By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education
“Friend Your Students? New York City Schools Say No“* focuses on the new social media policy put in place by the New York City Department of Education. The policy, which establishes guidelines for teacher use of social media, allows educators to use it to enhance their students’ educational experiences and to be more accessible to them. However, this policy and others like it raise concerns about the potential for social media to blur boundaries that should not be crossed in teacher-student interactions.
As I was reading this article, I found a link to another All Things Considered post related to a new technology segment that began in May 2012. It is a social media advice column, and the plan is for pros to answer listeners’ questions. This in itself is a 21st century approach to advice columns. Listeners can email their questions or post them to the site’s blog.
The first column addresses the question Should You Friend Your Boss on Facebook?, and two experts on social media offer their opinions. One issue is that social media uses a different meaning for the word “friend” and the types of boundaries that word implies. In a workplace relationship, you may ask yourself, “Are there items that I would normally share with a friend that I really don’t want the boss to see or know about?” One expert suggests putting the boss in the “safe zone” to create specific boundaries for your social network. In that way you still come across as a team player without opening up your personal life in a way that may be uncomfortable for you.
However, one cannot ignore that there are power issues inherent in any boss-employee relationship. Depending on the situation, some of your actions can be misinterpreted or used against you. Linking to a competitor’s website, for instance, may be interpreted as a lack of company loyalty or as possible interest in moving on. If the boss links to a site that lists donations and learns that you haven’t donated, how will s/he interpret it? What happens if the boss finds that you have linked to a site with political views that he opposes? In my opinion, this issue is a minefield, better to be avoided.
Educators are even more at risk in the social media minefields than professionals in other fields because they are connected to a larger pool of stakeholders – other teachers, their students, the students’ families, the community, administrators at various levels, the state legislature, and the public at large. Teachers are also under scrutiny because they interact with and are responsible for what is considered a vulnerable population – children.
A December 2011 All Things Considered article, Friendly Advice for Teachers: Beware of Facebook, addressed some of the problems posed by this blurring of boundaries in social media. Teachers have been fired over comments posted on their personal Facebook pages. The right to free speech has been invoked with supporters saying that what teachers do on their own time and in their own space is not to be confused with what they do as public servants. Some school districts are seriously considering whether teachers should be allowed to use social media at all, even in their personal lives. These issues are also related to growing concerns about the effects of cyberbullying. At question are: How do such incidents affect teachers’ classroom performance? What kind of role modeling do they represent? Do they reflect or create a negative atmosphere in schools?
Some of these issues can be generalized to most workplaces. The pervasiveness of computers and Internet access on the job has created new problems that must be addressed as part of any discussion about employee rights and responsibilities. Most organizations, including universities, have policies that address these issues, and Clemson University’s Acceptable Use Policy is an example. The issues are critical, and at this point we have more questions than answers.
* National Public Radio’s (NPR), All Things Considered, May 2012.
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