Truth be told, those who have the inclination to prey on our children, are going to prey on our children, and this includes teachers too. For the sake of disclosure here, I will admit my own reluctance in "friending" students, both current students and those I've taught who are now adults. At this point in my experiments with the social media, I haven't connected with either type of student. Still, the idea of "forbidding connections" made through social media is clearly an exercise in jousting with windmills. It will not resolve the problems it's trying to resolve. Those who engage in predatory behaviors towards children are going to do so, and banning social media isn't going to to stop them.
Then the question is, "What can policymakers and school leaders do instead?" "How can we address these growing number of cases where teachers engage in inappropriate behavior using social media?" Perhaps we should begin by thinking differently. Here's some suggestions to think about:
- Treat improper contact and communication with social media the same way we would improper text messages or phone calls. Do we ban text messaging of students because a teacher sends an improper message to a student? Do we forbid teachers from calling students because a teacher uses the phone to engage in an improper conversation with a student? When a teacher engages in an improper and unprofessional conversation with a student, it is the interaction that is the problem, not the medium on which that interaction took place. Banning the medium might take away one of the avenues for that interaction, but it ultimately fails to address the problem.
- Focus on the real problem. Policies that focus on the medium rather than the real problem are doomed to failure. In some ways, those who push social media bans do so because they can appease their conscience. They did something. Never mind that the actions they took fail to address the real problem which is: we hire and have individuals in our schools who seek improper relationships with our children. Perhaps instead of stamping out social media in the schools, we need to look closely for warning signs that there are individuals in our schools who abuse the role of educator to prey upon children. Maybe we need to pay closer attention to our screening processes. Social media isn't the problem. It's a fabricated boogeyman that deflects administrators from taking on the real difficult problem of shepherding those out of our schools who engage in inappropriate relationships with our students.
- Pay attention to warning signs. Those who seek improper relationships with children often indirectly and directly broadcast those intentions through their interactions with the children they teach. While we certainly do not want to make teacher-student relationships absolutely sterile, we can, as administrators, scrutinize those who are in our schools, and who seem to cross the line between being a professional and being too-familiar with students. For example, a teacher that might be crossing the line might be spending an inordinate amount of time with a student, or they might be speaking with a student at a level that is too familiar. Administrators can do a great deal at preventing inappropriate relationships by being observant regarding the interactions teachers and staff have with students.
- Educate Staff. This is especially important for young staff; those closer to the ages of the students they teach. They need to understand the importance of teacher-student boundaries and the severe consequences of crossing those boundaries. Staff needs to understand that social media, if used to maintain a professional relationship with students, can be used effectively. They need to know what it looks like to be too familiar with students, and what a professional relationship looks like.
Ultimately, instead of wasting our time implementing and enforcing bans that prevent teachers and students from using social media as an effective communication tool, we need to become more educated about the true educational potential of social media, and be willing to take on the leadership role to shepherding our teachers in what it means to use it to foster professional relationships with students.