Please sir, will you be my Facebook friend?
Teachers are using social networks -- but they can spell trouble outside the classroom, writes Kim Bielenberg
Schools are struggling to keep up with the social networking revolution as teachers and students come across each other on Facebook and other websites.
Managers are having to set new boundaries on what kind of communication is appropriate between teachers and students.
Should they be friends on Facebook -- and should teachers be tweeting from behind their desks?
School authorities also have to decide on whether staff should be accountable for their behaviour outside the classroom, when it emerges online.
The modern teacher can find that the raucous hard-drinking hen party can come back to haunt them when pictures appear on Facebook, and pupils see them.
In a high-profile case in England, a teacher Benedict Garrett was recently reprimanded after it was discovered he was moonlighting as a male stripper and naked butler, using the name Johnny Anglais.
Students told teachers they had seen a link on Facebook to a pornographic film trailer featuring Garrett.
The teacher was found guilty of unprofessional conduct, but permitted to continue teaching.
There has been no similar case here, but that does not mean that Facebook and other social network sites do not cause problems in schools. However, when used constructively they can also bring benefits.
Using social networks is part of the social life of young teachers, but what do they do when their pupils ask them to be friends?
John Cronin, principal of Castleknock Community College, said teachers at his school were not allowed to be Facebook friends with pupils.
"That kind of relationship should be discouraged. It should be the same kind of professional relationship that exists between a doctor and a patient.''
Teachers are regularly asked to be friends online, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority decline.
The issue has prompted considerable debate on the website boards.ie.
One teacher said: "I've had many requests from current students, but I just tell them to their face (not with a rejection through Facebook) that while I'm very glad they want me as a friend, I don't add any students until they have left school a long time."
The teacher continued: "I'm aware the younger ones see a Facebook rejection as terribly serious, so I have to assure them it's not that I don't like them.''
Teachers can also leave themselves open to false accusations of inappropriate contacts. In one case at a Dublin post-primary school, a student made allegations about online contacts with a teacher. The teacher was eventually cleared of any misconduct.
The view that teachers should not be Facebook friends with pupils is not universal.
Some teachers believe that virtual contact is no different to contact in the real world. According to this view, so long as the tone is appropriate these contacts are harmless. One teacher said it helped him to prevent bullying.
But while they mostly shun online friendships with their pupils, some teachers are using social networks in constructive ways in the classroom
Fintan O'Mahony, a teacher at Scoil Mhuire in Co Tipperary, said: " I would not form friendships with my pupils online. I believe a teacher has to draw a line between their professional and personal life.
'That does not mean Facebook should never be used. A school might set up a Facebook account to communicate with parents and students. It is ideal for events such as the snowfalls of last winters, because a school can get in touch quickly to announce if the school is opening.''
Mr O'Mahony said the new social network Google Plus might be suitable for teachers and pupils, because it enables users to draw up different circles of friends and acquaintances. It is simple to block access to private information and pictures.
This makes it easy for a teacher to stop their charges seeing them whooping it up at a party, or engaging in indiscreet chit-chat about the school.
Mr O'Mahony is one of a growing number of teachers who uses social networking as a teaching tool.
The English and history teacher uses Twitter in the classroom, posting information and links for his pupils on the site.
"Recently I had an exercise on Twitter when students were studying the novel To Kill A Mockingbird. I got students to imagine that they were reporters at the trial of Tom Robinson (a character in the book). They had to tweet updates from the trial.''
As well as posting information on course work, Mr O'Mahony and other teachers across the country use Twitter to discuss educational issues.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) in Britain recently advised that every school should have specific rules about how teachers use Facebook.
A spokesman for the NAHT said young teachers in particular were getting into trouble. Without clearly defined rules they can find themselves being told off for what they post online.
With so much personal information readily available online, principals are having to decide whether to turn a blind eye if the behaviour of teachers becomes an embarrassment.
Principal Mr Cronin said: "Teachers can compromise themselves online, but ultimately you have to ask -- is this teacher doing a professional job in school? That is what matters.''
Online tips for teachers
The ASTI does not have guidelines for internet use, but it recently published tips for teachers in its magazine ASTIR:
•It is important that teachers know how to protect themselves and their reputations online. Check your privacy settings on Facebook and other similar sites so that you know who can access your information.
•Maintain professional standards and use a teacher's voice when communicating with students.
•Don't permit images of yourself to be taken and posted on any site without appropriate privacy safeguards.
•Don't post criticism of colleagues or students on social networking sites.
•Don't share confidential information about students or colleagues online.
•Don't post confidential images or information about yourself.