I’m a teacher. When does my workday end?
It doesn’t. At least not when we’re talking about professionalism, reputation, and a transparent world, anyway.
When I started teaching 23 years ago, it was okay for a group of us to frequent the local watering hole on a Friday afternoon, share a few beverages and unpack the work week. We might bump into a parent or two, but they’d nod a hello â€” not pull out a camera and take a snapshot of teachers with glasses in hand.
We weren’t snap-happy either. Mobile phones were a flight of fancy, so what transpired in those days became a memory, not a picture on a Facebook wall. None of us were losing our jobs because we came together in a social arena and consumed alcohol.
Oh, how the times are a changin’. Ashley Payne, a 24 yr old teacher from Georgia, lost her job in 2009 when a photo showing her on vacation in Italy, holding a glass of beer and a glass of wine, was sent anonymously to her principal. This picture wasn’t published in the local newspaper but posted on her Facebook page, where she had set her privacy settings to the highest possible level – or so she thought. She’s spent the last two years in a legal battle trying to get the decision reversed.
While Ashley Payne’s story may seem extreme and maybe the reaction of an over-zealous principal, it’s a potential scenario we need to be aware of if we are to respond effectively to the digital world we live in.
Despite what some of our students might think, teachers aren’t robots who shut down at the end of a school day. We’re people, living with all of the foibles of modern life. We have families, we love, we laugh, we have bad days, we occasionally exhibit road rage, we might mouth a profanity on occasion, we might partake in a glass or two of the good stuff. We’re human. I’d bet that the majority of our school-connected populations understand this and support the people who give so much of themselves to the teaching of our next generation.
But that doesn’t change the fact that our lives are becoming more transparent as we use social media for communication, and the things we post in social networks might become our undoing. Just as we teach responsible internet use to our students, so should we be making sure that all our teacher colleagues grasp the viral implications of a hastily worded tweet, or what was an amusing, but easily misinterpreted photo captured at a social event.
The perils and potential of social media
How many teachers are fully understanding of the privacy settings necessary in a space like Facebook to ensure your postings aren’t public? How many understand how easy it is to copy a picture from a webpage and post it elsewhere? How many know that if you “friend” a former student, you may lay yourself open to access to the postings of current students who might be friends of that past student, and they, in turn, may see what you post?
How many of us teach in schools where our own children are students? If we friend our children in Facebook, we once again may lay ourselves open to the postings of current students. What happens if we see postings that reveal a wayward weekend or potentially dangerous situation? Are educators bound by mandatory reporting legislation to report such sightings to appropriate authorities? These are the potential implications of our use of social media, and we need to have our profession informed and aware. Having a clear understanding of the privacy settings of social networks and what you can do to protect yourself is becoming a ‘must do’ instead of a ‘maybe’.
Social media tools are just that – tools, with double edges, readily available for both teachers and students to use. One side may be jagged and threatening, but the other side is gilt edged and can be the making of us if we post the right content in social networks. In the February 2011 “Screenagers” issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Will Richardson contributes the article “Publishers, Participants all.” In it he says: “This is a world in which public is the new default.”
Will’s article focuses on what we can do to help our students, but the message is equally important and relevant for our teachers. If we’re aware of how we cultivate a positive Digital Footprint, teachers and students can demonstrate their commitment to what motivates them, their interests, the positive things they do to assist others. We need role-model teachers who can help colleagues and students realize the value of becoming creators on the Web, sharing the great work they do with others, and at the same time, building for themselves a digital presence that ensures when they are Googled (and they will be) there’s a positive return.
A new mental model: the transparent life
What will the next digital divide be? Will it be between those who know the benefits of creating and sharing their work online, and those whose only Web presence is a public Facebook page with content that doesn’t truly reflect the calibre of a person? Is this the divide that will impact on teacher careers and possibly lead to unnecessary harm to reputation and professional standing?
danah boyd (the lower-case letters are part of her footprint) is a social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England. She has said, “Over and over again, I find that people’s mental model of who can see what [on the web] doesn’t match up with reality.” Let’s hope that awareness and understanding of social networks soon permeates our profession, and helps to avoid the pitfalls of a life lived transparently with little understanding of the possible ramifications. Let’s also hope that a dose of reality is served to some of our school administrators, so that incidents like the one that has befallen Ashley Payne are played out sensibly, and not rashly, detrimentally affecting teacher careers.
We can ill afford a future where ‘Reputation Bankruptcy’, an idea floated by Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain, becomes the norm. ‘Reputation Bankruptcy’ would allow people to have the opportunity to eradicate their Web history and start over. If we teach our teachers and students how to sensibly and effectively use social media, reputations will remain intact, and our transparent world will serve us well.
So, how do we manage our Digital Footprint? That’ll be the focus of my next posting. Stick around.