Why social media can be a minefield for teachers

With teachers heading back to school this week, lots of people will asking the question "What did you do this summer?" As Geoff Bartlett writes, some will already know the answer because of social media.

Tightening up privacy settings might not be enough to protect teacher's reputations, experts say

Educators are increasingly warning teachers to accept that anything they post on social media could potentially seen by students, despite strict privacy settings. (Geoff Bartlett/CBC)

With teachers and students heading back to school this week, lots of people will asking the question, "So, what did you do this summer?"

Many may already know the answer, though, thanks to social media — and there could be consequences for teachers' privacy, advocates warn. 

Students and teachers alike often share photos of themselves kicking back and enjoying the holiday.

While these posts may seem harmless, experts are increasingly warning teachers to be careful these days about what they post. 

"Whatever you put on social media, you have to make sure it's not something you want to see on the front of a newspaper," said Heather Smith, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation.

"If it's not something you want to see publicly posted, it shouldn't be on there."

While an extreme example, there have been cases of teachers being removed from their jobs after parents and teachers saw photos of them on social media drinking alcohol. (Shutterstock)

Services like Facebook and Instagram do increasingly allow better security settings for photos and other posts, which may lead teachers to think they can lock down their profiles to the point where they're hidden from coworkers, students and parents.

A cautionary tale from U.S.

But that isn't always necessarily true, which an example from 2011 in the United States shows. 

In that extreme case, a young teacher was fired from her job in Georgia because an irate parent got hold of a picture of her with two drinks — and actually led to her being fired by the principal. Ashley Payne eventually tried to sue the school district but lost and never got her job back.

The concept of "replicability" means that even if a photo or post is hidden from some users, those with access can still download it and share it around to others. (The Canadian Press)

"Even when you think you have things locked down, because of the way that Facebook is networked and what we call the replicability of of it, it doesn't mean that things won't get seen," said Bree McEwan, an assistant professor of communication at Western Illinois University.

"In the case of the teacher fired for drinking, she didn't have any parents or any students as friends on her Facebook but she still got fired because somebody that she was friends with forwarded that information to a parent or a principal."

"So that replicability means anything you put out there means that anyone in the community is going to see it."

'Once it's out there, it doesn't come back'

Dr. Jerome Delaney, who teaches legal education courses at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said he repeatedly warns his students of the dangers of social media posts.

"Sometimes you may say something that may be a little off the cuff, and these things can be misinterpreted by students and parents," he said.

"My advice to [future teachers] would be don't say anything there, or don't put up pictures on these things that you wouldn't be comfortable showing in the classroom — once it's out there, it doesn't come back."

Education professors and experts on social media use suggest that teachers don't put anything on social media that they wouldn't be comfortable being publicly shared. (Getty Images)

The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association (NLTA) and the province's English school district have both published documents dealing with the issue of posting on social media.

The NLESD has a policy on social media use by teachers, which says that personal accounts should not be used for any sort of school business, and that as a rule teachers shouldn't post anything related to their jobs or students on a site like Facebook.

The NLTA has a Code of Ethics which all teachers in the province are bound under, and one of the things it says is that teachers should "act in a manner that maintains the dignity of the profession," which is somewhat of an umbrella statement but can be applied to online behaviour as well.

New teachers starting out especially need to be aware that they are now moving from the role of a university student to the responsibility of a teacher, which means very different expectations on social media use. (CBC)

So what concrete actions can new teachers take to make sure their social media past doesn't came back to haunt them as they start off in their careers?

Quite simply, if anyone is having doubts about a particular post or photo, their best option is to not post it at all. If it's been posted, they should delete it immediately. 

While services like Facebook or Instagram allow customization of security settings to the point where people might think they're safe, if it's on the internet in any way, there's always a way for someone to see it, McEwan said.

Once that happens, it can be a matter of time for it to come back to haunt an otherwise good teacher down the road.


Geoff Bartlett


Geoff Bartlett is an educator and journalist in Corner Brook.