Sunday, October 25, 2009

I'm not allowed to say this (here)…

I'm glad I don't work for Education Queensland.

They have a new (as of October 2009) Code of Conduct, which applies to all their staff including teachers, administrators, janitors, even (to the extent that they are able to) contractors. The new Code is generating some response in the media, due to some parts of Section 2.2.2 “Protecting Students from Harm: Sexual Misconduct” (p.11–12).

Overall, I think the policy is fine. I understand and agree that my “interactions with students must be and be seen to be professional at all times” (p.12). However, there are a couple of points they make that I think are unreasonable, short-sighted and probably unenforceable. First:
“You must not use internet social networks such as Face Book [sic], My Space [sic] or YouTube to contact or access present students enrolled in any school or institute.” (p.12)
I originally joined Facebook because it was something my students were doing and I wanted—professionally—to find out more about it, so as to be able to relate to them in their world and their language. Indeed, I was explicitly encouraged to do so by my supervisors at my school. And I found that after a while, some of my students began using Facebook as a way to ask me for help with their schoolwork. It was a medium in which they felt comfortable enough to ask questions. Now, part of my professional job is to build a relationship with my students within which honest communication and dialogue can take place, a relationship within which they feel safe enough to ask questions and learn from the answers. And I'm very comfortable using digital media as a means to communicate; after all, I was using electronically-mediated social networks years before my students were even born! So why not use a contemporary internet social network as a means to provide another avenue, another option if you like, for my students to contact me if they wish?

But it goes a step further. In a recent incident in Adelaide, two young girls lost in a drain used Facebook to ask for help. That's right, they had mobile phones and were in service range, but they updated their Facebook status rather than calling triple-zero. Now, leaving aside the wisdom of their choices, consider: perhaps a teacher, i.e. a responsible adult who knows them and cares about them, might see their status update and be able to get help to them? In this case, they fortunately had another young friend online who saw and called for help. Good teachers care about their students. Not just about what happens in the classroom. We care about their lives.

Of course, I soon discovered that Facebook was also a good way to get back in touch with many of my own old friends. I have grown to like the way I can keep in touch with so many people without an excessive effort on my part. But some of my personal friends (e.g. from church or other family friends) happen to be students. At state schools and private schools. And TAFE and universities—for crying out loud, some of them are older than I am! And now all Education Queensland staff, including teachers, are not allowed to use Facebook or other internet social networks to contact or access (whatever that means) students in any school or institute.

However, I am quite capable of setting up my Facebook account so that my friends can see everything, but my students can only see as much of my private life as I choose to share with them. Which brings us to the second point:
“If you use internet social networks in your personal time you must ensure that the content is appropriate and private, and that you restrict access to specific people who are not students.” (p.12)
Now don't get me wrong. As I just said, my Facebook profile is set up to restrict access, especially from my students. And I never initiate contact with a student on Facebook. But even my blog is an internet social network that I use in my personal time, and it's not exactly private. I'm also trying to establish a photography blog as a means to sell some of my better photos. Making that private defeats the purpose! In fact, technically, using email is a kind of internet social network. How far will this wedge eventually be pushed?

Bottom line: My employer does not own my personal time. If I choose to use it to build a publicly accessible profile on an internet social network, that's my business, not theirs.

Speaking of my business, I am also a private tutor to several students. As part of that professional relationship, we have exchanged contact details. Which also contravenes the same section of the new Code…


Trish said...

I'm glad I do work for Education Queensland. Apart from being able to be a member of an extremely solid and hard-working union, I feel that I have more rights as a teacher in the public system, than that of the private system.
While the private system may not have these safe-guards, it allows for a possibly conflict of interest in the student-teacher professional relationship. Facebook is about 'social networking'. Sure, it's good to use it in a professional sense, but are the students you are keeping in contact with keeping it as 'professional' in their own minds? I don't think so. Students are not mature enough to separate personal from professional, and this is where the lines can be blurred.
Besides, EQ has set up an online tool called 'The Learning Place' where students can access extra work, be involved in forums, etc. That takes care of the need for the use of social networking sites such as Facebook.

Ian said...

Trish, I do agree with you—on all counts.

In the end, it is our responsibility as teachers to maintain the appropriate level of professionalism in teacher-student relationships. As you say, the students are not mature enough to make the appropriate distinctions. And the new Code just provides a specific, explicit “line in the sand” which is conservative enough to prevent accidental misunderstandings. (And of course, some people will still continue to do the wrong thing; but no amount of legislation will prevent that.)

However, the new Ed Qld Code goes too far (IMHO) in mandating that any social network profile a staff member happens to have must be private and inaccessible to students. In fact, it's effectively impossible, if the profile is to be accessible to the general public.

Trish said...

I understand about any profile in the internet being private. I've kept a blog for five years, well before I became a teacher, and I have still managed to keep my school, suburb, and any minute particulars that could identify me out of the site.

It is difficult to stop these things. I'm just wondering how long it will be before they specify blog sites too. I count my blog site as a creative outlet for my writing ability. If I didn't have the blog, then I would feel like I am wasting a gift.

Maybe there should be exceptions in the clause. Then again, perhaps the new Code of Conduct is a knee-jerk reaction to something that may have happened behind the scenes somewhere. That's usually the case, where the good of all is stuffed up by the evil of one.