Friday, 31 October 2014

e-Safety for Teachers - Why teachers need to protect themselves on Social Media and some tips on how to do it.

Beware: Parents Troll Teachers
Last year, a parent, who was upset that her daughter had not been selected for a school sports team, took it upon herself to go onto the Facebook pages of the teacher concerned looking for some angle in order to get back at her. The mother contacted me complaining that the teacher was a "disgrace and shouldn't be working with children". She reported that there inappropriate pictures of the teacher at a party. Subsequent investigation revealed nothing more than a picture of the staff member at a party holding a cocktail obviously having a good time. I was shocked that a vengeful parent should 'troll' a teacher in this way. My response was to take no action in relation to the teacher and to run an INSET on e-Safety for the teaching staff. With full a Governor support, as a senior team, we also drafted a policy and procedure to deal with any future malicious or vengeful acts by parents: a formal warning would be given and any repetition would lead to the 'required removal' of the child because of a break down of trust between the school and the parent. The episode was a timely reminder of the vulnerable position that we find ourselves as teachers and of the importance of teachers doing all that they can to protect themselves. We spend a lot of time in schools exhorting and training pupils to take measures to be safe online, but many of the same principles equally apply to the staff room. 
Because teachers work in positions of influence with children and young people, society dictates that they conduct themselves as role models. There are expectations of higher standards of teachers' behaviour in their private lives that do not apply to other professions. Young bankers or solicitors whose wild Friday night out is documented in graphic detail on Facebook are not likely to have a problem at work so long as what they were doing was not illegal. Furthermore, child protection legislation and procedures dictate that there are circumstances when a teacher is treated as 'guilty until proven innocent'. A teacher who is subject to a malicious online anonymous accusation potentially could face suspension, pending a full investigation - with all the personal reputational damage that that entails. In this context, it is all the more important that teachers do all they can to take steps to prevent themselves from being open to accusation by ensuring that their personal life on social media remains private. 
Protecting your Digital Tattoo Teachers would be well advised to take the time to protect their online presence. Most obviously this entails a good understanding of the privacy settings on individual social media sites. However, teachers should bear in mind that, whilst, it is possible to prevent members of the public (including parents and pupils) from having access to personal pictures and posts, it is perhaps safest to assume that, in practice, everything that is posted online is in the public domain. Once it is out there, rather like a tattoo, it is very difficult to get it removed. The rule of thumb is 'don't post anything online that you wouldn't want to see in the Daily Mail.'
However, we are not totally responsible for our digital tattoo for others can post pictures and write things about us online. This is more difficult to monitor and control. Two useful steps are to Google yourself and to see what is out there about you; and to set up a Google Alerts which will inform you when your name appears on a website.
One of the greatest areas of concern for teachers comes in the form of the RateMyTeacher website. The site purports to provide "user generated feedback on teachers' and professors' teaching methods and their respective courses." In practice it provides an unaccountable platform for malicious comments, unbalanced judgements and the cyber-bullying of teachers. Because comments are posted anonymously and the site is now hosted in the US, there is in practice no legal redress for any slanderous accusations posted on the site (because US law protects the site from prosecution, and it is almost impossible to trace any individual who made the original post). The consequence is that teachers are vulnerable to potentially career damaging false accusations. 
Taking steps to have unwanted posts on the Internet is quite difficult - it is a combination of 'blocking' people and 'reporting abuse' to websites - but this doesn't always work. The most effective way to have a positive Digital Tattoo is be active on the web by blogging, tweeting and being referenced in good articles.
Keeping Professional Distance.  It is universally accepted within schools that there needs to be a 'professional distance' between teachers and pupils. This is necessary in the classroom, but it is all the more important in teachers' private lives. Part of this 'distance' is that teachers don't socialise with pupils: a young teacher who goes clubbing with the sixth form crosses a line which, at best, lays himself open not only to the charge of unprofessionalism, and, at worst, could lead to allegations of serious misconduct. In the same vein, teachers are well advised to ensure that all lines of communication with pupils are through official channels. It is generally accepted that teachers should not be emailing pupils from their personal accounts, or texting or phoning pupils from their personal mobile phones. Indeed, almost all schools provide an official school email for this purpose and some schools, recognising the necessity and ubiquity of mobile communication, provide teachers in pastoral roles with mobile phones which are paid for by the school on the understanding the communication may be monitored.

Teachers, Pupils and Social Media.  
The traditionally clear distinction between the professional and the personal is blurred by social media
Facebook 'friends' range from close family to passing acquaintances: it is a melting-pot of all whom we know and meet. One of the problematic features of Facebook is that it forces us to interact with all our 'friends' in the same way, which is not how we interact in the real world. The language we use when speaking to our oldest friends is often markedly different to the language we use in the workplace. How we talk to our mates when out on a Saturday night is far from the language and tone that we employ when teaching Year 12.
So should teachers be 'friends' with pupils on Facebook?  Some may argue that the privacy settings enable teachers to separate professional and personal relationships on Facebook. To some extent this is true - it is possible for teachers to prevent pupils from having access to personal posts and photographs. However, my greatest concern about social media is that they open up a private channel of communication between teachers and pupils, which can put teachers unwittingly into a situation where they are open to accusations of misconduct. How would a teacher who was a 'friend' with a Year 13 girl defend a claim that s/he had been conducting an online relationship? We can also turn the question around, can there ever be a good reason for teacher to be 'friends' with a pupil on Facebook? 
Facebook Friends with parents. The example above illustrates the dangers of being friends with parents on Facebook, but maintaining this distance is not always as easy as it may seem. Separating the personal and the professional is particularly difficult for those who have children in the school in which they work - for they are both teacher and parent at the same time. The prevalence of Form Facebook groups can put colleagues into a difficult position, particularly when the group gets up a head of steam on a particular issue. Teachers are best advised in these circumstances to maintain a discrete silence, lest their unique position be (mis)quoted to give extra weight to the argument. 
Twitter.  The way in which many people use Twitter confuses the professional and the personal: one minute the teacher is sharing a teaching idea picked up at an excellent INSET, the next s/he is posting pictures of the family reunion. My advice here is simple: if you want to post about professional and personal matters, run two twitter accounts; and if pupils are following you on Twitter, use the 'mute' function (from the settings menu) to disable their ability to tweet on your timeline or to message you directly.
LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a professional networking site - linking up is the social media equivalent of exchanging a business card. As such, LinkedIn is a useful vehicle for connecting with colleagues, parents and former pupils as 'professional distance' is built it. Users have full control of their own profile and it is not possible for others to post pictures or comments on the site that are publicly visible. Teachers would be well advised not to link with current pupils because LinkedIn does have a messaging feature and thus opens up the possibility of a private communication channel.  
Conclusion: There is little doubt that many teachers need to take much greater care when navigating the world of social media. Forewarned is forearmed.

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