« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

By Megan Boldt, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published June 16 2012

Teachers connect with social media - carefully

ST. PAUL – Mahtomedi High School language arts teacher Sarah Lorntson reminds her students about assignment deadlines and shares writing advice even when they’re not in her classroom.

She takes to the social media sphere, using Twitter to capture students’ attention in 140 characters or less.

Lorntson said many of her students have smartphones and are constantly plugged into social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. So, it made sense for her to start tweeting, giving her another way to reach out to them.

“My students’ constant complaint is that I don’t tweet enough,” Lorntson said. “They want more communication from us. They want that engagement.”

As the use of social media explodes, school districts are grappling with if and how teachers should connect with students via online networking.

Some, like New York City public schools, ban it. But in Minnesota, few districts have policies governing use of social media. Some teachers find social media useful, but others worry it can bring students and teachers a little too close for comfort.

“There’s no one right way to approach it,” said Aimee Bissonette, a Richfield attorney who counsels districts on social media. “I think everyone is struggling with this issue. The main thing is to let teachers know there are risks. But if you’re transparent and making sure your communication is open, that risk is hugely minimized.”

Headline-grabbing cases like one in Inver Grove Heights tend to spark concerns over teachers connecting with students online.

Jenna Anne Schultz, a 26-year-old student teacher at Simley High School, faces two felony stalking charges for allegedly sending inappropriate texts and Facebook messages to a student. One of the messages contained a photograph of Schultz “completely naked,” according to the criminal complaint. Schultz also allegedly messaged the boy about whether he was in a relationship.

These cases are rare, but they highlight the importance of having guidelines and discussions about using social media on and off the job, Bissonette said.

“If I have any advice for school districts, it’s to have conversations,” Bissonette said. “Talk to your teachers and staff. Talk about the risks. If a teacher does anything inappropriate inside or outside school, there could be repercussions on the job.”

She points to the Minnetonka School District as a model for how to craft guidelines for social media use and how to talk to staff about the repercussions if it’s not used properly.

Minnetonka doesn’t prohibit connecting with students via social networking sites. But it encourages employees to use password-protected sites sponsored by the district. Only teachers, parents and students can use those sites, and the messages are visible to all users, so the communication is transparent.

Public networks for classroom instruction or school-sponsored activities can’t be used without authorization from the district administration and a student’s parent.

Janet Swiecichowski, Minnetonka’s executive director for communications, said what was most useful in crafting the policy more than two years ago was the discussion it sparked. Many teachers didn’t know how to check their privacy settings on their personal Facebook pages. Others had never thought of “Googling” themselves, using search tools to see what’s being said about them online.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” Swiecichowski said. “It was actually a great educational tool.”

Lorntson and fellow teachers Emily Osborne and Angela Vedders, social studies and psychology teachers, are regular users of Twitter. They allow anyone to follow them, but they do not follow their students’ accounts.

For Osborne, that means students can see her tweets about prepping for their Advanced Placement psychology exam, which they took this spring for college credit. Kids from around the country were getting advice and answers from Twitter-savvy psych teachers like Osborne and Vedders as they studied.

“Can you speak during REM sleep? And do nightmares only occur during REM sleep?” one student asked, using the hashtag #appyschreview so other interested students or teachers could respond.

“Nightmares = REM, Night Terrors = NREM; Sleeptalking is usually only during NREM unless you have a REM disorder #appyschreview,” Osborne and Vedders responded from their joint Twitter account.

Because the teachers don’t follow their students on Twitter, they can’t see what the kids are tweeting – which likely includes their weekend plans or other personal matters.

“It’s still reaching out to students in a medium they’re comfortable in, without invading their personal lives,” Osborne said.

And that is important, Bissonette said. Teachers have to consider legal issues when connecting with their students socially. If they find out a student is being neglected, physically or mentally abused or harmed in any way, they are required by law to report it to authorities. It doesn’t matter if they discover the information in school or out.

“If they run into a problem, they have legal and ethical responsibilities,” Bissonette said. “Their reputation is on the line, and their job is on the line.”

Mahtomedi Superintendent Mark Larson said he trusts his staff to take all these things into account, using good judgment when they connect with students online.

“Social media as an educational tool does show great promise, and we urge our teachers to utilize tools that will help them best help students learn.”