Saturday, August 01, 2015

A Teacher Walks Into A Bar

I don't drink alcohol, nor do I smoke tobacco. (Even though I live in Colorado, I don't smoke anything else, either.) In fact, I've always had antipathy towards both practices. I've fully supported the campaign to make smoking tobacco less socially acceptable, more inconvenient, and more expensive (with taxes that go toward smoking prevention efforts or health care costs). I would support a similar campaign with alcohol, given the tremendous negative behavioral outcomes associated with it's use, as well as the tremendous health care costs it creates. In fact, I would probably even support the reinstatement of Prohibition if it wasn't for the inconvenient fact that it doesn't work. Why am I sharing this information with you? So that we're clear during the rest of this post that I'm not writing this out of some defensive stance because I want to preserve the ability to do something I like, or even others' ability to do something they like.

This past spring our School Board, at the suggestion of district staff, approved a revision to Policy GBEE-R: Staff Use of District Technology. (The date at that link says as of this writing that it was last revised September 27, 2012, but I think that just hasn't been updated yet, since this was revised last spring.) Please take a few minutes to read it. Pay special attention to the portion in Section II: Social Media, under the heading "Guidelines," as this is the part that was recently revised (you'll have to scroll down a bit to find this part). Go ahead, I'll still be here when you get back.

There's a lot to think about here. Item 8 under Guidelines seems interesting:
8. Photographs relating to alcohol or tobacco use may be deemed inappropriate.
Really. Huh. So the district is saying that if a staff member engages in behaviors that are perfectly legal for adults and posts a photograph of it somewhere on their own personal social media, it may be "deemed inappropriate" by the district and
may form the basis for disciplinary action up to and including termination.
Termination. Wow. Thank goodness it's still okay for staff members to post "photographs" (I assume that includes "images", but it's not specific) of themselves smoking marijuana (or crack cocaine). Now, many of our staff members live in neighborhoods where our students live as well. I wonder if it's okay for them to smoke or drink in their backyards where they might be seen by students? To be safe, they should probably only do that within the confines of their own home, and be sure to pull the shades.

I wonder if the district is going to start firing staff members who get pregnant? After all, once a pregnant staff member starts showing, it's pretty darn obvious when they walk in the building that they've been having sex. Surely that could be "deemed inappropriate", especially if they post pictures of their pregnant selves on social media. And, of course, especially if they aren't married. There's even lots of precedence for this, since women teachers used to have to quit when they got pregnant and, before that, when they simply got married. You know, I always thought that the 'P' in 'LPS' stood for 'Public'; I wonder when it turned into 'Puritanical'?

There is a lot of Board Policy, so perhaps I missed it, but so far I haven't found the Policy that tells me what I'm allowed to say to students and parents when I run into them at the grocery store. Or at the Mosque, Temple or Church. Nor have I found the policy that tells me what is appropriate to say on the phone if I call them, what's okay to say in class, or what I'm allowed to write on a student's paper when I give them feedback. Probably just an oversight. In the meantime, just to be sure I'm not in violation of district policy, I think I won't have any communication with students' parents, or with students outside of the classroom. I'm struggling a bit with what to do in the classroom, though, perhaps only show approved movies so that I don't have to talk?

Let's see, what else. Ahh, yes, there's this,
Promotion of professional events must be posted on a previously approved professional social media website.
I'm really not sure what this means. Typically, Board Policy tries to be very specific so, if I read this as written, this seems to say that if I, as a staff member, want to promote some "professional event" of mine on the web, I need to get district approval. So, for example, if I want to advertise the speaking that I've done on occasion, or perhaps I do yard work or painting in the summer, or maybe I tutor students or run some kind of business out of my home selling cosmetics or something, or maybe I run a summer sports camp, apparently if I want to advertise on the web I have to get permission from the district first. I'm really not sure why that's any of their business, but since I can be "terminated" if it's deemed inappropriate, I suppose I must comply.

The above are concerning, but actually are not my major concern with these "guidelines." While these seem to restrict my personal behavior, which is troubling, I'm more concerned with the impact these guidelines will have on learning. For example,
Staff members are discouraged from communicating with students, their parents, and guardians through personal social media platforms/applications or texting. 
So I can call students and parents. I can email them. I can talk to them face-to-face at school or if I see them outside of school. I can send them a letter, a postcard or a telegram. But I'm discouraged from "communicating" with students and parents via text or social media. It's strange, previously I've always been encouraged to interact and communicate with students and parents, we typically call that "relationship building." But, for some reason, if I build relationships through texting or social media, it's considered bad. Again, probably just an oversight in Board Policy, I'm sure there will be new policy shortly discouraging those other forms of communication as well. It's a shame, though. Just like Willie Sutton replied when asked why he robbed banks, "Because that's where the money is," I would think we would want to interact with our students in social media spaces (and via texting), since "that's where the students are."

It is somewhat problematic, though. You see, about 75% of the staff members at my school have children in our school district. So I guess I'm not allowed to interact on social media with them or text them any more. And my daughter goes to my school, as do many of her friends, so I guess I'm not allowed to interact on social media or text any of those friends or their parents. Come to think of it, I suppose I'm also "discouraged" from interacting on social media or texting my own daughter. The more I think about this, the harder it gets. I mean, I don't know how many of the folks I connect with on social media or text might have some connection to a student in my school district. I guess to be safe I just have to close all my social media accounts and get rid of my texting plan.

It's curious. It appears as though my district doesn't trust its teachers on social media or via texting, so why in the world do they trust us with students face-to-face? (While the policy applies to all "staff," it's clearly targeted towards teachers. We are going to be "in-serviced" on this by district personnel during a faculty meeting in a couple of weeks. As far as I know, they do not have similar meetings scheduled with secretaries, custodial staff, kitchen staff, bus drivers, or parent volunteers.)

I don't know, but I believe this policy is going to be presented in terms of "student safety" and "staff protection." While I'm not questioning whether that's the intent of the folks who've created the policy, in the end it's the result, not the intent, that matters. And this policy does nothing to protect students. That's uncastrated male bovine excrement. (Just to be safe, I don't want to swear on my personal blog, as that might be deemed "inappropriate" or reflect poorly on my "professionalism".) This policy will do nothing to stop a "bad" adult from doing something harmful to students. The only thing this policy does is provide coverage to the district if such an unfortunate event should occur.

Much like many of the "rules" we have in place for students, this policy simply prevents the positive uses of social media and texting and does nothing to prevent the negative uses. It prevents the vast majority of staff members who will use these tools well, simply to protect against the very rare misuse of them. Just like punishing the entire class (or entire student body) for the actions of a few, we are unilaterally disempowering our entire staff because of the potential future abuse by the few (or the one).

So what's my solution? Err on the side of open. Remove these revised "guidelines" and rework the policy to focus on learning, on the positive aspects of texting and social media. Let's focus on "Responsible Use Policies," not on discouraging or prohibiting. Let's stop acting out of fear, and instead lead. Let's work with our students, and in the places our students frequent, instead of avoiding them because we're worried about getting sued.

As it's currently written, I could shorten this to the first four words of the second paragraph under guidelines,
Staff members are discouraged.
"A teacher walks into a bar." Kind of sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn't it? But it's not funny.

Update August 4th: Was called in for a "discussion" today about this post. Received further clarification that it's about student and staff safety (I still don't see it, but don't question the good intentions of folks involved). Also received further clarification that for any "private" communication with students that is not verbal face-to-face (email, text, written letter, social media, presumably anything direct to the student online) we are supposed to cc the parents or another responsible adult.

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