Since I entered the classroom for the first time as a teacher in 1990, the landscape has changed quite a bit. At that time, the most “advanced technology” that I used was a film projector and a cassette player.
Today, however, technology is pervasive and ever-changing. The United States has spent billions on digital content, computers, and infrastructure to bring the world to schools across the country.
And our students have changed as well. Electronic devices have become an integral part of the classroom, with at least 1 in 3 students describing the use of a laptop, tablet or smartphone as essential to learning and half of students reporting that they regularly use a learning app on their device.
Additionally, students are among the biggest consumers of social media; a Pew Research Report in 2016 revealed that not only do the vast majority of teens use social media, but 71% reported using more than one platform. So it is crucial that we as teachers are changing our communication style, methods and strategies as well as our overall teaching strategies to meet our clients (our students) where they are.
This is not new information. Teachers are already learning and practicing how to incorporate social media into our classrooms to engage more with our students. Adam Burns, a high school teacher in Michigan, described the benefits he has found in using social media in the classroom.
- Build rapport with students by engaging with them on social media. Become part of their lives outside of the 45 minutes spent with them in the classroom. Congratulating them on a sports win, for example, shows them that you care about more than just their test scores.
- Understand the problems they’re facing – students reveal much more on social media than they ever would even in a journal entry.
- Teach them how to behave online – be a positive role mode for appropriate online conduct.
- Broaden the visibility, reach and impact of what’s going on in your classroom by using social media to showcase your students’ hard work. For example, you might post the best examples of students’ essays. (Be sure to follow your district’s policy and double check to be sure that the students’ guardians have approved the publication of their work).
Those are worthy goals, to be sure. Unfortunately, though, there are some problems that have arisen from teachers’ use of social media, problems that we have to consider when implementing social media into our classrooms as either a tool for education or a means for communicating with students, parents, and the community; one of the biggest cautions that must be considered when using social media as an educator is the care that must be taken when disclosing personal information.
Teachers are well aware of the level of professionalism they must maintain when communicating with their students inside their classrooms. However, sometimes we fail to think about that professionalism when we are using various social media platforms in our personal lives. This is especially true when we allow the boundaries to blur between ourselves and our students. Teachers who “friend” their students on social media may run into this problem when they merge the account that they use for the classroom with the account they use for the personal life. Through the social media accounts, students can peek into their teachers’ private lives, and sometimes learn things that can impact the opinions they have of their teachers…can perhaps even reduce the credibility or authority their teacher has in the classroom. However, we must note that the disclosure of too much personal information could not only impact our ability to do our jobs, but also our ability to keep our jobs.
One Kansas math teacher was suspended after she tweeted racy pictures of herself, claiming to be drunk or high while grading papers.
A sixth grade teacher in New York was fired for a Facebook post she made after a child from a different school drowned during a trip to the beach. She wrote about her own students, ““I HATE THEIR GUTS! They are all the devils spawn! I would not throw a life jacket in for a million.” While a judge later ruled that she could keep her job, it is unlikely that her students would very much respect her as a teacher after the comments were revealed, making it very difficult for her to be effective in the classroom.
The thing is, like it or not, as teachers, we are role models for our students. While we have come a long way from the days when teachers had to be unmarried, or couldn’t date while they were teaching, teachers often are required to agree to “morals clauses” as a condition of employment. In simple terms, these clauses allow administrators to fire a teacher if their conduct, in or out of the classroom, could be considered immoral or unethical.
And who decides what is immoral? For educators, that role falls to administrators, who are often easily swayed by public reaction. The use of social media opens a window into our personal lives that would otherwise be tightly closed. While teachers are human and certainly deserve to have private lives (and even have fun in those private lives), it is important to remember that people who control whether or not we continue to be employed as teachers have access to what we post on social media, and refrain from disclosing everything we do on our own time.
But inappropriate self-disclosure can have more significant effects than just costing us our jobs. It can also decrease our effectiveness in the classroom. Sure, telling our students a little about ourselves and our personal life can build rapport with them; how many times have I heard students say about another teacher “I like her as a person…” A study conducted by Myers and Brann found that appropriate self-disclosure in the classroom improved teacher credibility; when students know a little about their teachers, and like them, they are more likely to think they are good teachers. We do this in the classroom when we talk about our families, post an “all about me” bulletin board at the beginning of the year, and hang our diplomas and certificates behind our desks. Posting similar information about ourselves on the social media accounts where we are engaging with our students puts it in their world. Positive reviews of staff development or workshops we attend will also build credibility by demonstrating that we are always working to improve our craft. (Increase your credibility even more by going on to show how you use that workshop with your students with a follow up post!)
But when we OVERSHARE, as many do on social media, we run into problems. Revealing inappropriate information, such as alcohol or drug consumption or family problems, or making negative comments about our students, has a negative effect on our credibility with our students. A study in the Journal of Social Media in Society found that teachers who disclose too much personal information on social media found themselves struggling to maintain a professional-personal balance with their students in the classroom.
So, while bringing social media into our classrooms can have many positive effects on our ability to communicate with our students, it is crucial that we limit our self-disclosure so we don’t hamper our credibility. If we would not disclose the information in class, we should avoid disclosing it on our social media. We might also consider different social media accounts: one that is a public account that can be accessed by our students and their parents, and another that is totally private, accessible only to family and very close friends.
Social media can be a powerful tool for teachers, when used appropriately.