“Victorian Teachers Who ‘Friend’ Students on Facebook will be Automatically De-registered by the VIT”

… or so said prominent child psychologist, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg during his presentation in Shepparton on the first of June.

But it’s NOT true.

Carr-Gregg’s presentation was clearly intended to shock parents and teachers out of complacency regarding unsafe Internet practice.  We all agree that cybersafety is important, and there is no doubt that many teachers and parents don’t fully understand the risks.  I applaud Carr-Greg’s mission to redress that situation.  But what I and others at the seminar were disappointed about, was Carr-Gregg’s use of half-truths (or in some cases untruths) in order to achieve the shock value he was aiming for.  When it comes to cybersafety, our goal should be to educate parents and teachers about the Internet’s dangers, not to frighten them by overstating the case.

Toward the end of his presentation, following inaccurate descriptions of the risks of nefarious technologies like bluesnarfing software and TigerText, he turned his attention to social networking and declared that the Victorian Institute of Teaching will automatically de-register any teacher who “friends” students on Facebook!

I and several others questioned him on that point after the presentation.  But he was adamant that this is a VIT rule, and that it is written in black and white on the VIT website.  “Don’t blame me”, he said, “I don’t make the rules; I’m just the messenger”.  But that’s just the issue that worries me.  Many teachers and parents will have listened to what he said, and assumed it to be true.  After all, they heard it from a well respected authority on child psychology who is also the author of a book on cybersafety.  Someone who assumes a position of expertise, claims to speak for the VIT, and then makes a sensational claim such as this has a responsibility to make sure his facts are straight.

That evening I spent several hours trawling the VIT website and Code of Conduct but finding nothing prohibiting social networking sites, let alone anything specifically naming Facebook.

The following day, I spent an hour with a representative of the Cybersafety and Wellbeing Initiative of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation (the body responsible for the eSmart Schools initiative).  She had not heard of such a policy either – and laughed that as part of her tour of Victorian schools using technology successfully, her next visit was to a school that uses Facebook extensively.

Finally I phoned the VIT, and spoke to several officers including a senior field officer, who each said that there is certainly no such policy, (and that furthermore the VIT does not “automatically” (without due process) de-register teachers for any action – even when the action represents a clear breach of the Code of Conduct). When I asked the field officer about Facebook specifically, she confirmed that the alleged VIT anti-Facebook policy was unfounded, but cautioned that teachers who choose to use Facebook should make sure that their practice adheres to Principle 1.5 of the Code: “TEACHERS ARE ALWAYS IN A PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STUDENTS IN THEIR SCHOOL, WHETHER AT SCHOOL OR NOT”  Part D of this principle says that a breach of this standard would include (among other things) “having contact with a student via written or electronic means including email, letters, telephone, text messages or chat lines, without a valid context”.

Therefore Facebook has no different standing to any other form of interaction, electronic or otherwise, between teachers and students.  It is the nature and topic of communication that is subject to the code of conduct, not the conduit of communication.  This is just as it should be.

To “Friend” or Not To “Friend”?

What is a Friend?

Firstly let’s be clear about the semantics of “friending” on Facebook because it’s a common sticking point for teachers.  Just because adding someone to your list of Facebook contacts is called “Friending”, doesn’t mean that all your contacts are friends in the normal sense of the word.  Looking down my own list of Facebook “friends”, Some are indeed friends but many more are professional colleagues, some are fans of my podcast, some are students, some past students that I taught 20 years ago, some are relatives, and some (to be honest) I don’t actually remember who they are!

What makes someone a friend is the fact that you share with them a relationship based on mutual respect and trust in which there is an equality of power.  Friendship is all about the way you relate to someone and not at all about the arbitrary terminology a website designer uses to group information!  Just because Facebook places everyone you know into a list it calls “friends”, doesn’t make them all friends.  It is irrational to think otherwise.

The Choice to “Friend”

I think the question of whether or not to “friend” students comes down to a straightforward choice.  If you are a teacher and you have a Facebook page, you should either:

(a) Use it for social interaction with your friends, and keep students out. or

(b) Use it for professional interaction with students and colleagues, where it represents you in your vocation as a teacher.

If the first option is chosen, you should carefully tweak the privacy settings to keep your students out.  Even so, you should still be aware that you will often lose control of things you post on facebook and they are likely to be on the Internet for ever. For example, if someone else comments on a photo you post, the photo will stay on their page, even if you delete it from yours.  It is also prudent to realise that Facebook is notorious for changing privacy settings without notice.  You should therefore still assume that anything you post on Facebook (or anywhere online for that matter) could become public.

If, like me, you prefer the second opinion and choose to “friend” students and use Facebook as a conduit of professional communication with them and others, then you should not post anything on your Facebook page that you would not say or show in class or in the presence of your students and their parents. I also think you should be vigilant in “pruning” any posts by others from your wall if they are unbecoming of a teacher.  I would “unfriend” anyone who repeatedly posts things that I am uncomfortable with.

Personally, I think the second option is more rational and it’s certainly more transparent.  Furthermore, it models to students safe and effective use of web technology.

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18 thoughts on ““Victorian Teachers Who ‘Friend’ Students on Facebook will be Automatically De-registered by the VIT”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    I think that you were right in letting this post “mature” whilst you pondered on whether to post it or not, because in this case it speaks volumes about the careful thought which has gone into crafting it. This is further backed up in the description of the lengths that you went to to determine the efficacy or not of Mr Carr-Gregg’s claims.
    As to the approach used by Mr Carr-Gregg it is disappointing to hear an important message is being sullied by an approach built more on fear than information. This is particularly disappointing in a week when a major US report has been released highlighting the need to move away from fear-mongering and when other Australian experts giving evidence to a joint party committee on internet safety mirrored this position.
    Congratulations on developing such a cogent argument against continuing to foster fear rather than understanding via conversation.

  2. Having had Michael Carr-Gregg’s name on the periphery of my consciousness for some time this post if true certainly focuses a sharp light on him. As a teacher who works hard to build a resilient and sensitive self regulating student community, whether in the library or in the Web 2.0 world, I am constantly encountering what it essentially the sensationalisation of superstitions about the internet. Susan Greenfield is no better. I am sure this man comes to NSW from time to time. I look forward to confronting him. These public figures must be carefully researched and scrutinised for their potential to suffocate our culture.

  3. I went to a MCG PD session and was similarly alarmed about his claims about Facebook. I was a little surprised about his negativity regarding social networking. It did feel like scaremongering and in the end, I kind of felt like I had just watched as episode of A Current Affair.

  4. As someone who deals with schools, businesses and government on these issues, you’re absolutely right – education and building digital literacy is the key.

    Putting the frighteners into people is not the answer.

    Certainly, it’s rare that a teacher ought to friend their students on a social network, even if only to maintain the sense of professional space between teacher and student. But, as I’ve said in my talks and mentoring sessions with schools, there are *many* ways for school communities to interact in these spaces. The flagging of an explicit relationship status (as friend) is just one of them, and it may or may not indicate anything.

  5. Hi Andrew,

    Thank god someone has a common sence approch about “friending” students on facebook.

    I have always allowed my students to ‘friend’ me on facebook, always given my mobile number to classes, allow them to follow me on twitter etc and have never had a problem with students abusing the privilege. (I remember you talking about this in another blog too…)

    When ever a topic like this comes up, either on AAC, Today Tonight, newspapers etc my partner (not a teacher) flips out and thinks I’m going to be fired because I have such a casual relationship regarding student engagment.

    Truth is…use common sence. Don’t post stupid comments, dont reply to stupid comments, chose carefully what ‘groups’ you join, think twice about the sort of photos you post etc. Like you said… “you should not post anything on your Facebook page that you would not say or show in class or in the presence of your students and their parents.”

    Great blog.

    Regards

    Casey.

  6. Hi Andrew. How refreshing to read such a well thought out and balanced post. I feel that friending students on Facebook (if your facebook account is a professional one) can be a positive and supportive measure. I’ve resisted doing so far – I teach primary school – although it has occurred to me that the reason some of my students ask is that it may provide them with an element of security. It is obviously an area that is going to be quite controversial for some time.

  7. Hear! Hear! I am getting very tired of people telling me what will and wont affect my VIT registration especially in relation to my online world.

    It is interesting that in my real world community I can ‘socialise’ with my students at a town gathering, attend church services and social functions with them, coach and be a team mate on a sports team, have dinner with my friends while their children (my students) are also seated at the table and remain in the house while we continue to socialise . . . but apparently I cannot possibly ‘socialise’ with students on twitter or facebook.

    I make my decisions about ‘friending’ very carefully with each request. My behaviour online and in the real world is governed not only by my personal sense of ethics and morals but also by the professional standards I chose to work with when I took out registration with the VIT in order to continue in my profession as a teacher.

    As an adult I understand that what I do online is as transparent as what I do in the real world . . . people judge you by your actions (what you say and do) . . . consequently how I behave on facebook / twitter / etc is no different to how I conduct myself in a classroom, conference, church gathering, social event, etc.

    I believe a teacher can still maintain a professional approach to relationships with students on social networking sites such as facebook because as a teacher I am aware that students are watching me and my reactions all the time.

    As for finding out where I live, what my phone number is, etc. . . . the internet is not the only source of this information and one of our core jobs is to teach students to read and use this skill to research information . . . last time I checked having an unlisted phone number was neither a requirement for teachers nor a tax deduction related to work expenses!

    I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the double standard developing with regard to the whole online learning medium approach to eduction . . . if teachers can’t be trusted to make sensible decisions about using the internet (including their ‘social’ connections) then why are we being pushed into the Ultranet anywhere/anytime approach to education? I get that some of the issue is security but most of the issue is to do with professionalism. I can be just as unprofessional on Moodle or Ultranet as I can on facebook and it is just as easy for the DEECD or VIT to track it!

    Great blog, Andrew. Good discussion, everyone (*u*) . . . perhaps Michael Carr-Gregg should extend his PLN to include more teachers so he can see that we do take our professional responsibilities seriously on and off line!!

    cheers

    Diggers

    • Thank you for the use of logical arguments for and againts FB and just interacting with students outside of school hours. I live in a small town and I cannot be anything but a teacher- as everywhere I go I am spotted. Hence the need to be always ‘teacher and accountable’ for everything that we do.
      I have a FB account, but use it mainly to play games and have casual chats – but would never type or join any site that may conflict with my role as a teacher.

  8. Great post, thought-provoking.

    You offer 2 options with regard to friending, essentuially based on Facebook as a social medium, or as a professional medium. Trouble is, Facebook is overwhelmingly a social medium – designed to be, used as such, successful. Attempts to make it a professional medium will just look quaint beside the party photos & farm games. In my day we went to the milk bar after school, swapped lame jokes & gossip, tried to “friend” a special someone. Facebook is doing this job now.

    Professional networks are on Facebook, but this feels like a not-quite-appropriate use. Mahara or Ning may be a better alternative, unfortunately without the reach or notoriety of facebook.

    Just email is used do everything but often doesn’t do it well, Facebook shouldn’t become the web version of this phenomenon.

  9. good comment. 🙂 Although to extend your analogy – if Facebook is the new milk bar, I still sometimes go into a milk bar with my wife and sons and buy them an ice cream (my personal life). I don’t avoid milk bars because I’m a teacher. And if when i go in, some of my students are there, I don’t ignore them and pretend they are not there. I smile, say “great class we had today wasn’t it? – I loved your contribution Peter – you were on a roll! – see you tomorrow!” I don’t think that is being unprofessional. Its being courteous. But I also wouldn’t walk over and tell them a bawdy joke, or behave in any other unprofessional way – because I’m conscious that as a teacher, I need to act in a professional way in public – even outside the school. I think professional conduct is about what is said, and how it is said. The location/place/site is not the main issue – whether in the ‘real’ world or the ‘virtual’ world.

    I do agree with your point though, that facebook is not the perfect tool for creating an LMS. There are much better options.

    Thanks for your comment. I really value your thoughts.

  10. Thank you for bringing this post to my attention via your comment on my blog post about “Friending Students on Facebook.” Here here! to your investigating Carr-Gregg’s threat further. Perhaps your most powerful statement is that which you said at the end when you friend students on Facebook “it models to students safe and effective use of web technology.”

    Now I’m going to my Facebook page and request your friendship 🙂

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  12. I heard the same thing at a presentation by MCG and went back to school spending hours ringing, researching ,…… to find the same thing. Very disappointing to find an expert making alarmist statements that are not entirely accurate and impacts on legitimacy of the whole presentation

  13. Hi, as a parent I would like to say that it seems people/teachers may be taking this from a personal point of view.While I am sure most teachers try to be a good role model for their students these codes of conduct (which are in place in some states) are put there to protect the students from the teachers that do not share the same common sense or attitude towards their students. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to be cautious about adults that are teaching/coaching or close to our children…but the sad fact is that most abuse comes from the one’s we trust. Maybe something to think about when you attack people that are just trying to protect children from those teacher’s.
    There is no reason why teachers and students should be connected on facebook or any other social network. Accidentally bumping into a student at a milkbar or in public place is different than having contact while a student may be alone in there bedroom. When it comes down to it the parents should monitor their children’s internet use closely, but really most do not ALL the time. It seems common sense to me that if I was a teacher I would not request or accept any friendships on social networks with any of my students.

    http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/919716/teacher-student-facebook-contact-banned

  14. This is part of the current code of conduct from VIT as of May 2011.

    PRINCIPLE 1.5: TEACHERS ARE ALWAYS IN A PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STUDENTS IN THEIR SCHOOL,
    WHETHER AT SCHOOL OR NOT
    Teachers hold a unique position of influence and trust that should not be violated or compromised. They exercise their
    responsibilities in ways that recognise that there are limits or boundaries to their relationships with students. The following
    examples outline some of those limits.
    A professional relationship will be violated if a teacher:
    a has a sexual relationship with a student
    b uses sexual innuendo or inappropriate language and/or material with students
    c touches a student without a valid reason
    d holds conversations of a personal nature or has contact with a student via written or electronic means including email,
    letters, telephone, text messages or chat lines, without a valid context
    e accepts gifts, which could be reasonably perceived as being used

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