To tweet, or not to tweet: should teachers use or lose social media?

Like it or loathe it, social media is now a big part of modern life, but are Facebook and Twitter useful tools for teaching staff or just plain dangerous? With schools tightening guidelines, Simon Creasey looks at the arguments for and against
25th August 2017, 12:00am
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To tweet, or not to tweet: should teachers use or lose social media?

I have to admit, I was a bit scared,” concedes a primary school teacher, who, like many others quoted in the following 1,000 words, wishes to remain anonymous (which tells you a lot about the problem at hand).

After he gave a presentation at a CPD event, someone requested the slides on Facebook. He duly posted them to a Facebook group of teachers and within minutes, some members were calling his capacity to teach and his intelligence into question, while others were being generally hostile in a manner that, if they had acted that way in person, would have prompted someone to step in to put an end to it.

“I had no idea teachers could be like that,” says the teacher. “And to be like that publicly, where anyone can potentially view their comments, seemed crazy.”

Crazy, but not uncommon. Social media has become one of the most positive tools for teachers to use to further their professional development, get hold of fresh ideas or new resources, and generally to reach out to fellow professionals for support or simply find solace that others are struggling, too. Most teachers are aware of what not to post in terms of their personal life, but “teacher social media” has blossomed.

Unfortunately, like the online world in general, these interactions can be marred by what would be deemed anti-social behaviour in the real world. In some instances, it is petty squabbles of an ilk teachers would dissuade students from engaging in; in others, it is rudeness and intimidating behaviour. Teachers have even reported feeling bullied for holding a particular view on teaching.

The worrying thing for school leaders is that much of this behaviour is public. It takes just a few seconds to link a teacher’s name to a school if the account is not anonymised (on Twitter, for example, surprisingly few teachers hide their identity). And even many anonymous posters can be tracked down with a little detective work.

That gives heads a dilemma: on one hand, you have a fantastic teaching resource; on the other, you have staff that seem to act in ways they would not do normally, and ways that risk bringing the school into disrepute.

Rules of engagement

As we enter another academic year, with an opportunity to set new ground rules, some heads are trying to work out whether they need to take action to protect both the school and the teachers.

“I know social media, like Facebook, can be a wonderful tool for keeping in touch with friends, but it can also be a tool for a lot of abuse,” says a secondary head who wishes to remain anonymous. She is considering more specific guidelines around what is expected of teachers publicly on social media.

A middle leader in the Midlands reveals that their school has already taken steps to guard against any negative repercussions for the school from a teacher’s social media conduct: staff were told that their social media accounts were being read by members of the leadership team and teachers were reminded of the professional conduct guidance of the school.

Legally, putting restrictions on teachers in terms of social media use is a bit of a grey area. Matthew Wolton, a partner at law firm Knights, says that should a teacher act in a way a head feels is inappropriate, judgement will ultimately boil down to what he describes as “this nebulous idea of bringing the employer into disrepute”.

That’s a tricky one to unpick, so to protect themselves and their teachers, he says that all school leaders need to make sure that they have a robust social media policy in place.

“This would help to avoid problems and it makes it easier for schools to say, ‘you knew this was the approach you should take’,” says Wolton.

He adds that the more detailed the school makes its position on social media usage the better it will be all round as it eradicates any uncertainties.

According to some, though, such detailed policies risk a school appearing to be too overbearing - suggesting leaders lack trust in staff. This is why some heads prefer to work within existing professional codes of conduct and then apply that to online behaviour.

“For us, it’s mainly linked to the professional code of conduct that we establish with staff at the point of appointment and in the code of conduct that staff engage with and sign, there is a reference to upholding the reputation of the school and acting in a way in their personal life that doesn’t bring the school into disrepute,” says Helena Marsh, executive principal at Linton Village College.

It’s a similar situation at Liverpool College. Hans van Mourik Broekman, the college’s principal, says that this is an area that is fraught with difficulty.

Personally, he has decided to opt out of social media altogether and believes other heads should, too.

“I think as a head you should stay away from it completely,” says van Mourik Broekman. “I have no Facebook account, I do not tweet and nobody could find me on social media. I encourage my teachers to think about that as well, but it’s not realistic for most of them.”

There are plenty of heads who will disagree: many school leaders are on social media. One primary head, who is on Twitter, says it is important school leaders model the behaviour they expect and are “visible” on social media so that teachers are reminded that it is a public forum where certain standards of behaviour are expected.

Missing out?

Marsh - a keen tweeter herself - believes discouraging teachers or heads is the wrong approach. “I’ve had staff who say that they wouldn’t use Twitter because they are scared of the risk of students and parents looking at what they’re doing,” she says. “But they’re missing out on professional networks and development opportunities and I think that’s really unfortunate.”

Chris Andrew, headteacher at St James the Great Primary and Nursery School and another keen school leader tweeter, agrees and stresses that with clear guidance these are safe spaces for teachers.

“If you are going to encourage your staff to be on there you have got to be proactive about how they are going to conduct themselves in the public domain,” he says. “Social media can be incredibly useful and powerful, but the pitfalls are massive, so if you’re a head you have to help your staff and give them clear guidance on it. Without overstating it, social media could ruin a fabulous teacher’s career, so you want to protect them from that.”

He advises teachers to change the privacy settings on their accounts so that only selected individuals can see their activity.

It has to be stressed, though, that “questionable” behaviour tends to be in the minority. Keziah Featherstone, headteacher at Bridge Learning Campus, warns against heads becoming too restrictive - if they do, she says, they risk stifling positive debate or individual expressions through fear of something that may never happen.

“You don’t want Twitter to become an echo chamber where you’re just sharing pictures of kittens or talking about how well your lesson went today - it needs to be a little more hard hitting,” says Featherstone.

Ultimately, it is about being more vigilant, say most heads. Social media is a fantastic resource for teachers and should be encouraged, but school leaders cannot put their head in the sand and ignore what happens on Facebook or Twitter. Incidents that will worry them may be few and far between, but knowing when they happen - and having clear guidelines for when they do - is becoming increasingly necessary.

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist

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