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Teachers in our society are in an odd position. On the one hand, they are, in theory, being paid to convey information. On the other hand, teachers are not really trusted to speak freely. The classroom materials they use are often regulated or censored. Their exams, quizzes, lesson plans and curriculum are increasingly designed by bureaucrats or administrators. And through restrictive rules on participation in social media, even teachers’ private discussions and actions outside of the classroom, on their own time, have become subject to oversight and control.

Even without regulations, there are many reasons for elementary, secondary, and college teachers to be careful online. Anyone who stands in front of classrooms full of people with access to Google is going to want to limit the amount of information about themselves on the Web. At the Hooded Utilitarian, a comics and culture website I edit, I've had a teacher or two post under pseudonyms to write about sexual content.

Some teachers do abuse social media or other forms of digital communication. Last summer, for example, there were two incidents in the Washington D.C. area involving inappropriate sexual conduct on the part of teachers. In one case, a high school teacher solicited students for sex using his cell phone; in another, a teacher was arrested for "exchanging inappropriate messages with a student" according to a story in the Washington Examiner.

Social media rules for teachers, though, often go much further than simply advocating rule-of-thumb discretion. For example, recent guidelines released by the city of New York's Education Department suggest that teachers should have separate personal and professional web pages, and should not “friend” students' personal pages. The guidelines also say that teachers must get administrative permission before setting up a professional page, and require students to get a signed consent form before they can participate on those pages.

Darrell M. West, a vice president at the Brookings Institution, commented that many of the guidelines "sound like best practices on how to avoid getting sued, as opposed to thinking about how to use social media to broaden the learning experience." The goal of administrators seems to be to set up a series of checkpoints and a raft of paperwork in the interest not so much of the educators, but of the school system's lawyers. And when the Education Department guidelines state that teachers can "have no expectation of privacy" on social media and that administrators will be watching teachers closely, one gets the sense that the bureaucratic ideal is the panopticon, with teachers, even more than students, constantly observed, evaluated and regulated.

You can also see the outlines of the panopticon in Angie Miller's article at The Washington Post. Miller was the 2011 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, and her article describes the social networking rules at her school as follows:

“Besides the obvious — don’t be inappropriate with students through texting and Facebooking (which no teacher in their right mind would do) – we were further directed to ‘always think and write like an educator’ (boring) and ‘never use a blog…to comment about your job duties’ (like this?) and ‘never blog or write about extremely personal subjects’ (is my homeless mother, whom I write about, extremely personal?)."

Miller is afraid to show a picture of herself on Facebook drinking alcohol, or even a picture of herself on Facebook with someone near her drinking alcohol. The rules at her school proscribing personal revelations, suggest that she is not allowed to share anecdotes from her childhood with her students. She is also, apparently, not supposed to speak in public about her job, which technically means that the essay about the problems with social media rules at her school is actually in violation of the social media rules at her school. If such guidelines were to go into effect en masse, and were enforced, all teachers would effectively be barred from participating in national debates about education.

Miller concludes, "teachers are expected to live their average lives behind hushed, closed doors." They are always overseen, and every part of their lives micromanaged. The ever-increasing demand for "accountability" shades imperceptibly into totalitarianism. The ideal teacher becomes not an adventurous thinker and communicator, but someone who is completely acquiescent to discipline.

None of this is to say that these kind of social media guidelines are wrong in and of themselves. On the contrary, such guidelines are useful and necessary. When they aren't in place, many teachers request them. Social media is new; using it in the classroom presents many challenges. Teachers can use help in negotiating these challenges.

Moreover, there are plenty of examples of reasonable guidelines in other professions. Social media rules for doctors, for example, are generally presented as aids for both doctors and patients, rather than as a way to police either party. Thus, social media guidelines encourage doctors to remind patients that emails are not secure, which is rather different than telling the doctors that they can have no expectation of privacy online. Similarly, it's one thing to tell lawyers that they need to abide by their professions' code of ethics online. It would be another to tell lawyers that they can't ever be photographed with a beer.

A controversy in Manatee School District in Florida casts a depressing light on the problem with current teacher guidelines. Thomas Tryon of the Herald Tribune reports that in 2010, one teacher in the district made racially insensitive remarks online, while another, who was “friends” with some students on a Facebook page, used foul language on the site. As a result, the district decided it needed to establish social media guidelines. So, it put forward a social media policy that would have prevented teachers from posting comments or pictures that negatively portrayed students, teachers or the district. That's a pretty sweeping abridgement of free speech. Sure enough, when the teacher's union challenged the policy in court, the school district decided to withdraw it. So Manatee School District now provides no guidance to teachers on how to handle social media.

Tryon suggests the school district and the teacher’s union should sit down together and work out a social media policy. If social networking guidelines were intended to help teachers safely and productively interact with students, this would be the ideal solution.

Unfortunately, as we've seen, social media guidelines don't usually seem aimed at helping teachers communicate. Instead, they appear to be intended to keep teachers' words and actions under more complete control.

Noah Berlatsky

Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian and is a correspondent for the Atlantic. He is working on a book about the original Wonder Woman comics.

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