Skip to main content

Practicing Caution: Guidelines for Electronic Communications (Professional Relations Services)

Susan Thede

The opportunities to  use social media and electronic communication  for  pedagogical purposes are  expanding every day.  Social media  offer  teachers   exciting   new  ways to engage with students, parents, and  the wider school community. Embracing these  new opportunities  makes pedagogical  sense; however, the expectations on educators dictate that we do so with proper safeguards  and a vigilant eye  to maintaining the standards of our profession.

When considering using social media to communicate with  students, parents, or others in the school community, it  is  important to  remember that  the  technology does not  change   the  role of teachers or their professional  obligations. The principles that  have traditionally governed how teachers  communicate  with the school community  have not changed:  professionalism,  accountability, and boundaries continue to  apply. Always remember  that  material posted online,  whether via  email, Facebook,  blogging, Twitter  or other media, is  never  truly  erased. If   you would not utter a phrase or raise a  particular  topic in your classroom, or in the presence of your  principal  or a  parent, then do not  communicate  it  by electronic means. When using social media, exercise caution and  restraint and remain aware.

Of the range of uses of social media and electronic  communication in school environments,  at least three scenarios  have pitfalls that  demand teachers exercise caution: teachers  communicating with individual students, parents, or the wider school  community through  Facebook or  other social media;  teachers being careless about their personal use of  social  networking sites or what is  posted about them;  and teachers  failing  to recognize social networking websites as an arena for potential cyber-bullying.

Social networks and email as a means of communicating with the school community
Social media and  electronic communication   provide innovative and exciting options for teaching. They also have the potential to blur  professional boundaries  and expose teachers to  a number of risks. ETFO continues to  support electronic communication and social media as a teaching tool, but  cautions that  their  use must be  consistent with the highest standards of professional conduct.

Email, for better or worse, tends to promote a  casual conversation style  that  can  blur  the boundaries  between  student and teacher. Its  use by teachers is also often perceived with suspicion by parents and administrators.  ETFO  recommends against  individual  email  communications with students. Emails to an entire class in relation to specific  classroom projects may be  appropriate in  certain situations;  however, teachers should use their  professional  email  address exclusively and maintain a professional  tone throughout the communication.

For communications  with parents, ETFO recommends face-to-face meetings or telephone conversations to discuss any issues that students  may be facing. When emailing, teachers should use their school email accounts, and only  during regular business hours. Sending emails late at night can give rise to the unrealistic expectation that teachers  are available to parents at any time of day.

Social media sites have the potential to provide a  number of  exciting  and innovative ways for  teachers to  interact with  their  classes and the  wider school community. They can  encourage  group  discussions,  facilitate  collaborative projects, and provide peer-to-peer support. Social media sites also provide opportunities  for teachers  to  communicate effectively  and  efficiently with groups of parents and students.

In  contrast, communicating  with individuals through social networking  sites tends toward  an even more casual style than email and does not meet the standards  of  professionalism  expected of teachers. ETFO recommends  that a teacher who wants to use a social network for a school-related project should ensure that  any  communication that  occurs over the  site  is  also accessible to school administrators  and parents. Transparency will go a long way toward ensuring that professional standards are maintained and inappropriate conduct is minimized.

ETFO supports social  networking sites  as  a teaching  tool,  but  cautions  that  their  use  is rife  with  potential serious consequences. ETFO strongly recommends  that teachers who want to use social media in  the  classroom consult first with  their  school administrator, and that  they create an account that will be used exclusively  for pedagogical  purposes and that is unconnected to their personal information.

Careless or inappropriate personal use osocial networking sites
In  addition to the problems  that may be caused by  communicating through  social  networking sites,  teachers can get  into  trouble if  they are careless in   their  personal use  of   these  sites. Teachers   must  always be  very  cautious  about what they post and what is  posted about them, notwithstanding that  ETFO supports strong protections for teachers’ privacy.

Teachers   should  manage their   privacy  settings  so that  only those whom they personally approve  have access to their page. They should also request that their friends not post photos or other material that could reflect badly on them.

Teachers  must be alert to students posting material about them online. ETFO  strongly recommends  that teachers  carry out regular Google searches on themselves to ensure no harmful material is being posted. There has been an  increase in incidents of teachers having unfounded  allegations against them posted online. In  one instance, a  student set up a Facebook account in  a teacher’s name and posted offensive comments.  When such material is  found, teachers should immediately  report it to their principal and ETFO.

Teachers  should never invite students or parents to be their friends on their personal  Facebook  page or similar  sites and never accept an offer of friendship from a student or parent on Facebook. Doing so blurs the boundaries  between teacher and student and can lead to discipline by the school board and/or the College of Teachers.

Cyberbullying  falls within the Ministry of Education definition of bullying. ETFO does not support teachers going  online to  supervise their students’ Facebook pages, but teachers do need to be aware  that the possibility for cyberbullying is very real and report any incidents they come across to their administrators.

Given the  potentially serious consequences of  misusing email and social networking sites, here are some tips  to consider:

  • If  you use social media as a teaching tool, ensure that the proper safeguards  are in place, including  providing access to school administrators and parents.
  • Avoid communicating  with individual parents or students through email or social networking sites.
  • Never use your personal account to friend students or parents.
  • If  you communicate electronically,  do so from your board email account  and maintain the highest  standards of professionalism.
  • Be vigilant in monitoring what is posted about you online.