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Primary Education News
News Why am I banned from following my teachers on Facebook and Twitter?
Pupil-teacher interaction outside of the classroom is fraught with dangers, but Lizzie Deane, 16, can't understand why her Manchester school doesn't embrace social media
In every school there are young, attractive teachers that all the girls and all the boys fancy: there was probably one in your school, there's at least one in your child's school, and there's probably one in my school in Manchester – but that would be telling.
Everyone has fond memories of that poor object of forbidden excitement. The difference today is that you can follow that teacher on Twitter and Facebook.
"Staff must not use social networks to communicate with students" is the guidance given in my school's e-safety policy. Nor should they "have students classed as 'friends' or the equivalent". But this is just a guideline; there is no explicit rule preventing online teacher-pupil communication because no law exists to enforce it. Therefore if I were to become friends with that young teacher on Facebook, we would both merely be advised to cease contact on the grounds that it was inappropriate.
Obviously, there are safeguarding issues that the guidance seeks to comply with – the scores of well-publicised sexual relationships between pupils and teachers are evidence enough to stigmatise this kind of 'online contact'. But teachers are having to adapt to adapt to new roles and expectations created by the internet, particularly with social networking.
So, do teachers have a responsibility to tweet/post responsibly? In my school a picture of a drunken teacher found on a social media site would spread round the whole school in about an hour, everyone openly laughing at the hapless victim. (There is invaluable advice about this in the policy: teachers will "ensure all online activity, both in and out of school, will not bring their professional role into disrepute".)
You don't have to search for long to find examples of how teachers can suffer from inappropriate online scrutiny: ratemyteachers.com is a favourite. "She's quite an unintelligent person, but sometimes you look at her, and her beauty completely outshines her inferior intellect" is one insightful comment about a teacher at my school. These sorts of comments may seem harmless to students (or parents for that matter) but the issue of cyber-bullying arguably affects teachers as much as it does pupils. I have heard stories of violent threats being made and worse.
So teachers and schools must defend themselves; social networking and the thorny issues that come with it are not simply going to disappear. Forcing a child to delete an account or labelling some behaviour as "inappropriate" will only feed the curiosity, like when you tell a child not to go by the river because it's dangerous – they will anyway. So if they cannot prevent it, schools would do better to attempt to manage it in a smarter way.
Teenagers know that schools are hopeless with social media – the fact email is the only way they can talk to teachers is the biggest clue. Ask any teenager how often they email and you will see. Besides, email is surely more dangerous; one-to-one conversations can become very personal, whereas open contact on a social media site is much more transparent. Facebook itself started in a university, designed to connect Harvard students. Perhaps a return to its educational roots wouldn't be a bad idea?
Virtual learning environments or VLEs are all the rage in schools at the minute. They allow teachers and pupils to access class content, homework etc and some even have social spaces where they can interact through threaded discussions. Brilliant right? The only problem is the school splashes out all this money and no one uses it. Not even teachers. Because it's basically a more boring version of Facebook. Why then, shouldn't schools use Facebook for the same means? It's free, most pupils will go on it regularly anyway and would be far more popular – Facebook could be the world's biggest and best VLE.
A teacher could post essay questions on the special 'Yr11 English' group, and the class could post ideas, debate or ask questions in an environment they're all familiar and comfortable with. The class learns, the school saves money and (unlike email) it is completely transparent.
Of course, there will be those that emphasise the 'social' in social media – teachers are there in a professional capacity to teach, not to socialise. And Twitter is a very different story; it is much more difficult to monitor and contain, there is no way protecting tweets, nor is there the possibility of creating private online spaces.
But by demonstrating that they can use social media – and more importantly, use it positively – schools will garner more respect from students. And in the internet age, with its blurred boundaries and hierarchies, this mutual respect toward social media could prove crucial.
• Lizzie Deane lives in south Manchester and is currently in her final year of high school