The mass email was gone and there was nothing I could do about it. I rushed to my assistant’s office and asked if he knew how to recall it. The problem? I had received an email from the principal saying that the school was having a full-day geometry boot camp to prepare for an upcoming state test. This meant that I would be missing most of my sophomores for three rehearsals in a row instead of the two that were bad enough, particularly when combined with all the other tests being administered that month. Frustrated, I sarcastically wrote, “This is great!” and forwarded it to my assistant.
Problem was, I accidentally forwarded it to the whole faculty. Even though some may have interpreted the comment as my undying support for the math marathon, there was no certainty that my principal would. Fortunately, my assistant was a techno-whiz and managed to retrieve all of them but six. I never heard back from my principal so he must not have been one of the six.
The above example is just one of many that Frederick Lane calls “cybertraps” in his book Cybertraps for Educators, the prime source for many of my ideas in this column. I’ll examine several cybertraps and their implications for band directors. I would highly recommend the book for a more thorough look at this subject with more specific examples of individuals who lost their licenses and careers because of their digital indiscretions.
Cyberloafing is a term used for spending too much time on the internet while at work. Concern over this problem has spawned a workplace surveillance industry that is even used by school districts, and regardless of the terms of a district’s acceptable use policy, anything done online using a school network can be recorded and easily reviewed by administrators. While this may curb the use of workplace computers for cyberloafing, personal smartphones and apps that work around school safeguards are easy enough to find, leading ultimately to an educator’s own professionalism to do the right thing and avoid spending school time on the internet.
When cyberloafing involves visiting adult web sites, matters become even more serious, and I see no need to list all the problems with this. We have all probably heard of someone who was fired for this offense, bringing great embarrassment to everyone involved. Again, school district monitoring of such activity is increasingly effective, and it is just plain stupid to do anything inappropriate on school time and property, no matter what device is used. If stopping this is a problem for you, seek help immediately.
A simple solution may appear to be confining all personal technology use to the privacy of home, but cybertraps affecting work even exist outside of the workplace; in fact, they are actually more intrusive than ever. This might make one wonder whether teachers are entitled to a private life. The reality is that we may have the lowest expectation of privacy of any profession except high-profile athletes and movie stars. It has been that way for a long time. Local school boards have always placed a lot of emphasis on a teacher’s character, not just their ability to teach. This expectation has not changed, but what has changed is the ease with which school boards, parents, administrators, and students can learn about a teacher’s private life. It is more difficult than ever to keep information private; powerful search engines can resurrect information from many years past. For instance, anyone who searched my name could easily find the following about me in just seconds:
• I worked for the Paragould School District from 1991-2008.
• I am currently president of the Arkansas Small Band Association.
• My home address.
• Photographs in which I weighed thirty more pounds than now.
• I am the director of Camp Omega at Crowley’s Ridge Youth Camp.
• A news release on my junior jazz band’s performance at White County Medical Center.
• My 2007 Loose Caboose 5K time of 28:58, and that I came in last (10th) in my age group. (A glance at a few more entries would show that I am not quite ready for the Olympics.)
Most of the information above was not something I posted myself or even gave permission to post. When it comes to information we post, great care should be taken; posts on social media sites like Facebook can cause problems that result in suspensions, firings, and lawsuits. It is unwise to post personal frustrations about anything having to do with work, whether this is ranting about your boss or grousing about students or parents. Do not trust privacy settings because they are basically meaningless, and if you have a difficult time with technology like I do, you might even post it for everyone by mistake.
As for the law, what can we say on social media? Are we entitled to First Amendment protection? Theoretically, the answer is yes in public schools, with less protection for those working in private schools. However, in 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court established a two-part test for deciding whether statements by a public employee are protected by the First Amendment: Was the statement made as a private citizen about a matter of public concern, or as an employee about matters within the scope of his or her employment; and did the state employer have an adequate reason for treating the employee differently than a member of the general public? Did the speech unduly interfere with the ability of the state employee to operate effectively? Unfortunately, this second standard can be interpreted very widely by any school district.
Although inappropriate relationships between teachers and students have probably been around since the beginning of time, the digitalization of society has added a new dynamic to this problem. Cyberbullying and cyberbaiting are a case in point. A 2006 survey by the National School Boards Association found that 26% of teachers in the U.S. had been cyberbullied by students or parents. As for cyberbaiting, one can just go to YouTube and search for “teacher loses it” to see examples of educators taped losing their cool. Some teachers in these may have been baited into their loss of control. (Some videos are actually amusing April Fool’s jokes but, alas, not all.) It would be safe to assume that almost anything you do at school can be caught on camera.
The proliferation of cell phones has also created new problems. Cell phone manufacturers began concentrating on teens in 2004. At the time, about 25 percent of teens used a cellphone; by 2008 it doubled; now just under 95 percent have cellphones with teens increasingly getting smartphones. Many years ago it was more difficult for students to contact a teacher (and vice versa) without their parents knowing, but now it is no problem at all. I do not believe I ever called a teacher in high school, and if I did I would have been terrified to broach such a brazen venture. With texting capabilities and a phone in almost every child’s hands, both students and parents can access teachers 24/7 by voice or text. I’ve gotten texts from parents and students asking me questions past 10:00 on a school night. (Even if it is a good question, I don’t answer them out of principle.)
We should be careful about using digital media because the margin for error is miniscule. Below are some important tips that can go a long ways toward preventing problems:
Search your name on the internet periodically to see what comes up. Some things can be removed and some things probably cannot, but in the case of the latter you at least have the opportunity to be upfront with an employer about a past indiscretion before they find it themselves.
Never assume any of the privacy options you have are completely private or safe.
Never post anything sarcastic, argumentative, or in anger concerning anything to do with work.
Never post remotely questionable photographs. Conservative discretion is best. Avoid posting pictures of students without their parent’s permission.
Communicate via mass text to parents and students for reasons of transparency.
Rarely text students. Most texting should be responding to a student inquiry. Avoid initiating any kind of conversation. Have fellow students text someone for you if it is a simple reminder about something. When you find it necessary to text, keep it professional, business-like, and brief – no extended conversations. Only text during reasonable hours of the day.
Do not friend students on Facebook. (However, using a school-run Facebook page is fine.) I will add students right after they graduate, but some directors wait until a year or two after that.
It would be best to avoid friending parents on Facebook as well. I made this mistake, but put a stop to it after friending just two parents. I became uncomfortable with the level of familiarity it opened up and decided that it crossed professional boundaries. Practically speaking, it enabled one of them to access me constantly during off hours with annoying questions.
The definition of friend on Facebook is a loose one; take a true, trusted friend out to dinner, eat a good meal, and discuss your frustrations then.
Periodically evaluate your mental and emotional state, paying particular attention to how you are responding to the various stresses of life. It is often at stressful times that poor decisions with long-term negative consequences are made. Seek help if it becomes appropriate.
Private emails should be copied so parents can see them as well.
Avoid discussing serious topics by email (or text) if you think a response might escalate into anger or even be misconstrued by an angry reader on the other end. On the occasions when you receive overtly angry emails and texts, simply do not answer them. Anything can be read and interpreted in the worst way if the reader is so disposed. If a matter is that serious, set up a time to meet in person.
As for my email scare, I learned my lesson: Absolutely no angry sarcasm in emails ever again. I am purely a smiley emoticon guy. Now when I periodically receive maddening emails, I simply delete them and, to my assistant band director’s chagrin, I walk to his office to vent.