Cyberbullies: when the teachers are the victims
New research shows how negative interactions online are affecting educators' work and personal lives, writes Katherine Donnelly
The exams are underway and second-level teachers are, no doubt, breathing a collective sigh of relief that the school year has come to a close. Not least the teacher who reported in a recent survey of being subjected to a "photo of me taken without my consent during class time and subsequently posted on Facebook".
Along with the traditional stresses and strains associated with teaching teenagers and helping to steer them through the stormy waters of adolescence, digital technologies are now part of that heady mix.
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Cyberbullying among teenagers and pre-teens is well documented and there is a growing body of evidence showing how teachers are also now being targeted. They are easy prey, as the experience cited above confirms.
It can involve digital texts, images and recordings portraying the teacher in ways that are demeaning and/or causing ridicule, which are then transmitted to others.
On the one hand, digital technologies, including social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, can be a boon to teaching and learning, but caution is essential to ensure that everyone involved is protected from the risks in the online world.
The Teaching Council has drafted guidelines on social media that recognise that many teachers are introducing their students to the new tools and delivering the curriculum in innovative and engaging ways.
The Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools (ACCS) recently published social media advice for its members, pointing out reasons to embrace social media in teaching and learning, including schools' duty as educators to guide students towards responsible and productive use.
The ACCS advice notes that society is moving towards a model of shared knowledge building and clearly acknowledges the role of new digital platforms: "By blocking social media use, we are depriving our students of a huge opportunity to allow them to learn in connected ways."
But both sets of guidelines also warn of the challenges involved and provide advice about protecting privacy. Even if there is no bullying, engagement with social media can expose even the most careful users to invasions of privacy.
Negative interactions online affect not only the well-being of the individual teacher, but they can impact on their professional role. Then the pupils lose out too.
A study called 'Cyberbullying of Post-Primary Teachers by Pupils in Ireland', published last year, flagged the growing problem. The research, conducted at the National Anti Bullying Research and Resource Centre (ABC) at Dublin City University (DCU), found that 10pc of teachers experienced online bullying. Pupils were responsible in 59pc of cases, but parents and management were also sources.
Doctoral researcher Liam Challenor, who authored the study, has looked beyond the raw figures to glean deeper insights into how the problem is impacting on individuals and school communities. He outlined his findings to the World Anti-Bullying Forum being held in DCU this week. The forum is the largest ever gathering of teachers, parents, policy-makers and academics discussing the issue of bullying, cyberbullying and online safety.
A golden rule for teachers is not to communicate with pupils on social networking sites for non-professional reasons, but, according to this research, 2.1pc of teachers admitted breaching that rule.
Many teachers take action to avoid the unwelcome attention, including changing their name to Irish online or increasing privacy settings, but even having to do that was identified as a source of stress.
And, despite efforts to increase their privacy on their social media accounts, 42pc received unwanted friend requests from their pupils, 15pc from parents, and 21pc from other staff members. Some 68pc of these unwanted requests were deemed to be negative with potential either to impact on their role in the classroom or in the school community.
Challenor's research unearthed plenty of evidence of new technologies being embraced by teachers, but with some unexpected pitfalls.
"They are trying to integrate social media into teaching and learning, but they are finding it difficult to draw boundaries," he says.
One teacher reported: "It's very hard to find the right way to integrate the use of social media/apps into the classroom environment because it's so hard to regulate. In fairness, teenagers will try and send a text or Snapchat if they think they will get away with it."
Another cyberbullying victim commented: "Uploading Snapchat videos and photos taken behind your back in class" while another reported, "I do not know who made the comments online. I feel it could be any one in my school".
And it happens outside the classroom too. According to one teacher: "Senior students love to catch you out in the pub and before you know it. your face is all over Snapchat."
Some teachers were confident about using tools to protect their privacy and professional and personal boundaries, but others struggled in this area and reported stresses due to the challenges of maintaining privacy and avoiding pupils' attentions.
One teacher adverted to how a cautious approach impinge on what otherwise should be an enjoyable interaction with family and friends: "As even though I don't often post anything on social media, I am always conscious that students or parents may gain access to see it through other people they are friends with and I feel that I am very limited in what I can do on social media."
The research also found that where cyberbullying of teachers occurred, the overall school climate tended to be lacking in key areas such as morale, quality of relationships, parental engagement, teaching and learning capacity and physical environment.
According to Challenor, the key to addressing these issues is more training around online safety and cyberbullying for all involved - pupils, teachers and parents.
"While it is important pupils have further support in these areas, this research has shown that teachers need further knowledge and skills to support them to intervene in bullying, but also increase their own online safety knowledge and prevent the cyberbullying of adults within the school community," he says.
To that end, the DCU centre has devised an anti-bullying and online safety project, known as Fuse. It will bring it to each post-primary school in Dublin in the forthcoming academic year ahead of a national roll-out.
The programme will train teachers to instruct pupils, parents and school staff in these areas to increase knowledge and skills and promote a better school climate.