The recent dictum by the Ontario College of Teachers on use of electronic communication and social media reinforces many long-standing beliefs of teacher unions in terms of casting a wide net to protect teachers against potential disciplinary issues. Even those beliefs have evolved however, from archaic recommendations of “no electronic communications” with anyone or “no signing up for a social network”, to ones of ensuring education is available to illuminate the perils, pitfalls and promise of such media.
The College re-affirmed highly cautious recommendations for keeping teachers safe, including: not being friends with students on social networks, not texting students, and not becoming engaged in personal email or chat conversations with students. These recommendations are based on real-world risks to teachers based on discipline and criminal charges where evidence has been garnered through electronic communications. As a body responsible for upholding the professional image of teachers, while the first-glance cautions may seem overly restrictive, they are an “advisory”.
As engaged members of our culture, educators are becoming active, engaged members of social networks and avid content creators online. Many who have been using social networks for long periods of time have the experience to draw lines between “professional” and “social”. There are many web networking tools that are quite appropriate, monitored, and approved by school boards to engage student with methods that are parallel to the experiences they receive on social networks. In fact, they can even be used to model appropriate behaviours on such platforms.
In the same way that real world social (non-professional) interactions with students are cautioned against, the same lines need to be drawn in the digital world.
The advisory reiterates the College's long-standing mantra that “Teaching is a public profession. Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that teachers’ off-duty conduct, even when not directly related to students, is relevant to their suitability to teach.”
This ominous standard for most teachers has been exacerbated by often nebulous parameters of what conduct makes one unsuitable. The constant evolution of digital culture make the standards even more difficult to define. Any person can call the College of Teachers in Ontario and file a complaint at any time and the College has to investigate. The cautionary tone of the advisory is completely warranted in terms of protecting teachers in Ontario.
Teachers should not, however, have to take a “glass houses” approach to becoming vital contributors to online discussions, or content creators. Teachers still have constitutional rights to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication." The advisory ends by asking teachers to consider the following ambiguous question: “How does my online presence – that which I control and that which is posted by others – reflect my professionalism, and how does it reflect the teaching profession?"
Such a question is patently ridiculous as it asks teachers to pre-suppose the thoughts of others on their professional standards. The College does not offer concrete examples in the advisory. To hold such a standard/threat over the heads of teachers like the Sword of Damocles gives a clear indication of why many teachers still shy away from social networking as a whole, and why there seems to be such a disconnect from those who sit in disbelief at why teachers (and public boards) are hamstrung in serving the needs of a student base that uses the web as a primary communication medium.