A junior high school science teacher tells her students she goes to bed by 9 p.m., but if they have questions about the homework during evening hours, email anyway and she’ll try to get back to them.
One 20-year veteran would consider Facebooking with students in her high school English classes to be a rare form of torture, while another educator once set up a Facebook account specifically for her class because she wanted her students, especially at-risk kids, to be able to reach her on a platform where they feel comfortable.
Welcome to the wildly varied new age of student-teacher conversations, where electronic communication is both extraordinarily convenient and fraught with complications.
With all these conversations happening in the virtual world, there are more avenues for intimacy.
Emailing, tweeting and texting between teachers and students can nibble away at a teacher’s off-time while increasing screen time for kids whose parents would like them to put down the electronica and head outside. Less typical but more worrisome are the increased opportunities for private communications to be misinterpreted or to breach boundaries.
“We talk about living in a 24/7 world,” said Craig King, superintendent of Regional School Unit 10, which serves 12 communities, including Rumford, in western Maine. “That is not a cliché. That is the reality. It might be 10 p.m. and a student will say, ‘I’m going to email my teacher because I can’t do my algebra.’ This idea of discrete times or protocols has been washed away by a tidal wave.”
With that tidal wave comes confusion.
Frank Sherburne, the superintendent of the Bonny Eagle school district, found himself under investigation after the Saco Valley Teachers’ Association suggested in a letter that he’d had inappropriate contact with a troubled male student and had made himself “available via phone, text and email” to that student. Sherburne, who was cleared after an investigation, said he did not text students.
But that incident opened up questions about what electronic communications between students, teachers and administrators are appropriate and which aren’t. Some say – off the record, because even a conversation about crossed boundaries is dicey territory – that their gut tells them it is just not worth it for teachers and students to use any electronic communication but email. There are too many chances for things to go awry.
Many say social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, constitute a gray area. “I don’t like the social overtones of Facebook,” said Amy Russell, a 20-year veteran who teaches English at Brunswick High School. But it’s only natural that in a place like Maine, where junior high school students are loaned laptops by the state, online communication between teachers and students is an everyday occurrence. It’s standard practice for teachers to share, receive and grade assignments through Google Docs, eBackpack, Moodle, Classjump and other online sites. Email seems to be universally accepted.
“Email is a great way to connect with students one-on-one, to have those small conversations that can’t take place in a loud, busy crowded classroom,” Russell said. She puts both personal and school email addresses on the board on the first day of school and encourages students to contact her.
But texting – though it also involves typing words into a small-size computer – is not the norm. In the words of Brunswick Junior High School eighth-grader Mia Denison: “That’s weird. There’s a line between a teacher and being a student and that (texting) crosses it.”
That line in the texting sand can be, and is, regularly crossed by coaches because they have to communicate quickly about practice times or share information about games. Since kids tend to text far more than they email – that’s a veritable dinosaur – it is the fastest way of sharing information with them. “There are coaches that send out information to students via text,” said Mar-E Trebilcock, the principal of Greely Middle School in Cumberland. “But they do that with approval from school leadership and with the clarity of the expectation that it is a school matter they are communicating about.”
Confused yet? Portland School Board member Marnie Morrione, who is on the committee that oversees the district’s technology policy, said officials have to “stay vigilant” on technology issues as they evolve. “Potentially every year we need to look at it again.” As she points out, administrators tell students they’re able to view anything the students put on the iPads and “I would want the same type of oversight for the teachers. I definitely believe this is a work in progress.”
Maine Education Association President Lois Kilbey Chesley said the teacher group’s official stance is that school districts should develop their own policies on digital citizenship. The most recent language of MEA’s technology policy, originally adopted in 2006 and amended twice, first in 2009 and then in 2012, says the issue needs to be addressed “on a continuing basis,” reflecting the constantly shifting landscape. Today’s Twitter may well be tomorrow’s email – so businesslike to be boring as far as some teens are concerned – as new technologies and applications evolve.
But for right now, social media are the trickiest area for students and teachers, particularly the younger ones.
Colleen Ritzer, the 24-year-old Massachusetts teacher who was slain in October – one of her 14-year-old students is accused of killing her – set up a Twitter account under the name msritzermath to communicate with her students at Danvers High School. This wasn’t unusual, and many say it’s the smartest way to use social media with students since it is transparent (except for direct messaging).
Ritzer tweeted nearly every school day, sometimes directly to students about homework or tests and offered up cheery exclamation points or smiley face emoticons when passing on good news about the lack of the former or good results on the latter. She shared little about her personal life beyond her interest in television shows (“Boy Meets World”) or movies (“Home Alone”) or in one heartbreaking tweet, her belief in the importance of being good to others. Her last tweet, sent the day before she was killed, offers a link to a review packet answer key.
Heather Perkinson, a library science teacher at Greely High School, doesn’t use Twitter to make assignments, but she does have an account, mainly to keep track of links she’s interested in, and to connect with other library professionals. She recently showed her Twitter feed to students during a lesson on digital citizenship. She used an app called “Twitter Cloud” to show students what her most frequently used words were. “And I asked them if they thought that my Twitter account was supportive of my professional image,” she said. “I explained how I use it and demonstrated for them that Twitter can be more than just a place to socialize.”
It’s policy at schools like Greely High that teachers not be Facebook friends with their students. King, the superintendent at RSU 10, wouldn’t veto it. “I don’t say stay away from any form of social media,” he said. “But a lot of these social networks can really blur the lines of communications. Teachers have to be cautious. Whatever you communicate, it has to be clear that you are still the teacher and they are still the student.”
It’s all about common sense, he says. “What it boils down to is the same thing applies to electronic communication as the kind of communication that you would have with a pen and a piece of paper or a phone.” He’s pragmatic about new technology and social networking. When he was principal at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, up until last year, he didn’t ban students’ use of Facebook in the school, as long as they weren’t using it in class.
“I could have gone all Pyongyang and just shut it down,” he said. “But a kid can access it, even with electronic barriers.”
Denison, that junior high student who thinks it would be “weird” to get a text from a teacher, doesn’t even try to get by those barriers. She values the use of her school-issued laptop too much, whether to email her science teacher or file her homework.
None of those activities worry her mother, Anna Agell. In fact, she said she was impressed by how accessible Mia’s science teacher is via email.
“There are some people who have no boundaries probably,” Agell said. “But there is in every place.”
Her concern is more for the teachers: “My fear is more, how much more are we going to ask teachers to do with all this 24/7 electronica? I don’t think that is all that healthy either, for anyone.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: