The recent case in the US of a teacher being sacked for refusing to “defriend” students on Facebook, highlights the need for all schools to have clear policies and procedures regarding the management of relationships between staff and students and a teacher’s personal use of social media.
While there is no suggestion that the teacher in the US was acting inappropriately with the 250 students she had as Facebook friends, schools still need to have rules that set boundaries and limits in relationships between staff and students.
The teacher protested there was nothing untoward in her use of Facebook.
“There’s a paranoia about the Internet and I think that we’re not realising how valuable Facebook can be used properly,” she argued.
Contravening her argument is the fact that teachers and students have a fiduciary relationship. This means teachers hold a unique position of influence and trust, and as such, their fiduciary duty requires them to exercise their rights and powers in good faith and for the benefit of the student.
By going beyond the boundaries of a professional relationship with students, teachers risk students misinterpreting their relationship as having a personal rather than professional interest. This can compromise or breach the teacher’s fiduciary duty to, and professional relationship with, their students.
Schools need to ensure their policies spell out what types of relationships are inappropriate. Aside from the obvious one, being any form of relationship that can be misinterpreted as having a romantic or sexual nature (even if it is condoned by parents), teachers should not form any relationship that can be misinterpreted as a having a personal rather than professional element.
A school’s policy needs to spell out what is unacceptable, such as:
- Teachers attending parties or socialising with students.
- Sending invites to join personal social networking sites, or accepting to join.
- Visiting each others’ houses without professional reasons and without the consent of the school or the student’s parents.
There are cases where personal or family relationships between students and staff already exist. In this case, staff should notify the school which can deal with any potential conflicts of interest.