Why Teachers Need Social Media Training, Not Just Rules


The results of a social media in the classroom session conducted during a Education Think Tank hosted by Dell (Oct. 22, New York City). Photo / Kathy Ishizuka

6.2.12 | Under a new set of social media guidelines (pdf) issued by the New York City Department of Education, teachers are required to obtain a supervisor’s approval before creating a “professional social media presence,” which is broadly defined as “any form of online publication or presence that allows interactive communication, including, but not limited to, social networks, blogs,  internet websites,  internet forums, and wikis.” 

The guidelines also call for notifying parents about the social media activities their children will be invited to participate in, and they prohibit online teacher/student communication, including “‘friending,’ ‘following,’ ‘commenting,’ and posting messages” on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google+, and YouTube. Teachers will likely have to stop playing interactive games such as Draw Something with their students.

At first glance, the nine-page document reasonably codifies best practices related to digital literacy and learning; however, without contextualizing both the long history of positive teacher/student interaction online and the numerous benefits of social media (it does allow that such technology “can serve as a powerful tool to enhance education, communication, and learning”), the takeaway is that online spaces are mysterious and worrisome, requiring more caution and supervision than in-person relationships.

“As an old English teacher, even the language of that kind of interaction is problematic,” Philip Weinberg, principal of the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn, told NPR. “We know that we’re not our students’ friends as much as we love them and care about them in genuine ways. We need to establish specific boundaries about the kinds of interactions we have with young people.”

Weinberg’s point is insightful, yet others argue that those boundaries should be established by good guidelines and smart behavior, not by placing specific rules on continuously evolving technologies. There are, after all, no specific rules prohibiting contact by phone or blocking conversations in real-world places.

Scott McLeod, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky who teaches technology to school administrators, called it “the demonization of a particular tool” in this WNYC/New York Times story.

“[Conversations] occur at church, in neighborhoods, scouting groups, volunteers,” he said. “Other offline places. Is the school organization also discouraging teachers from being ‘friends’ with students in those realms?”

McLeod also worries that strict restrictions may scare teachers off from experimenting with social media.

“On the one hand, the people seem to be encouraging educators to use social media with students,” McLeod told NPR. “Yet they’re putting such tight confines on it that I think what they going to find is that most educators won’t take them up on it.”

Indeed, few school districts across the country, from my admittedly limited survey, educate teachers on the educational benefits of using Facebook or other social media in the classroom. One of the first lessons you would teach the teachers, for example, is that they do not need to “friend” students to connect on Facebook.

The nuances are tricky, and even news stories confuse the process. The NPR story on how the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn deals with social media notes that a teacher started a Facebook page:

Most of the school’s 320 seniors have friended the Facebook page, but Terry disables the mechanism that allows her to see their individual profiles. “So that I’m not seeing their ... personal pictures from their weekend,” she says.

Creating a class or unit Facebook “page” allows for all the benefits of Facebook sharing without all that dreaded personal interaction. Teachers should know, for instance, that page admins can only view the profile picture and name of the person who “likes” the page—not that person’s activity timeline—unless the person doing the liking has made information publicly available, in which case it could be seen by anyone.

Of course, the rules are often in flux, making it difficult for to stay up to speed—which reinforces the need for a digital literacy program for teachers and administrators. It’s not enough to impose rules on how not to use social media; teachers should be required at the start of every school year to learn how to use social networks and other tools effectively in the classroom, and how to maintain privacy settings for both professional and personal accounts. Ideally, refresher courses would be offered mid-year.

Teachers have always thrived on engaging students in their lives outside of school—even if it’s only giving them a question to ponder at the end of class. Social media, without getting personal, can enable that life engagement for new generations of students in a much more dynamic way. So much of the conversation that condemns social media as only a dangerous, disruptive force is often the result of ignorance about its full potential and/or a response to a scandal.

Consider these comments from Doug Phillips, director of investigations at the Texas Education Agency. “It doesn’t always lead to sex, but we don’t need it to lead to sex before there is a problem,” he told the Houston Chronicle after a middle school math teacher was arrested and fired for using lewd dialogue in Facebook conversations with two students. “Technology allows direct, unsupervised contact with students.”

On the other hand, Nutana Collegiate, a transitional public school in central Saskatchewan, Canada, is expanding a pilot program encouraging text messaging between teachers and students. A regional telecom provider even offered the school its choice of cell phones and data plans for students—it’s all part of an effort to increase student engagement and retention rates.

“Absenteeism is pretty high, for all kinds of reasons,” Tyler Campbell, whose 10th-grade English class piloted the program last fall, told The Journal earlier this year. “We have some students who don’t come to school when it’s 30 below [zero] because it’s five miles [to school] and they have to walk because they can’t afford a bus pass. If we can engage them, we try to explore every avenue.”

Campbell used the opportunity to text a daily journal topic for students to think about before class. And over time, some students opened up to Campbell even more than he expected. 

“You get to be pretty connected with these students,” he said. “They’re sharing pretty personal things. Sometimes they’re facing life situations they don’t know how to handle, so they’d ask me what to do about it. It’s kind of humbling.”


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Tricia (Colorado)


Perfect timing! I’m presenting tomorrow in how to incorporate social media in my school district. Helped me think of a few more points I want to be sure to get across to teachers. Thanks for posting!

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Christine Cupaiuolo


Great to hear! If you want to share how the presentation went and where your district is headed, please get in touch. Thanks!

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Paul Hieronymus (United States)


Nice Article. Enjoyed the Facebook Fan Pages vs. Friending students.

Another important part for teachers is knowing their privacy settings. Once students know you are on Facebook they will search you out. If your privacy settings are open to Public or Friends of Friends you are opening a door to your conversations. We like to stress to teachers the need to make a FB account just for professional posting and not associate their personal accounts with students or parents.

Thanks for posting


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