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Teachers and Social Networks: To Facebook Or Not To Facebook?

By Andrea Di Maio | June 06, 2009 | 7 Comments

social networks in government

Yesterday I spent a lovely evening with my son’s classmates, their parents and teachers for the traditional school-year-end pizza party. As my wife is a teacher too, I ended up sitting at a table with many teachers.

My son is in seventh grade: some of his teachers are in their mid thirties, others in their late forties.

I don’t know how we ended up discussing about social networks, but I said that I have the principal (who was not at dinner with us) as a Facebook friend. We got in touch because my daughter, who’s now in high school but used to go to the same school as my son, loves writing, and I knew this is something she had in common with the principal who published already a fairly successful novel. When I made contact with her I explained that I was looking for advice for my daughter about which studies or courses she should take to further cultivate her passion for writing. She accepted my request for friendship almost immediately and since then we have had two or three conversations, plus the usual birthday wishes.

With a principal who is in her late fifties on Facebook, I was surprised to hear that none of the teachers at our table even had an account on Facebook, and only one was on LinkedIn. I heard that out of my son’s class, only one teacher is active on Facebook, but she was not at our dinner either (could this be a pattern? Teachers with Facebook profiles do not attend class pizza parties?).

Back home I sent an invite to both the teacher on LinkedIn the one on Facebook,  The former accepted enthusiastically – pretty much like the principal did months ago, while the latter politely declined, telling me that professional ethics prevented her from establishing contacts with students and their parents.

I drew two interesting conclusions from this.

First of all, there is no clear code of conduct for teachers on social media: some automatically accept any student’s or parent ‘s request, some decline them all, and I guess there are very few in between, as one cannot selectively accept or decline invitations from students and parents without getting in trouble.

Second, demographics tell us very little about behaviors. Some of the younger teachers make very limited use of social media, whereas their principal is far more active.

Living with a teacher I do see how things are going to change though. As public officers, with responsibility for kids or teen-agers, teachers will be expected to behave transparently: denying contacts will no longer be an option. Parents will want to see how teachers behave in social networks and establish closer contacts with them. Students will increasingly use these media as an extension of their classroom, and some teachers will have to find a way to participate and even articulate a compelling value proposition for their students on these media.

We’ll have another pizza party in one year from now I can’t wait to see how many teachers he and I will have as friends in one or more of our networks by then.

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  • Erin White says:

    I don’t agree that teachers should be forced to “behave transparently”, aka give up their right to privacy, when it comes to Facebook.

    Sometimes it is beneficial to draw parallels to non-digital life in order to make sense of the cyberverse. A teacher would not be obligated to invite students and their parents into their homes or include students and their parents in social events such as birthdays, weddings, etc. Why then should they be similarly obligated on Facebook?

    Insistence on “friending” would be as rude as appearing at the front door uninvited and expecting, or even demanding, to be included in the private events of the teacher’s life. It’s also a great example of entitlement mentality run amok.

    Facebook is a SOCIAL network; if the person isn’t part of my real life SOCIAL network, then their friend requests on Facebook will not be accepted. I don’t accept requests from people I do not know, people I do not like or people with whom I still work (former colleagues will be considered at my own discretion). It’s entirely up to me who gets to friend me on Facebook. I don’t care who thinks they are entitled to transparency. They are not entitled until I grant them that entitlement, and I can revoke it just as easily. It’s all about MY comfort, and there is no reason for me to allow anyone to dictate or observe my personal use of social media unless *I* want them to.

  • Thanks for your comments, Erin. I do not think I ever said that teachers or any other civil servant should ever be “forced” to give up any of their privacy on Facebook or other social networks.
    However, as I am sure you are aware, employers – including government agencies – are already looking quite closely at job candidates’ profiles on social networks to gather further information about them. In countries where you are not even allowed to ask a candidate whether he or she is married, this may be construed as an invasion of privacy, but actually isn’t, since people will find on Facebook et al only whatever you decided to disclose of your privacy (usually your friends’ names and little else): of course the more you disclose and the more transparently (and ethically) you behave, the better the impression on your prospective employer.
    Now, while I take your point about what “social network” means to you, there is a fundamental difference here: if a teacher decides to establish his or her social network on a mainstream social media site, this is also to be “discovered” by whichever person he or she may be willing to have as part of the social network, such as an old classmate, a best friend from childhood, an old pal in a city where he or she was living before, and so forth. Therefore unless privacy settings are such that the person is basically undiscoverable (something that would be seen as anti-social by many of his or her actual friends), the person is already “vulnerable” to discovery.
    Now, put yourself in a parent’s shoes, and suppose you are deciding which school or class to send your kid too. Would you feel more comfortable with teachers who disclose information on Facebook et al, or with people you know nothing about? In case you already have your kids at school, would you feel more comfortable with teachers with whom you have a more intimate online relationship, so that you know which cultural groups they belong to, what are their hobbies, how they spend their free time before they tell your kid? Or with those you can’t find?
    Reality is that for anybody doing a public-facing job (e.g. teachers, doctors, politicians, administrators), privacy on social networks won’t be an option. They can certainly decide not to be there, or to manage multiple profiles , but they have to be aware of the consequences on the perception of their trustworthiness and in the future – I’m afraid – their performance ratings too.

  • Tim Goetz says:

    As someone who works with K12 technology leaders, I can tell you that this debate will be going on for quite sometime. Most school districts have teachers unions to work with and they tend to look at social networking as a liability to their members. If a teacher interacts with parents and students via social networking, I’m sure its not at the approval of their union colleagues.

    That said, I personally feel that technology will transform the way teachers teach, students learn and parents interact. Slowly but surely, education organizations around the world are implementing teacher, student and parent portals that will allow its users to interact just as easily if not better than a public application like facebook. As more digital natives move into the education field, technology use in it, will not be far behind.

  • Tim, of course if you add unions to the equation, this becomes really intricate. But you’re right, that’s the way it is.
    Where I am not sure we agree is when you say that portals built by education organizations will serve the purpose. One important aspect of social networking is that it allows you to blur the boundaries of the various roles you play, and the real power is realzed at the intersection of those networks. Any segregation caused by the creation of specific portal is likely to fail and people won’t use those portals (I’m already getting calls from higher-ed organizations finding out exactly that).
    By the way, this has happened already with web 1.0, when people were googling for information rather than going to the portals of the institutions accountable for the information they were looking for.

  • Erin White says:

    Parents have been putting their children in the hands of teachers they know nothing about each day for generations without the benefit of Facebook and other social networks to provide transparency and make them feel comfortable. We all managed to survive and even thrive without “transparency”. A teacher who draws the line between what they want known and what they want kept private is not unethical.

    You write as though the blurring of the lines is a good thing. There are points of view to the contrary. On the job, the only thing that matters performance. No one needs to know what cultural groups a teacher belongs to or what their hobbies are in order to determine whether or not they are a good teacher. This is true also of jobs beyond teaching. This “transparency” is, thankfully, not owed under the law here in the US, and any demand for it brings the workforce into danger of discrimination based upon things like race, religion, etc.

  • Erin, we are in violent agreement that (1) the choice of how much to give up of one own’s privacy should always remain with than individual, and (2) in no way somebody who decides to draw a clearer line between their personal and professional like should be considered unethical.
    I do not think there will ever be a legal requirement for teachers, case managers, nurses, tax agency to give up their privacy: on the contrary, we will see more attempts at making sure that such privacy is respected. There are also jobs like judge or policeman, where that line has to be made as thick as possible.
    On the other hand, nobody can prevent an individual from formulating a choice or a judgement that is based on how much he or she knows about another person. In the past nobody would worry to know about cutlural groups and hobbies and friends of her kid’s teacher because that information was not available. But now it is, and some people decide to share more than others. Indeed that’s their choice, but my contention is that the more this divide between those who share and those who don’t grows, the more the latter may find themselves at a disadvantage. This is an important point for those employees who want to be able to access social networks from their workplaces: the boundary blurs in both direction (i.e. they can use an employer’s resource to access their social networks, but their employer might directly or indirectly ask them to leverage their personal social resources for business purposes).
    Let me offer two additional data points.
    The first one is that a few years ago, when Yahoo announced its Yahoo!Friends service which allowed users to geolocate each other through mobile phone, there was a fierce opposition by many about the unavoidable invasion of privacy (even if users would be in complete control of who and when would see them). Now, a few years later, Google Latitude offers the same function (with or without a GSP enabled phone) and I have not heard the same outraged comments. Doesn’t it mean that our sense of privacy has changed?
    The second data point, more personal, is that the teacher referred in my post who had declined my connection, sent me an invite to a Facebook group she leads and is completely outside her professional remit. Another boundary has blurred.

  • Rich Murphy says:

    My colleagues and I actually researched a similar question (, but approached it from a different angle. Facebook can be a great tool to help foster a relationship between teachers and parents, which I would believe would be beneficial to our kids.

    I hate the word transparency, it suggests that teachers are inherently deceptive in what they choose to disclose. As though without Facebook, they are hiding something. I think it is important that students and parents can understand teachers as humans and not educational robots whose sole purpose is to serve the children. Facebook offers that opportunity.

    Of course, there are things you would not want parents to know. But a word to the wise, if you don’t want parents to know, how about not posting it on Facebook in the first place (where parents can find it one way or the other, friend or no friend). This does bring up a good question as to what behaviors are appropriate for teachers to engage in in social networks.