Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child:

Social networking and teacher/student relationships

The Century of Web 2.0 has made children of us all.  Like children, we all want to play with the shiny new toys that an inexpensive worldwide network of communication (and music videos!  And clips from Bollywood-style films starring Natalie Portman!  And the latest gossip about the latest subject of gossip!  [Not to mention metagossip!]  And recipes--my god, the recipes! etc.) provide for us.

And, like children, some have no mechanism for deciding what's appropriate behavior in this completely unprecedented situation.  The stories of otherwise intelligent, professional, well-educated and well-intentioned adults getting themselves into trouble by posting pictures on Facebook or MySpace are rampant.  This behavior isn't just limited to teachers, either--I seem to remember something about a meteorologist or something getting fired from the TV station she worked for after posting semi-nude pics of herself somewhere. 

There seems to be an added element of terrifying when teachers get involved, though.  After all, we're supposed to be professional role models.  What does it do to classroom management if a student finds out that his teacher likes a good fart joke?  For that matter, what does it do to fart jokes?

And so, some school districts are left in the bizarre position of deciding for their teachers what is okay for them to put on the Internet on their own behalf.  The last thing a superintendent needs to discover is that the award-winning second-grade teacher had a great time at last week's Hash Bash, or whatever the polemic issue of the community is.  So, the superintendent may quietly draw up a draft that says something like, "Technology can be a powerful tool for education, and social networking can be a great way of building relationships.  We encourage the use of technology, both amongst our students and our staff.  But so help me, if I find your cleavage online, it's ring-a-ding-ding for you, bozo." Then she runs it past the school board, which harrumphs for a while until Mrs. Flanders cries, "The children!  Won't someone think of the children?!" and the motion passes unanimously.

That isn't what anybody signed up for--superintendents never intended to be censors of teachers' personal lives; teachers didn't agree to surrender out-of-school rights that everybody apparently has.  (Behaving like a jackass in front of the whole world evidently isn't illegal, even for teachers.)  Monitoring teachers' behavior is a particularly thorny issue because technology CAN be powerful juju.

So where does this leave us?  Are we stuck with the choice between not acting like idiots and the threats of termination from High Command?  Or to put it another way, the choice between self-censorship and external censorship?  I don't know.  I just try to remember not to write anything down that I wouldn't want someone else reading, and to compartmentalize my personal, professional, and political lives.  And while we I wait for Web 3.0 and the inevitable rise of the machines, I'll let Louie Armstrong speak for me.

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