MOUNT VERNON — Just a few short years ago, cellular telephones and text messaging shook the communications world. Now, social network media on the Internet, such as Facebook and MySpace, provide the opportunity for people to stay connected with family and friends.
Social media also make it easier for teachers to communicate with parents and students. Some area teachers use Facebook at school in a professional capacity, and some interact with students outside of school hours on their home computers.
“With Facebook and other social network entities,” said Mount Vernon’s superintendent Steve Short, “there are so many opportunities. As a teacher, you want to build relationships with students — you just need to be very careful on how you work to build those relationships and in creating those bonds. There always has to be that line where it’s understood that you are the teacher and they are the students. Some opportunities are good and some are bad and you try to make sure you limit your activities to those things that will benefit yourself and benefit kids.”
While schools in the area have policies in place governing the use of school computers and personal activities on school time, they do not and cannot legally regulate what a school employee does outside of school hours in his or her own home, except for a general caveat: “When nonschool activities threaten a staff member’s effectiveness within the school system, the Board [of Education] reserves the right to evaluate the impact of such activities upon a teacher’s responsibility to the students and to the board.”
Schools also have policies and rules prohibiting students from engaging in inappropriate conduct “directed at a board official or a school employee on or off school property.”
All the local schools have similar rules with similar wording. The policies are maintained and updated by NEOLA Board Policy Services, a company which makes sure school board policies and administrative guidelines adhere to current law. The school boards, however, must review and adopt any changes NEOLA recommends.
Board policies generally state: “The board believes that each professional staff member should maintain standards of exemplary professional conduct and conform his/her behavior to the code of ethics set forth below as adopted, in part, from the Association of American Educators’ Code of Ethics and the National Education Association’s Code of Ethics of the Education Profession, by demonstrating a commitment to students, the educational profession, and the district and community.
Professional staff members should avoid situations in which their personal interests, activities, and associations conflict with the interests of the district. If such situations threaten a staff member’s effectiveness within the school system, the superintendent and/or board of education shall evaluate the impact of such interest, activity, or association upon the professional staff member’s responsibilities.”
Short said, “There is a fine line between being a teacher and being a private citizen and doing the things that you do as a private citizen, especially when it comes into the classroom.”
“It’s a difficult balance,” he continued. “Are you a teacher when you go to the grocery store? No, you’re not. Do people watch or talk to you in the grocery store as if you are the teacher of the class? Yes, that’s what’s going to happen as part of your job. There are times when you are a private citizen and there are times when you are not.”
The Ohio Education Association offers tips and advice for educators using social media that encourages caution and common sense.
“These sites, when used appropriately, can be powerful tools for sharing information and building community around important issues, including public education. Nonetheless, the use of social networking sites may expose members to unintended consequences which could impact jobs and careers,” states the Ohio Education Association. “Members should not post, do, say or write anything on a social network that they would not want to see on the front page of the local newspaper or would not say or do in front of students, parents, or the board of education. Members should not post material to their sites that may be considered inappropriate or unprofessional, including pictures and links.”
As Timm Mackley, Knox County Educational Service Center superintendent said, “the public apparently believes that teachers should be held to a higher moral standard than ordinary citizens.” That means boards of education have to carefully weigh and balance a staff member’s personal rights against the good of the school district.