Should Teachers be Held to different Standards on Social Media

Social media websites such as Facebook have become a staple in the daily routines of many. However, daily use of social media can land people in trouble if they aren’t careful. The lines that separate the ‘online’ and the ‘offline’ worlds have progressively become blurred and, over time, that indistinct separation has led to serious consequences for many people.

Teachers, for instance, have been making headlines lately for various posts and images posted to Facebook. Some of these educators have had to deal with severe repercussions for posts that may or may not have been created to spark controversy.

Free speech vs. employer policy

Free speech is a Constitutional right in the U.S. and with this right, people, including teachers, are allowed to speak their mind. However, many employers also have policies that address social media, perhaps limiting what teachers (and other school employees) can say while on sites such as Facebook.

In December 2012, a New Jersey teacher came under fire for a comment made about a gay history exhibit that was on display at the school. Calling for its removal, “she then urged her friends to pray and eventually called homosexuality a perverted sin,” reported NPR.

This led to protests, with one protestor saying, “She has the right to post as a private citizen, but not as a teacher.” Others came to the teacher’s defense, saying she had a right to free speech.

But does she? Or others? A teacher in Ohio found himself under public scrutiny after making a politically charged comment after the 2012 election.

NPR listed in its piece several excerpts from various school district social media policies around the country. Many of them are clearly defined and either prohibit or recommend certain behaviors. NPR said in some cases these have “led to questions over whether teachers can use social media at all.”

Public backlash

Angering parents and the general public is another pitfall teachers have to navigate if they use Facebook, or other social media sites, on a personal level. Friending students is often a no-no, and even if not, one post can get educators in trouble.  

In 2011, a first-grade teacher commented on Facebook that she felt like a “warden overseeing future criminals,” as she vented about her job, reported the New York Times. This comment infuriated parents and led to a paid suspension for the teacher as the situation was investigated.

This instructor is not the only one; there are many instances of teachers venting about their jobs. Truth is, some have probably been venting for years offline to their friends and families, not unlike employees in other careers. But with Facebook, those vented feelings become public knowledge, which is different than expressing frustrations on a telephone call or over a cup of coffee.

Privacy settings

Privacy controls are designed to allow social media users to restrict what is shared with people. The problem, though, is that glitches happen, or settings are so confusing the user may not have properly adjusted them the way they want.

Some teachers have even lost their jobs over images and/or posts made on Facebook. The New York Times went on to describe a situation where a math and science program supervisor lost her job after she made a couple of comments that went public, even though she did not intend them to be, as she thought her settings were set to private.  

Consider a very recent case where a teacher posted an image of her students wearing duct tape over their mouths. The middle school teacher allegedly did not put the duct tape on their mouths; however, after the kids did it, she did take a photo and posted it with the caption, “Finally found a way to get them to be quiet!”  

That teacher thought she’d set her privacy settings, but someone saw it and brought the image and caption to the attention of school officials. That educator has been on suspension since October 2012 and is currently facing termination of her job.

Social media postings can get anyone into hot water with their employer. However, teachers hold a very public position, and since they work so closely with children, it seems their posts are scrutinized more than others.

What do you think? Should a teacher be fired over Facebook postings?