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Local educators wary of double-edged sword of social media
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Students and teachers are hesitant to embrace socializing with each other online. Local school systems do not have a policy pertaining to social media usage for educators. - photo by Photo illustration by Scott Rogers | The Times

Facebook has more than 840 million users worldwide.

Some are CEOs, construction workers, college students — and some are teachers.

But the lines between the professional world and the personal world of social media can get blurred.

It’s an issue of special concern to teachers, where social media has been the catalyst to the end of some educators’ careers.

Local school systems do not have policies on social media interaction between teachers and students.

“What we continue to point teachers towards, because it really fits all situations, including social media, is the Georgia Professional Standards code of ethics as it deals with personal-professional relationships,” said Will Schofield, Hall County Schools superintendent.

Many teachers follow their own guidelines.

Emily Webster, a teacher at Gainesville High School, said she will not “friend” a current student but will accept a request after that student graduates. She, however, will not be the one sending the friend request.

“I just think that’s kind of creepy,” Webster said. “I just think you have to be as professional as you can. Getting into all that social media stuff isn’t appropriate for teachers.”

She has been on Facebook for three years and has kept that personal policy for just as long.

“Kids will say: ‘Mrs. Webster, why won’t you be my friend?’” Webster said. “I say: ‘It’s not appropriate yet.’ I don’t want to know all of my students’ social life. That’s too much information sometimes.”

But teachers and administrators can sometimes communicate more effectively with students by meeting them where they are — online.

Stefanie Gibbs, graduation coach at Flowery Branch High School, said she and the school use Twitter to disseminate announcements, sports scores and general information to the students.

“Everything like that goes to Twitter,” Gibbs said. “So far, it’s working OK.”

Gibbs used Facebook to begin with — and still does to an extent — but ran into a couple of issues.  She said students’ posts would show up in her “news feed” and put her in some awkward positions.

“I learned a lot more about students than I wanted to learn on Facebook,” she said. “Their feeds just come up and you’re like: ‘Uh, I really didn’t need to know that about them.’”

Students would also post harsh comments about other students or teachers.

“Unfortunately, when you see something that maybe involves something harsh they said about a teacher or them bashing other classmates, you can’t not look at those things,” Gibbs said.

But on Twitter, information can be one way.

“It’s such a double-edged sword,” Schofield said. “It’s the way that this digital generation communicates, but it has such an incredible potential to go over the line in terms of the personal-professional relationship between student and teacher.”

He said the system has not dealt with an inappropriate relationship between student and teacher over a social media site, but there have been instances where students have used social media to voice negative opinions of teachers and classmates. That’s common to many school systems, including Gainesville.

“It’s just like anything else,” said Merrianne Dyer, Gainesville City Schools superintendent. “It can be really useful and helpful and current, or it can be abused — it’s a matter of personal judgment. We remind the teachers to use that good personal judgment and adhere to the code of ethics.”

Some teachers, however, don’t really see the benefit of communicating with students via social networks.

“I think it has the potential to create rumors and animosity, and I’m just not a big supporter of it,” said Andy Miller, a teacher at Gainesville High School. “There’s no reason to have another chance to lose your job.”

Even some students think about the potential consequences.

“The way you use it personally should definitely be a separate entity from your professional life,” said Charlie Bryant, a senior at Gainesville High. “I’m not friends with any teachers that I have a purely student-teacher relationship with. The teachers that I’m friends with, I socialize with outside of school.”

That socialization, he said, is through church and friends of the family. But as the popularity of social media continues to grow, the uses for it in academia could be positive if concrete boundaries are set.

“We certainly look forward to the day when we can have a class with social media interaction with each other and not have this wide-open, anything-goes format that you get when you get onto the World Wide Web,” Schofield said. “I can see the benefit of it and I can see the potential downfalls of it. ... It’s a fine line to walk and we’re learning every day.”

 

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