to suddenly be in touch with your best friend from third grade and your long-lost college roommate, you do not want your students to be privy to this part of your life.
> Along those lines, your seemingly private communications are not private. Be intentional about the privacy settings on your account. Frequently monitor your settings to restrict access to your professional page so that you have “closed” communications with your classroom. Although this is not “private,” it is more professionally appropriate. Also, be prepared to respond to “friend” requests from the parents of students who visit your class page. Have a set and published policy about this, and don’t make choices on the fly.
> Allowing students to post directly to your wall is like allowing them to write in Sharpie on your whiteboard when you aren’t in the classroom — only worse. Students can and do post to social media sites from their cell phones. By the time you get to your page, truly permanent damage will be done. You can disable this feature through privacy settings on Facebook.
> Your social media record will last longer than those “temporary” bungalows erected in the 1970s. You cannot erase your social media record. It’s possible to subpoena an archive of all your posts and all posts made to you.
> Always be aware of the unintended audience. Your separate account can still affect your career. What you post there can be published and re-posted to other sites. There is always a danger of the content being transferred out of context.
> Keep it professional. To be certain, your sense of “free speech” and privacy are not ways to gauge whether your social media content is appropriate. While, in some circumstances, off-campus speech can have more First Amendment protection than on-campus speech, courts have noted that technology has practically eliminated classroom borders. “Off campus speech can become on-campus speech with the click of a mouse,” according to Doninger v. Niehoff (2d Cir. 2008). Courts have considered some Facebook and YouTube posts on-campus speech, with diminished First-Amendment protections. As courts develop the definition of on-campus speech as it relates to the Internet and social networking, keep in mind that your influence and accountability as a teacher extend to where students access technology. In this sense, off-campus behavior and documentation on social networking sites can be problematic.
Social networking grants a potentially efficient and agile way to communicate with students. Be certain to develop a professional protocol that includes common-sense barriers and protections in working with youth online, and social media can fulfill all of your wishes for a powerful communications tool for educators.
Brenda Sutton-Wills is a CTA staff attorney. She recently gave a presentation titled “Hearing Secrets That You Keep: Is There Any Such Thing as Electronic Privacy?” at a Los Angeles County Bar Association Labor and Employment Law Symposium. The CTA Legal Department is available to train chapters on this topic.
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