Rules for Tweeting Teachers

July 28, 2014
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, In the Classroom

This post was originally published on June 5, 2012.

What would you do if you discovered your child’s middle school teacher was tweeting about drinking to excess and having inappropriate online banter with students? What if your child was one of their followers? Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo, and Emily Yoffe, author of Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column, debated this question in their segment “Manners for the Digital Age.”

“I would go to the principal and say, ‘You’ve got a serious problem here you’ve got to deal with, because not only is this teacher talking about being drunk -- as you can see, she’s having inappropriate conversations with students. This should not be happening and you’ve got to address this,” wrote Yoffe. “I think, in this case, the technology has done a real service of identifying someone who perhaps needs a different line of work.”

Both Yoffe and Manjoo agreed that Twitter can act as a great filter for parents and educators, and provide some transparency when it comes to what’s going on inside the classroom. However, the border between personal and professional is increasingly fuzzy.

To help standardize the rules of student-teacher social media interactions, and facilitate a more effective use of digital technology in the classroom, New York City released its first guidelines for using social media in schools in spring of 2012. The Wall Street Journal’s Lisa Fleisher reported that the guidelines urge teachers to reject friend requests or other contact with students on their personal accounts, and that principals and supervisors will strictly monitor all school-related social media. [UPDATE] Instead, the guidelines encourage teachers interested in using social media for educational purposes to create professional accounts for teacher-student or teacher-parent interactions. In addition, the guidelines offer an extensive list of best practices for using social media in educational contexts.

The guidelines serve as a reminder that anything that would be deemed inappropriate in the classroom is also inappropriate on social media exchanges. Most teachers interviewed in the article agreed with the new guidelines, despite its possibility of hindering meaningful uses of social media sites in the classroom. Chris Casal, a computer teacher at Public School 10 in Brooklyn who maintains an individual Twitter account as well as one for his school, told Fleisher, "That all sounds reasonable to me. I'm not going to do something that's going to jeopardize the way people view me as an educator."

But Darrel M. West, vice president and director of governance studies for the Brookings Institution, added a valuable point. "It sounds like best practices on how to avoid getting sued, as opposed to thinking about how to use social media to broaden the learning experience," he said. "We all know there has been bad behavior enabled by social media, but we shouldn't make policy based on extreme cases."

New York is making official what other educators are already doing informally. Michigan High School English teacher Nick Provenzano, who operates his personal account @TheNerdyTeacher, created his own set of guidelines:

  • Have a school-only account to connect with students, but keep personal accounts professional too. “@TheNerdyTeacher is my personal/business account. I use that to connect with educators from all over the world, and it is not a place for me to connect with students from my school,” said Provenzano. “If students still want to follow the @TheNerdyTeacher account, they are welcome to, but I will not follow them back from that account.”
  • Create a set of “Follow Rules” to share with students. “I always follow a student back if he or she follows me on my school account, but then I tweet them some guidelines that I stick to when following students,” he said. Provenzano’s “Follow Rules” include reserving the right to unfollow students at any time and to report any illegal behavior he sees on a student’s Twitter feed.
  • Limit the DMs, even if it’s about something relevant like a bad grade or missing assignment. “Some people might raise an eyebrow if teachers and students are communicating behind the privacy of DMs. It's something to keep in mind for even the best intentioned teachers,” he said.

“By following these three guidelines, I have a great Twitter relationship with my students,” said Provenzano. “Some will follow me and I will follow them back without problems. If I see a tweet that might be bad or inappropriate, I will talk to the student and tell them to be careful of what they tweet and the possible consequences that could stem from that kind of communication. They are usually very apologetic, and some have even deleted those tweets.”

For more guidance on Twitter and the best ways to use it in the classroom or to communicate with students outside of school, the National Education Association has provided a few tips for educators, and Edutopia also compiled a list of 12 positive reasons why teachers need to stay tweeting when school isn’t in session.

Common Sense Media will be offering useful ways for teachers to stay connected this summer. Stay tuned to our newsletter and on our blog for more. You can follow us on Twitter @CommonSenseEdu.

Photo by Niccolò Caranti.