December 1, 2013

To text or not to text? Maine teachers say not

Educators say that email is the norm and the appropriate electronic communication between them and students.

By Mary Pols mpols@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Mia Denison of Brunswick says getting a text from a teacher would be “weird.”

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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.”

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