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Trevor Wrinch talks to students at Waverley Elementary School in Vancouver about the school blog. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Trevor Wrinch talks to students at Waverley Elementary School in Vancouver about the school blog. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

For teachers on Facebook, professionalism trumps fun Add to ...

Trevor Wrinch routinely declines friend requests. He's barricaded his Facebook account behind several layers of privacy settings, and posts an unremarkable profile picture.

Why all the discretion? Mr. Wrinch teaches Grades 6 and 7.

"I usually start the year by explaining to the students that FB is not a suitable medium for communication between teacher and student," says Mr. Wrinch, who teaches at Vancouver's Waverley Elementary School. "I still have students attempting to be friends."

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Social media have blurred the lines between teacher and charges: Every month, there are reports of students suspended and teachers disciplined for behaving badly online. While teachers should know better, some insist on posting status updates such as "I hate my students" after a rough school day.

Canadian regulatory bodies are stepping in: On April 11, the Ontario College of Teachers urged its 230,000 members to rethink their professional boundaries online. The college, a regulatory body that sets ethical standards, advised teachers to decline friend requests from students, avoid e-mailing with them from personal addresses and refrain from corresponding late at night - even about homework. The college also urged teachers to reflect on how they use Twitter, YouTube and other online channels, all with a mind to maintaining "the public trust."

"We want teachers to use technology," says Liz Papadopoulos, chair of council at the college. "We just want to make sure that they're responsible and professional."

Ontario, like many regions in the United States and Britain, has taken a tough stand on the issue. The Vancouver Board of Education has listed texting, friending and e-mailing from a personal account as "unacceptable behaviour" between teachers and students. The Canadian Teachers' Federation has warned against e-mailing students or posting comments about them, parents or colleagues online. (If teachers must e-mail, they should keep a copy, include a professional signature line and use "a teacher voice," the federation suggests.) But there are well-meaning reasons from both sides of the teacher-student divide why each might try to reach out through Facebook.

For students, "there's still a mystique about teachers," Ms. Papadopoulos said. "When you run into your teacher at the mall, it's always a big thing: 'Wow. You go out? You have a life?' Or if you see them in the grocery store, it's 'you eat?' "

For teachers, many "initially entering the profession want their students to like them," says Sharon Friesen, vice dean of education at the University of Calgary. But she pointed out: "Establishing yourself as a professional doesn't mean you have to be friends."

Complicating the issue is that many young teachers are digital natives just like their students - they grew up with the Web.

Wanda Cassidy, director at Simon Fraser University's Centre for Education, Law & Society, says teacher candidates in their 20s and 30s often have trouble understanding that freedom of expression does not trump professionalism. Many "think that they're entitled to say what they want and do what they want online and haven't really thought about the implications."

According to the Ontario College of Teachers, 30 per cent of its members spent two hours a day on Facebook last year. (The college did not have numbers for how many members are Facebook friends with pupils.)

Some teachers have learned the hard way - from reprimands to lawsuits - the immediacy of technology. In 2008, a Calgary teacher was disciplined after a parent spotted disparaging comments about drug-using mothers on her Facebook page. Last month in Chicago, an elementary-school teacher mocked one tiny charge's inventive hairdo, posting a photo of the Jolly Rancher adornments, on Facebook too. The girl's mother is suing the board.

And earlier this month, a New Jersey teacher was suspended after announcing on Facebook that she felt like a "warden" overseeing "future criminals" at her school. Nancy Oxfeld, the teacher's lawyer, told The New York Times that the comments were "private," made on her own time and to her own friends.

Don't teachers have a right to keep an online persona like the rest of us?

"It's a difficult question of where to draw the line," says Neil Kishi, another teacher at Waverley Elementary. "We should have some private lives too. However, I also understand how we need to be very careful."

"Teachers are always on duty," Ms. Papadopoulos contends, citing a 1996 Supreme Court ruling that found teachers "do not necessarily check their teaching hats at the schoolyard gate."

The college reminded teachers that a digital footprint never dies, and that they are especially vulnerable.

"Social media encourage casual dialogue," the advisory states. "The immediacy and simplicity of a text message, for example, may lead to longer, informal conversations. ... Electronic messages are not anonymous. They can be tracked, misdirected, manipulated and live forever on the Internet."And, Ms. Papadopoulos points out, they can be misconstrued by a third party: "Why are you friends with that student and not all 37 in your class?"

While the pitfalls of technology are clear, some worry that advisories such as the college's could curb opportunities for learning.

"What we're not doing in teacher education programs is talking enough about how to use social media," says Don Krug, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia.

Prof. Krug points to a cohort of Grade 3/4 teachers who use blogs for group work: "They keep it internal within their class and include parents if they want to be involved. They're able to have a certain level of control over the situation."

Mr. Wrinch uses a Wordpress blog for homework updates and has kids post their art, book reviews and recommendations online. Others can comment and a chat is also set up - all the kids have personalized avatars.

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, here, the line is clearly delineated.

Facebook dos and don'ts

"The dynamic between a member and a student is forever changed when the two become 'friends' in an online environment," reads the Ontario College of Teachers' April advisory.

The college has instructed teachers to decline friend requests from students. Liz Papadopoulos, chair of council at the college, suggests teachers show Facebook-happy students the College's advisory as an "out."

What about the kids teachers are already Face-friends with? She recommends unfriending them after explaining the rationale in person.

The advisory also cautions teachers to keep a close eye on their privacy settings and "ask others not to tag you on any photographs without your permission."

It tells teachers to avoid "impulsive, inappropriate or heated comments" about school, notify parents before using social networks in class. and give guardians access to Facebook group pages.

Finally, the College warns teachers against late-night communiqués - even if they're about dull math homework.

Ms. Papadopoulos suggests setting up a delay that sends e-mails out at a "more workable hour."

Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

 

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