Jim Docherty, assistant secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, told BBC Scotland that teachers should follow his advice: "First thing is don’t bother telling anybody else about your social life. Nobody is interested about your social life and it doesn’t help.
"Secondly, never make any comment about your work, about your employer, about teaching issues in general.
"There is always a possibility it will be misinterpreted."
from ‘Teachers warned over Facebook and Twitter use’ on bbc.co.uk
Earlier today I read Jim Docherty’s advice to teachers, warning us not to discuss either our personal lives or professional issues online. I have no doubt that Jim Docherty offered this advice with the best of intentions, we have seen some horror stories about the misuse of social media. No one would suggest that it is ever acceptable for students to be the subject of derogatory comments, neither would anyone suggest that it is ever acceptable for teachers to be harassed.
I have no doubt that as assistant secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, Jim Docherty has teachers’ best interests at heart.
Unfortunately his advice is misguided and I hope most sincerely that no-one takes it seriously.
Facebook and Twitter are simply channels via which real people communicate. I accept that online communication is not the same as face to face communication, but the same is true of other publicly visible media – are we also expected to stop publishing comments about teaching issues in the TES or in academic journals, lest we run the risk of being misinterpreted?
Social media are not inherently dangerous, but they do provide teachers with opportunities for high quality professional development that simply do not exist elsewhere. How else could I connect with inspiring and innovative educators like Tom Barrett or Dan Meyer or Simon Job? How else would groups of educators collaborate effectively to organise and deliver high quality, free professional development? How else can I share resources and ideas with teachers from around the world? How else can a network of teachers from across the UK ‘meet’ to debate current issues and share good practice – and do so for free?
Whenever I drop into my digital world, there are teachers online discussing, debating and sharing. The fact that thousands of teachers are writing considered, reflective blog posts or Tweeting about education rarely seems to get mentioned in the media. I don’t expect to see ‘Teacher gets brilliant idea for teaching stem and leaf diagrams from colleague 100s of miles away’ hitting the headlines any day soon.
I cannot see any valid reason for suggesting that educators should avoid engaging in professional dialogue, but what about the personal stuff? Jim Docherty stated that “Nobody is interested about your social life”. Is that true? As educators, should we confine our blogging and tweeting to educational matters only?
When I meet up with colleagues face to face, we don’t restrict our casual conversations to professional matters. Chat about holidays, families or our social lives is normal human behaviour. It builds personal relationships and is part of what bonds us together as a team. Why should my relationships with colleagues in the digital world be subject to different rules or conventions to those in the analogue world? Of course I’m interested in what colleagues from my online network do outside of the classroom. We are using a digital medium, but we are people, not automata.
I don’t believe that guidelines about acceptable use of social media are necessary. Do we really need guidelines to tell us not to call our students rude names? Do we really need guidelines to explain what we should or should not say in front of students or parents? Would guidelines actually have any effect on the individuals who have engaged in unprofessional behaviour? Somehow I doubt it.
If individual teachers behave in a way that brings our profession into disrepute then that needs to be addressed on a case by case basis. Unprofessional behaviour exhibited by a minority of educators should not be used as some kind of justification for an attempt to ban the entire profession from using the social web appropriately. Administering a group punishment for offences committed by individuals is never acceptable.
As a professional teacher I expect to be able to participate in debate and discussion about teaching issues, whether it’s considering the purpose of education, discussing an ethos for teaching my subject or sharing ideas and resources.
As a professional teacher I don’t intend to stand idly by whilst well-intentioned people suggest that our profession should abide by a voluntary gagging order.
As a professional teacher I am angered and disappointed by Jim Docherty’s comments and I urge him to withdraw them.