The teaching profession has for decades been seen as a moral activity, with teachers being publicly accountable. An individual teacher’s actions reflect directly on the profession and we have a moral obligation to have high ethical standards. This is because we are dealing with young, often vulnerable people.
But unlike years ago, the hierarchical structure of schools is flattening out. I come from a teaching background where, even as a staff member, I unquestioningly called my colleagues Mr and Mrs. It was only in New Zealand where I ever had the wild temerity to call my principal by her first name. The norm now is more shared authority and collaboration. The other thing that has changed is the nuclear family. Where sensitive subjects like relationships, health and sexual education were discussed at home, these topics are now up to teachers to deal with as part of the curriculum. This can potentially make teachers more vulnerable than ever before.
In addition, we have social media networks as an integral part of our lives. Opening these networks up in schools can obscure the natural boundaries which exist between teachers and students. Robin Thicke’s unfortunate and hugely controversial song Blurred Lines kept coming to mind as I contemplated this thought. Social media messages, even innocuous and innocent ones, are devoid of facial expressions, body language and tone. So, they can be blurred or misinterpreted. However, social media does have a place in education as it can facilitate effective communication.
The New Zealand Education Council’s Code Of Ethics for Certificated Teachers is simple and unambiguous. “Act the same way when using social media as you would face-to-face.”
You would think so. Not so for an ex-colleague. Some people seem to like the drama, and teacher X was one such person. Now it’s one thing to get involved in verbal banter, and perhaps even gossip. But when this spills over to social media the boundaries between professional and personal life can become blurred. In this scenario, the teacher found that a vulnerable student was reaching out with personal issues of an increasingly sensitive nature.
The correct thing to do would be to redirect the student to the appropriate support structures. For us that means alerting the dean, senior manager, nurse or councillors. We even have a team of youth workers who work alongside the councillors. Unfortunately, this teacher thought she would deal with the problem herself. Facebook was the medium and the messages were private, sent to the teacher’s inbox. What should be paramount in all our minds is that we are dealing with impressionable youngsters. And, that texts are never private. They can be forwarded, screenshotted and shared over and over.
Before long the situation spiralled out of the teacher’s control. She did not have the tools or strategies to deal with this situation. It came to the attention of her head of department and ultimately the principal. Teachers sign a Code of Conduct which includes cyber safety and responsible IT usage. It was deemed that this teacher had overstepped this code. A disciplinary hearing was held and a warning issued.
The incident was hugely unpleasant and totally avoidable. Our Code of Ethics is straightforward and simply worded to avoid misinterpretation:
- Teachers should be approachable, but they are the professionals. Maintain a professional distance.
- It is our professional responsibility to create an emotionally and physically safe and healthy learning environment.
- If it is inappropriate to say, it is inappropriate to text.
- Keep communication transparent and professional.
- Use common sense.
I advocate the use of social media. We extensively use Google Classroom and online communication is largely shared through this medium. But at the back of our minds we should always remember to sift our contact with students through an ethical filter.
The Code of Ethics isn’t “a set of rules that must be followed.” Rather it’s a “set of principles that should be applied to situations with careful reflection to make ethical decisions.”
When it comes to ethical dilemmas, if you hear alarm bells going off in your head, listen to them.
Connecticut’s Teacher Education and Mentoring Program.(2012) Ethical and Professional Dilemmas for Educator: Facilitator’s Guide. Retrieved from http://www.ctteam.org/df/resources/Module5_Manual.pdf
Education Council New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.teachersandsocialmedia.co.nz/guidelines/commitment-learners
Hall, A. (2001) What ought I to do, all things considered? An approach to the exploration of ethical problems by teachers. http://www.educationalleaders.govt.nz/Culture/Developing-leaders/What-Ought-I-to-Do-All-Things-Considered-An-Approach-to-the-Exploration-of-Ethical-Problems-by-Teachers