It used to be that the biggest peek students got into their teachers’ out-of-school lives was bumping into them at the mall.
Now, students can log on to their computers and find their teachers’ public Facebook profiles, Twitter pages, or personal blogs, with a little bit of Internet searching.
With online profiles and communication, teachers’ personal lives and activities are much more easily accessed by today’s students, or at least more accessible if the teachers put that information out there.
Teachers are held to a higher standard, educators, administrators and union officials acknowledge. So when they’re caught doing something even slightly questionable, it’s a big deal.
“People are very sensitive about who works with their children,” said Randy Turner, co-president of the Delaware City Teachers Association in Ohio. “There is a higher standard [for teachers]. ... But I don’t think that means that teachers aren’t normal people that do everything everybody else does.”
In the 1,300-student Centerburg school district in Knox County, Ohio, school board officials were forced to address a series of messages between a teacher and a 19-year-old on Facebook. As it turned out, the profile was a fake created by a Centerburg student who then turned the messages over to administrators.
The teacher, Sean Sweeney, had been on paid leave since Aug. 30. On Sept. 16, Mr. Sweeney resigned from his teaching and coaching duties, and the matter was turned over to the Ohio Department of Education.
Teachers and administrators have lost their jobs over even more benign posts. Recently, a Connecticut superintendent was forced to resign after writing Facebook posts about a personnel matter he had to deal with, and boasting that he slept in on his first day on the job. Last month in Massachusetts, an administrator gave up her job after calling the residents of the upper-class town where she taught “snobby and arrogant” on the same social-networking site.
For teachers, there isn’t a clear directive, other than to use common sense.
Last October, the Ohio Education Association revised its social-networking advisory to members, telling them not to post anything they wouldn’t want on the front page of the newspaper.
“Unfortunately, school employees do not have the same free-speech rights as the general public,” it reads.
Some districts reinforce the message through union meetings and professional days, but policies vary from district to district. Some have conduct policies that mention technology; others don’t. Often, it takes an incident to bring attention to the issue.
Centerburg Superintendent Dorothy Holden said she’ll now ask fellow superintendents for their policies on teachers’ use of Facebook and other social-networking sites.
‘No Easy Answers’
The Ohio education department’s office of professional conduct doesn’t specifically refer to online messaging or posts, but it does instruct educators to behave in a professional manner, “realizing that one’s actions reflect directly on the status and substance of the profession.”
“We used to call it a professional distance,” said Mr. Turner, the union co-president in Delaware, Ohio, who teaches at Hayes High School. “There are no easy answers on any of these things.”
What’s inappropriate can vary from district to district, said Jeffrey Chambers, a spokesman for the Ohio School Boards Association.
“It’s subjective,” he said. “The conduct that may get them in trouble in a rural community may not get them in trouble in the Columbus area.”
Teachers have to be on high alert, Mr. Chambers said. Digital cameras are on nearly every cellphone, and it takes only seconds to upload a video or picture to the Internet.
“Anywhere [teachers] go, any time of the day, they almost have to be on their best behavior,” Mr. Chambers said.
Bryan Warnick, who addresses ethics and professionalism in his classes for teachers at Ohio State University, said there’s a bigger question surrounding teacher misbehavior: What do we expect from our educators?
“Do we want [teachers] to be moral exemplars, or is it OK if they’re just academic technicians?” Mr. Warnick said. “Until we resolve this issue, it’s wise for teachers to be careful about where they’re seen and who they’re seen with. I don’t think it’s fair, but it’s probably wise, professionally speaking.”
Copyright © 2010, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2010 edition of Education Week as Educators Advised to Be Cautious on Facebook Profiles