How social networking rules for teachers go too far

(Jason Alden - Bloomberg)
(Jason Alden – Bloomberg)

Teachers are expected to do a lot of things in the classroom — but what about outside? Here’s a look at that issue, by Angie Miller, the 2011 New HampshireTeacher of the Year and a TED2012 speaker. She teaches middle school and is a freelance write.

By Angie Miller

At school we went over our social networking guidelines. Besides the obvious — don’t be inappropriate with students through texting and Facebooking (which no teacher in their right mind would do) –  we were further directed to “always think and write like an educator” (boring) and “never use a blog…to comment about your job duties” (like this?) and “never blog or write about extremely personal subjects” (is my homeless mother, whom I write about, extremely personal?). 

The handout told us that any Facebook pictures that show “the use of alcohol…or anything students are prohibited from doing,” could result in discipline. That made me want to take and post a thousand pictures of me voting, filing taxes, or driving a car — all thing my students are prohibited from doing.

All of this is because “community members may hold you to a higher standard of conduct than the average person.”

It is also advised that teachers should refrain from “discussion or revealing to students personal matters about their private lives” making me question every piece of writing I have ever shared with my students. This morning I wrote on a student’s paper a quick little anecdote from my own childhood after reading a piece she wrote about a struggle she was going through. Was this too personal? Or was this, as I was trained, recognizing a moment to connect with a student, because connected students work harder and learn more?

Educators have been expected to be superheroes for a while now, fighting poverty, dysfunction, immense curriculums, and time. But now we are expected to be the chaste and faceless without opinions or personal lives. We must always “think and write like an educator,” which begs this question: Where does this leave those of us who are writers? Am I allowed to have my highly personal essays published in magazines? What happens when that memoir is finally written?

I understand the Public Face and I have gotten pretty good at wearing it. And I certainly am not condoning inappropriate behavior with or around children. But with policies like this, I am afraid to buy beer at the grocery store or wear clothes that break dress code out in public on hot days.

Last summer at my class reunion, there was a group photo taken, and I made everybody in the picture put down their drinks. They thought I was crazy. None of them were teachers. But when I was visiting with a group of teacher friends this summer, a group shot was taken and without any word, everybody slipped their drinks to the back. Ah yes, they had had the training too.

Don’t get me wrong. Obviously I shouldn’t be able to keep a flask in my desk or tell students about drinking escapades (neither of which I do–let me be clear: this is all hypothetical). But on my own time with my own friends, I shouldn’t be held to a higher standard of conduct than the average person — because really, sometimes, I just want to be an average person.

But while the rest of the population gets to relax into their average-ness (even President Obama can drink beer in public without losing his job), teachers are expected to live their average lives behind hushed, closed doors.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | March 6, 2013