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For the last decade or two, one of the central focuses of career management has been managing one's reputation, in other words, building one's professional identity. How you are perceived by your peers is a crucial factor in determining where your career will head next. In the 20th century, such professional identity management was primarily about what you said or did at work on a daily basis. While that continues to play an important role, things are significantly different now in the 21st century. In the world of Web 2.0, it is also about online identity management. With the advancement of information technology, social networking sites have taken the Internet by storm. Family, friends, former colleagues, present colleagues, future employers and even your current boss are free to look you up on the Internet. This then begs the question, is there a place for teaching professionals in the world of virtual identity? Will the information about them online be consistent with the image educators are supposed to project?
Social networking sites are online platforms where people are able to convene in cyberspace to share ideas, experiences, photos and videos with each other. A few notable examples are message board forums, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and blogs. Professional identity constitutes a set of traits and personality that forms an opinion of one's competence and character as evaluated by key personnel. (i.e. students, colleagues, parents, employers etc).
There was a time not that long ago where teachers simply did not exist outside of school curriculum hours. Roles between teachers and students were clearly defined and boundaries were established. There was a common understanding that a fixed distance has to be maintained and such lines should not be crossed. However in this modern age, contact outside of the classroom has not only been made easier but actively encouraged in many schools. On top of the school's web portals where students download and upload assignments, social networking sites have begun to find its way into the classrooms. There are certainly immediate benefits teachers can reap from utilizing social networking sites in establishing their professional identities. However, educators should abstain from using such platforms as they often lead to undesirable consequences which could jeopardize their careers.
Such technologies can no doubt be of assistance with respect to on-going learning beyond the classroom as some teachers believe that social networks facilitate them to engage with their students about homework, tutoring and other educational matters (Simon, 2008, para. 6). It seems apparent that teachers sometimes need to communicate with students after school about academic issues, which is why most schools nowadays have their own web portals hosted by the school for that very purpose. The unfortunate truth however is that students rarely check them (Simon, 2008, para. 20). Chances of students clicking on a status update made by their teacher about an upcoming quiz are more probable because it happens to appear on their Facebook news feed. For teachers to utilize social networking sites to interact with their students, the possibilities of use are immense. The live chat feature enables teacher, student and even parents to communicate about certain topics and teachers can also create class events and get parents to RSVP online. With teachers keeping up with technology and adopting creative means to better relate with their students, they are developing their professional identity by building a more positive teacher-student relationship.
On the other hand, all these good social networks bring to teachers could all go south in an instance due to a moment's lack of discretion. With the rampant popularity of social networking sites among young teachers, the line separating professional and private identity is blurring. It certainly does not help that the whole world (wild web) is watching their every actions online. There seems to be a cultural shift to the concept of privacy as some people today are more than willing to reveal more about themselves online (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 682). More often than not, teachers who use social networking sites fail to realize that how others perceive their private online identity have severe repercussions on their professional identity. This is why there are grave concerns over the type of information teaching professionals are putting up on these sites. Take for example, John Bush, a middle school teacher in Florida was dismissed because of "offensive" and "unacceptable" photos and information on his MySpace page (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 682). Although the school admitted that the online content was not of pornographic nature, it nonetheless contained information which parents would not want their children to have knowledge about their teacher (ibid).
Among several teachers interviewed, it was revealed that many of those who are on Facebook had the misconception that their profile page could only be seen by people whom they accepted as "friend" (Shapira, 2008, para. 15). Besides that, it is alarming to discover that it did not occur to them the need to set their profiles to "private" since they were easily accessible to almost anyone in the virtual world. But how much protection can setting your profile page to "private" be able to offer you? High school art teacher, Tamara Hoover, from Austin, Texas, found out the hard way when she was dismissed from her position when nude photographs of her taken by her partner, who was a professional photographer, were discovered her blog (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 683). In her defense, Hoover maintained that her blog was a private one protected by password but yet somehow the photos still got leaked out (ibid). This shows that even if precautionary measures are taken, there are still loopholes to be exploited. Hence, teachers are caught between the dilemma as to whether they should use social networking sties to develop their private identity or to avoid it to maintain a reputable professional image since the best of both worlds certainly is not a viable option.
Another reason for teachers to refrain from using social networking sites is that these sites are often "vehicles for false allegations, and exposing teachers to ridicule and humiliation" (Henley, 2009, para. 19). By accepting a student as his "friend" on Facebook, the teacher has unknowingly handed the student the opportunity smear his own professional identity. How will parents, colleagues, and members of the public perceive his professional identity when they come across unprofessional comments on his profile page made by a student? What if students or rather anyone for that matter, generates a "fraudulent" site, posing as someone else and initiate conversations with teachers? These online communications, depending on the appropriateness of the content, can potentially be used to make allegations against teachers, landing them in hot soup. Before their names can be cleared, lengthy investigations have to take place. By then, the damage to their professional identity has already been done.
Why are teachers' private and professional online identities being scrutinized to such a great degree in the first place? The answer to that question is simply because teachers are considered role models for educated citizens. Unlike other profession, teachers are subjected to "a higher standard of moral behavior" whether they like it or not (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 684) as their behavior influences students. As a teacher, whatever they do and say to their students shape the kind of person the latter will evolve into. They are arguably adults whom most children have the most interaction with apart from their own families. For students who come from complicated backgrounds, a role model could prove vital to their development. In addition, if parents were to come across their child's teacher not acting appropriately, it will unquestionably leave a bad taste in their mouths about the individual and affect the entire profession. This was exactly what happened in this case when a father whose daughter was in first-grade stumbled upon a substitutes teacher's MySpace page. Her profile showcased a picture of herself lifting up her skirt, revealing her undergarments, and another exposing her bare chest (Shapira, 2008, para. 19). Had it been a lingerie model doing such acts it would have been perfectly fine since they are paid to parade around in their underwear. However the person in question here was a teacher. As a role model, what message was she trying to convey to her students? That it is alright for girls to expose themselves? The fundamental concern here is students contextualizing what they see. Parents would certainly not be pleased if their daughters came home learning such obscene acts thinking that it is acceptable, since their teacher did it too.
Due to the distressing possibility of career altering consequences to teachers, academic bodies have published rules for teachers' involvement in social networking sites (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 684). For example, the Association of Texas Professional Educators recommended that teachers not put up anything that they would be embarrassed to have their superiors find out (ibid). Recognizing the great risks that are encompassing teachers, the Ohio Education Association even gave notice to all of its member "strongly discouraging" them from joining social networking sites at all (ibid).
But what about teachers' right to free speech? Are they able to claim protection under the First Amendment? This privilege unfortunately does not extend to teachers as it was ruled in the U.S. Supreme Court that teaching professionals may face disciplinary action for speaking out publicly against a school administration if their speech disrupts the schools' mission and operation (Shapira, 2008, para. 26). An example was made out of Anu Prahakara, a foreign language teacher from Maryland, who was terminated by her school after putting up expletive laden content criticizing the school system, teachers as well as parents on her MySpace blog (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 683). This again demonstrates exactly why educators should avoid these social networks as teachers being human beings, their judgment may be clouded when emotions are high and the poorly chosen words which they used could eventually come back to haunt them.
Another obstacle with social networking sites that teachers encounter is that the right to free expression has yet to be legally defined. This grey area between teachers' on and offline roles have not yet been laid down in stone; whether disciplinary action is necessary for "any off-duty free expression of a teacher that is not of public concern" (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 684). These expressions could be of legitimate creative activities at one's own expense and time. An art teacher named Stephen Murmur from Virginia High School was sacked after a video was discovered on YouTube of him using his buttocks and genitals to spread paint on a canvas (ibid). The school board was apparently not comfortable with his painting techniques. Because of this grey area, does this also mean that teachers may face the boot if they spend their leisure time engaging in lawful religious, political or artistic activities that makes the school board administrators uneasy? While this issue is still open for debate, cases falling into this grey area will definitely be at the losing end. What is clear at the moment is that students have the right to be situated in a learning environment free from unwanted distractions. If it had been an artist or any other profession say, a musician, who made the paintings with their body parts, it certainly would have garnered a differed reception for their creativity. The disparity here is that Murmur was a direct role model for his students; the artist and musician were not. Being a role model, Murmur was supposed to lead by example. Given that we are all living in a society where our private areas should always be covered, the manner in which Murmur created his art was opinioned as vastly inappropriate for a teaching professional.
Furthermore, having an online profile could also undermine a teacher's resume. It is no secret that employers are gradually using search engines and social networking sites to look at potential employees to obtain a clearer picture of their true persona (Shapira, 2008, para. 21). It may be said that people are arguably more likely to be truthful about themselves online than they might be in their curriculum vitae, where certain qualities may be exaggerated. Principals too have begun to jump on the bandwagon and use social networking sites to view the online portfolios of their prospective teachers (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 684). A superintendent in Missouri revealed that he would always ask a potential teacher whether he or she has a Facebook or MySpace page when interviewing them (Shapira, 2008, para. 22). If the candidate replied yes, then the superintendent would respond "I've got my computer right here. Let's take a look" (ibid). For this reason, it is not surprising that some candidates may not even realize that they have been snubbed for an interview or a job offer due to something which the recruiter saw online.
Resumes and professional identity for trainee teachers may also be distorted even before they begin their professional career. Like in the case of Stacy Snyder, a final year student at Millersville University was merely weeks away from obtaining her education degree when her career was disrupted by a popular activity among many young teachers: sharing of personal photos on a social networking page (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 683). She was awarded an English degree and denied her teaching certificate after campus administrators came across a photo on her MySpace profile drinking out of a yellow cup with the tag "drunken pirate" (ibid). It did not matter that she was clearly posturing. She was done. This brings us back to the point of teachers being role models as Snyder should have known better, that her actions may be capable of being interpreted as promoting underage drinking to her students when they see the photo. This goes without saying that after this episode, her resume would not have turned out the way she had intended it to. Furthermore when future employers do a search on her name on the internet the first thing they would see is her "drunken pirate" picture. Unmistakably, Snyder's professional identity has been stained.
However, some teachers have argued that the practical benefits of using social networking sites has allowed them to "establish [a] deeper relationship with and understanding of [their] students" as they are able to "communicate beyond the four walls of the classroom" (Carter, Foulger & Ewbank, 2008, p. 682). This is beneficial for certain students as some of them (i.e. the quite ones) are not particularly comfortable with face-to-face communication which often requires "spontaneous spoken interaction" (Rheingold, 1993, p. 110). Hence, when they are using their digital identity instead of their private ones, they are sometimes more vocal online since they are more at ease allowing them time to express themselves articulately and with clarity. Other teaching professionals have also reasoned that the use of social networking sites can aid in bridging the age gap between older teachers and adolescent students. Using these online resources, they believe their professional relationship with their students is stronger. This is evident when 52-year-old Randy Turner, who teaches English at a middle school in Missouri created a Myspace page. Immediately he was swamped with requests from his students to add him as a "friend" and sending him questions about homework and assignments (Simon, 2008, para. 2). He acknowledged that "[social networking] is a major way of communication for them" and expressed that "just the very fact that [he has] MySpace" makes the students draw the conclusion that he is someone who is approachable (Simon, 2008, para. 3).
Notwithstanding the practical benefits mentioned above, teachers should take into serious consideration when deciding to use social networking sites to interact with their students as online teacher-student communication could lead to complications. New methods of communication which includes texting, emailing and social networking sites have drastically changed the teacher-student relationship (Henley, 2008, para. 5). Moreover, in today's age, online communication are commonly abbreviated which could result in misinterpretation and inadvertently pave the way for unwarranted accusations. There certainly is a massive difference between a handwritten note issued by a teacher asking a student to see him in room 123 after school, to go through his homework and an instant message on Facebook saying "c u 3.45 my room" (Henley, 2008, para. 18).
Additionally with social networking sites, online communication increases the potential of over-familiar relationships which could breed inappropriate relationships. Social networking sites have been pointed out as the catalyst that has lead to a series of teacher-student sexual relationships. These in turn has initiated crackdowns on social networking friendships. Just recently, a married religious education teacher, Madeleine Martin, from Manchester was jailed after she admitted to seducing a 15-year-old boy on Facebook (Henley, 2008, para 9). Their affair lasted for eight days and what was even shocking was that she managed to persuade the boy to have her name tattooed on his arm (ibid). Once again, this reiterates how influential teachers can be as role models.
In conclusion, social networking sites are viewed as a double-edge sword since it can have both positive and negative impacts on the professional identities of teaching professionals. Nevertheless, it is clear that such platforms often do not provide the desired outcome as the potential pitfalls that teachers may fall into, are detrimental to their reputation and career. Teachers are meant to be authority figures and that line should never be crossed. Hence if they value their careers, they should stay away from social networks.