Saturday, March 09, 2013

Teaching in a Fishbowl - What Can Happen When Teachers Are Online


            “… Teachers practice their profession in a fishbowl… Once educators decide to use Facebook or any other similar social medial, it is imperative that they understand that they are about to expand their fishbowl exponentially and that they will be held responsible professionally for their personal posts and online activity.”[1] Does a teacher’s online activity on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and MySpace, have any bearing on their abilities within the classroom walls? Many schools divisions, parents, and community representatives are saying yes.

Social networking has increased exponentially over the past decade and statistics are reporting that, within Canada, 86% of citizens have at least one Facebook account, 19% have a Twitter account, and one in every three people use various social networking platforms on a daily basis.[2]Furthermore, Scholastics Instructor indicates that as many as 106,000 teachers maintain active Facebook accounts, 8% of teachers have a Twitter account, and as much as 65% of teachers are uploading videos onto YouTube.[3]In Manitobaalone, there are at least 400 educators using Twitter accounts for personal use or in the classroom with their students.[4]If the practice of online sharing is as commonplace as the statistics imply, then why are teachers being reprimanded for their online involvement?  I argue that it is our responsibility as classroom teachers to do everything in our power to uphold the professional image that is expected of a teacher and ensure that our actions do not result in a disruption to student learning. To support this study I will focus on specific court cases and newspaper articles as well as publications from the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. Within this review, I will include my personal assessment of the issue and the possible implications for teachers in the field.

Literature Review: Court Cases
            While the issue of online professionalism is occurring more and more within the headlines, there are still relatively few instances of these types of cases going to court, especially within Canada. The following cases are drawn from the United States and occurred within the states of New Jersey, and Ohio, respectively.

            The first of these cases is In The Matter of the Tenure Hearing of Jennifer O’Brien, StateOperated School District of the City of Paterson, Passaic County between Jennifer O’Brien and the Appellate Division, submitted in December of 2012 and decided in January of 2013. The teacher in question, Jennifer O’Brien, was dismissed from her position as a first grade teacher in the Appellate Division after a principal from one of O’Brien’s former positions notified her current employer of two “racist” comments on her personal Facebook page. The statements read as follows, “I’m not a teacher - I’m a warden for future criminals!” and “They had a scared straight program in school - why couldn’t [I] bring [first] graders?”[5]O’Brien’s class of twenty-three students, all approximately six years of age, hailed from African-American and Latino backgrounds and the principal who reported the comments was concerned that O’Brien was racially-profiling her students and acting “racist”.

            Upon meeting with O’Brien, the principal noted that she did not intend for her comments to be offensive but was overall unapologetic for her posts. O’Brien was originally suspended with pay while an investigation took place but news of this action quickly lead to angry phone calls by parents, threats to withdrawal students, and a public protest outside of the school. The superintendant ultimately charged O’Brien with “conduct unbecoming a teacher” and suspended her without pay.[6] In court, O’Brien insisted that the comments on her Facebook page were a result of her “speaking out of frustration for her students’ behaviour that day” and that she was genuinely surprised that the posts were being “interpreted as racist”.[7]The court stated that while the comments may be O’Brien’s personal expression, “It becomes impossible for parents to cooperate with or have faith in a teacher who insults their children and trivializes legitimate educational concerns on the internet.”[8] O’Brien was subsequently removed from her tenured position with the division but did not have her certification revoked.

            The second of these cases is Cairns vs. Akron Public Schools Board of Education, submitted January of 2013, ongoing. The teacher in question, Melissa Cairns, is facing dismissal from her position as a middle school math teacher in the Buchtel Community Learning Center after a colleague notified the principal of a photograph of students on her personal Facebook page. The image, publically displayed on Cairns Facebook page, featured eight students with duct tape across their mouths with the caption, “Finally found a way to get them to be quiet!!!!”[9]  The students in the image were from grades seven and eight and the colleague reported that she was concerned not only for the student’s privacy but also for the use of duct tape and Cairns choice of image caption.

            Cairns was immediately suspended with pay and has remained in this situation since the images surfaced in October of 2013 but is currently undergoing an appeal process. Cairns insists that the tape was being used to repair a student’s binder and the students were joking around by placing it over their mouths. At the encouragement of the students, Cairns took a photograph of the “silly” incident and posted it on her Facebook page, which she thought was only viewable by her friends. Cairnsstated that, “What I did was stupid and not well thought out”, and is hoping that she will be able to appeal the board’s decision, using her ten years of good behaviour as leverage[10]. The board, however, is concerned with the privacy concerns that arise from posting images of students without permission, especially on a personal account rather than a school account, and is pursuing permanent termination.

 Literature Review: Newspaper Articles
            As opposed to the small number of formal court cases, newspaper articles provide much more documentation of the frequency of online unprofessionalism. Ironically, the social media platforms that were used in their indiscretions are also used to share their story around the world. The following articles take place within the United States and address the social media platforms Facebook, Blogger, and Twitter.
            The first of these articles, appearing in the New York Post, discusses a New York City high school English teacher who has been fined and ordered to take additional courses after the school’s PTA president noticed offensive and sarcastic comments about students on her personal Facebook page. The multitude of posts, over a period of a few months, included comments that described her grade eleven class as, “suicide-inducing” and referring to one of her students as, “…unteachable and the weirdest human being EVER!”[11]The teacher in question, Patricia Dawson, admits to the inappropriateness of her remarks but is adamant that that posts were made in a sarcastic manner and that she “used humour as one of her methods of teaching.”[12]The arbitrator assigned to her case, however, states that the comments made by Dawson are, “cruel and demeaning”[13]. Dawson has been fined $15,000 for her actions and is currently taking a course on Appropriate Boundaries and Relationships Between Teachers and Students before she can return to the classroom.

            The second of these articles, appearing in the Huffington Post, discusses a Colorado high school math teacher who has been placed on paid leave after administration was notified of semi-nude photographs and discussion of drug use on a teacher’s Twitter account. The twenty-three year old teacher Carly McKinney, known as CarlyCrunkBear on Twitter, posted sexually explicit photographs of herself as well as images of her smoking what appeared to be a marijuana cigarette. The account also included posts that mentioned drug use, drinking while grading student assignments and referring to her students as “jailbait”.[14]McKinney stated that the account was created by herself and a friend and was not meant to be representational of her actual activities and should be interpreted as a “parody”.[15]Furthermore, since the account was created with a friend she states that she was not aware of some of the posts that were being made on her behalf. The district is currently maintaining McKinney’s leave from the classroom until further disciplinary decisions can be made.

The third of these articles, appearing in Mail Online, discusses a Georgia English teacher who was asked to resign or face suspension after the school received a complaint about images of the teacher drinking beer and wine on her personal Facebook page. The teacher, Ashley Payne, had posted images to her Facebook page that featured herself drinking wine and beer while on a tour of a brewery on a trip to Europe. Miss Payne assures the reporter that her Facebook settings are on “high” and that only her closest friends have access to her images and account information.[16]While the images themselves appear innocent, school administration claim that Payne’s Facebook page, “promotes alcohol use and contains profanity.”[17]While she voluntarily resigned rather than facing suspension, Payne is now seeking to get her job back.

The fourth article, appearing in the Charlotte Observer, actually features five different teachers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools District that are facing disciplinary actions due to their online behaviour through social media. The teachers, who did not have privacy settings utilized on their accounts displayed comments and images on their personal pages that are described by a representative as, “involving poor judgement and bad taste.”[18]These actions include a statement in an “About Me” section that stated, “I am teaching in the most ghetto school in Charlotte”, a teacher who listed one of their favourite activities as, “Chillin wit my niggas!!!” and a status update that read, “… I hate my students!”[19]The teachers are all facing disciplinary action including suspension, dismissal and other disciplinary consequences. A representative for the district stated, “When you’re in a professional position, especially one where you’re interacting with children and parents, you need to be above reproach.”[20]

Critical Assessment
            With one in every three citizens utilizing social media everyday, is it fair to be so critical of teachers who are participating in this trend? Even I will admit that I maintain a personal Facebook and Pinterest account as well as utilize Twitter, PLN Ning sites, and blogging for professional purposes. I am, however, increasingly critical of what type of information I chose to share through these platforms. The purpose of this assessment is not to judge the morality of the teachers’ actions or the formality of the various procedures leading up to disciplinary action. This assessment, however, focuses on whether the teacher’s actions upheld the professional image that is expected of teachers and if it lead to a disruption in student learning.

In each of the incidents listed within the Literature Review, a teacher was facing disciplinary action, including dismissal, for posts that they shared through social media platforms. How do we address, however, the fact that Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that all citizens have, “Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression”?[21]  The fact is that the profession of a teacher places the individual in a Position of Authority or Position of Trust in which their actions can strongly influence those in which they have authority over or those who have trust in them (i.e. students, parents, and community members). While a teacher is guaranteed the same rights and freedoms as any other citizen in Canada, they are subject to Reasonable Limits; which is the extent in which an individual’s rights and freedoms can be legally limited in specific situations. The Manitoba Teachers’ Society explains this situation as,
… because a teacher and principal occupy positions of trust within society,
arbitrators and judges have ruled that they must be held to a high standard of
personal and professional conduct than other workers.[22]
With this standard in mind, each of the cases should be approached with critical examination of whether the teacher’s actions upheld the professional image that is expected of teachers and if it lead to a disruption in student learning as opposed to whether or not the teacher’s charter rights were violated.

In each of the cases, the teacher’s actions were immediately recognized as unprofessional by administration, colleagues, parents, and/or community members. Whether the action included images, posts, or commentaries, they all resulted in multiple people losing trust in the individual as a teacher. As a result of their online actions, each of the teachers were no longer seen as professional and the Position of Authority or Position of Trust was tarnished. Furthermore, the teacher’s actions also resulted in a disruption to student learning as the student’s awareness of the situation resulted in them seeing their teacher in a different perspective. Depending on the situation, their actions lead students to disrespect their teacher, not see them as someone that could be trusted, and/or doubt their position as a teacher. In the case of elementary teachers, parent action plays a larger role in this disruption as they may pull their child from class, complain to administration, or publicly protest at the school. By assessing each of the situations, I believe that each of the teachers failed to uphold the professional image that is expected of teachers and subsequently lead to a disruption in their students’ learning.

Implications for Education
            There is no doubt that teaching is a profession that places an individual in a fishbowl, so to speak, and online activity only emphasizes this concern. The turnout of the 2013 Manitoba BYTE Conference, with over 400 participants, highlighted just how many educators in the province are recognizing educational technologies, including social media, as an important tool.[23]With so many individuals utilizing social media platforms, teachers are professionally responsible for ensuring that they are modeling ethical and appropriate behaviour. The Manitoba Teachers’ Society has published a brochure clearly outlining the “Dos and Don’ts” of online behaviour for teachers and it is something that all teachers should review periodically. This includes issues like:
            - Do follow school division policy on social networking with students and 
              only use divisional computers during regular working hours.
            - Do separate your personal and professional life online. Use an approved
               Facebook site for your work and use it only during regular work hours.
            - Do use highest level of security controls on social networking sites you
              participate in.
            - Don’t vent online.
            - Don’t post information, comments, or pictures that would be 
              embarrassing if they appeared on the front page of your local paper.[24]
 It is almost a guarantee that teachers will be “Googled” be administration, parents, students and community members at some point in their career and while the use of social media by educators is under scrutiny it can be utilized professionally if these guidelines are maintained.

In addition to the brochure mentioned above, teachers should also be cognizant of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society Code of Professional Practice that clearly states that,
2. A member acts with integrity and diligence in carrying our professional
    responsibilities
            4. A member’s conduct is characterised by consideration and good faith. 
                She or he speaks and acts with respect and dignity, and deals 
                judiciously with others, always mindful of their rights.
            5. A member respects the confidential nature of information concerning 
                students and may give the information only to authorized personnel or
                agencies directly concerned with the individual student’s welfare.
            6. A member first directs any criticism of the professional activity and related
                work of a colleague to that colleague in private.[25]

This code outlines the standards that should guide a teacher’s behaviour on and offline, in the classroom and out of the classroom. I strongly believe that if teachers educate themselves in the guidelines established in both of these documents than they will significantly decrease their risk of participating in unprofessional behaviour online.

            As teachers, these types of cases emphasize the fact that this profession is under constant scrutiny and that we are subject to Reasonable Limits that ensure our professional image and Position of Trust is maintained. While it can be easy to assume that we can take off our “teacher’s hat” at 3:30 each day, the truth is that a teacher’s behaviour and activities are always subject to judgement and it is our professional responsibility to ensure that all our actions are conducted with, “consideration and forethought”.[26]

Bibliography

BYTE Conference Committee. (2013). “2013 Byte Conference Neepawa”. Canada. Available online at: http://byte2013.wikispaces.com

Daily Mail Reporter. (2011). “Teacher Sacked for Posting Picture of Herself Holding Glass or Wine and Mug of Beer on Facebook”. Mail Online. Available online at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1354515/Teacher-sacked-posting-picture-holding-glass-wine-mug-beer-Facebook.html

Edelman, Susan. (2012). “Teacher Can’t Be Fired For Facebook Tirades”. New York Post. Available online at:

Ferner, Matt. (2013). “#FreeCrunkBear: Carly McKinney, High School Teacher Who Tweeted Semi-Nude Pics, Backed By Her Students On Twitter.” Huffington Post: Canada - Denver. Available online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/31/freecrunkbear-carly-mckin_n_2586352.html

Government of Canada. (1982). “Section 2: Fundamental Freedoms”. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada. Available online at: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/Const/page-15.html#h-41

Helms, Ann. (2013). “5 Teachers Disciplined for Facebook Postings”. The Charlotte Observer. United States. Available online at:

In The Matter of the Tenure Hearing of Jennifer O’Brien, State Operated School District of the City of Paterson, Passaic County. Docket No. A-2452-11T4. 2013 New Jersey Superior Court. Lexis 28; 163 Lab. Cas. (CCH) P61,317.

Kanalley, Craig. (2011). “Teacher Natalie Munroe Defends Blog That Insulted Students”. Huffington Post: Canada- Education. Available online at:

Manitoba Teachers’ Society. (2013). “Facing the Music”. The ManitobaTeacher. Canada. Volume 91, Number 4, Page 22. Available online at:

Manitoba Teachers’ Society. (2013). “MB Educators”. Twitter List. Canada. Available online at: https://twitter.com/mbteachers/manitoba-educators

Manitoba Teachers’ Society. (2011). Online Safety for Teachers Brochure. Canada. Available online at:

Manitoba Teachers’ Society. (2012). “The Society’s Code of Professional Practice”. Constitution, Bylaws and Policies Governing The ManitobaTeachers’ Society. Canada. Page 2. Available online at:

Schilling, Chelsea. (2008). “Public School Teachers Wild on Social Networks”. WND. United States. Available online at: http://www.wnd.com/2008/11/81549/

Scholastic Instructor. (2013). “Social Media for Teachers Infographic”. The Innovative Educator. United States. Available online at: http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.ca/2013/02/social-media-for-teachers.html

Tech Vibes. (2011). “Social Networking in CanadaInfographic”. Love Infographics. United States. Available online at: http://www.loveinfographics.com/categories/social-media-infographics/canadas-social-media-usage-statistics-infographic-infographic

The Daily Dot. (2013). “Teacher Who Taped Her Students’ Mouths Shut Might Get Fired”. Lexis Nexis. United States. Available online at: http://www.lexisnexis.com.berlioz.brandonu.ca/lnacui2api/api/version1/getDocCui?lni=57JX-0381-F03R-N2KS&csi=299488&hl=t&hv=t&hnsd=f&hns=t&hgn=t&oc=00240&perma=true

Footnotes


[1] ManitobaTeachers’ Society. (2013). “Facing the Music”. The ManitobaTeacher. Canada. Volume 91, Number 4, Page 22. Available online at:
[2] Tech Vibes. (2011). “Social Networking in Canada Infographic”. Love Infographics. United States. Available online at: http://www.loveinfographics.com/categories/social-media-infographics/canadas-social-media-usage-statistics-infographic-infographic
[3] Scholastic Instructor. (2013). “Social Media for Teachers Infographic”. The Innovative Educator. United States. Available online at: http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.ca/2013/02/social-media-for-teachers.html
[4] Manitoba Teachers’ Society. (2013). “MB Educators”. Twitter List. Canada. Available online at: https://twitter.com/mbteachers/manitoba-educators
[5] In The Matter of the Tenure Hearing of Jennifer O’Brien, State Operated School District of the City of Paterson, Passaic County. Docket No. A-2452-11T4. 2013 New JerseySuperior Court. Lexis 28; 163 Lab. Cas. (CCH) P61,317.
[6] lbid.
[7] lbid.
[8] lbid.
[9] The Daily Dot. (2013). “Teacher Who Taped Her Students’ Mouths Shut Might Get Fired”. Lexis Nexis. United States. Available online at: http://www.lexisnexis.com.berlioz.brandonu.ca/lnacui2api/api/version1/getDocCui?lni=57JX-0381-F03R-N2KS&csi=299488&hl=t&hv=t&hnsd=f&hns=t&hgn=t&oc=00240&perma=true
[10] lbid.
[11] Edelman, Susan. (2012). “Teacher Can’t Be Fired For Facebook Tirades”. New York Post. Available online at:
[12] lbid.
[13] lbid.
[14] Ferner, Matt. (2013). “#FreeCrunkBear: Carly McKinney, High School Teacher Who Tweeted Semi-Nude Pics, Backed By Her Students On Twitter.” Huffington Post: Canada- Denver. Available online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/31/freecrunkbear-carly-mckin_n_2586352.html
[15] lbid.
[16] Daily Mail Reporter. (2011). “Teacher Sacked for Posting Picture of Herself Holding Glass or Wine and Mug of Beer on Facebook”. Mail Online. Available online at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1354515/Teacher-sacked-posting-picture-holding-glass-wine-mug-beer-Facebook.html
[17] lbid.
[18] Helms, Ann. (2013). “5 Teachers Disciplined for Facebook Postings”. The Charlotte Observer. United States. Available online at:
[19] lbid.
[20] lbid.
[21] Government of Canada. (1982). “Section 2: Fundamental Freedoms”. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada. Available online at: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/Const/page-15.html#h-41
[22] Manitoba Teachers’ Society. (2013). “Facing the Music”. The Manitoba Teacher. Canada. Volume 91, Number 4, Page 22. Available online at:
[23] BYTE Conference Committee. (2013). “2013 Byte Conference Neepawa”. Canada. Available online at: http://byte2013.wikispaces.com
[24] Manitoba Teachers’ Society. (2011). Online Safety for Teachers Brochure. Canada. Available online at:
[25] Manitoba Teachers’ Society. (2012). “The Society’s Code of Professional Practice”. Constitution, Bylaws and Policies Governing The ManitobaTeachers’ Society. Canada. Page 2. Available online at:
[26] Manitoba Teachers’ Society. (2013). “Facing the Music”. The Manitoba Teacher. Canada. Volume 91, Number 4, Page 22. Available online at:

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