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Lessons to learn: The legal implications of teachers’ online activities

23/10/2018

Locations

Ireland

In a hyper-connected world, where the line between work life and private life grows ever-blurrier, what you post on social media can have major career consequences. While most workers know that posting offensive comments or complaining about your boss on Facebook is a bad idea, teachers have a unique challenge in navigating the Internet, as they attempt to keep up with the new platforms popularised by their students. In Ireland, the Teaching Council’s Code of Profession... In a hyper-connected world, where the line between work life and private life grows ever-blurrier, what you post on social media can have major career consequences. While most workers know that posting offensive comments or complaining about your boss on Facebook is a bad idea, teachers have a unique challenge in navigating the Internet, as they attempt to keep up with the new platforms popularised by their students. In Ireland, the Teaching Council’s Code of Professional Conduct does not specifically address social media use, stating only that teachers should ‘ensure that any communication with pupils/students, colleagues, parents, school management and others is appropriate, including communication via electronic media, such as e-mail, texting and social networking sites’. This indicates that use of social media can, in some cases, be appropriate. However, even educational uses of sites such as Facebook – say, to administer a group page for posting class assignments – may blur the boundaries between the personal and the professional, since teacher and student will presumably be able to view each other’s profile and photographs. Other social networking sites popular among teenagers, such as Instagram and Snapchat, have very little application to teaching and learning. It could even be argued that communication on these platforms is inherently inappropriate to the teacher-student relationship. Indeed, misuse of social media appears again and again in decisions by the UK regulator, the Teaching Regulation Agency (formerly the National College of Teaching and Leadership). Some trends in the decisions of teacher conduct panel decisions are of interest for those seeking to guide teachers in appropriate use of social media. Firstly, there are cases where a teacher’s personal social media use or online activities come into conflict with their professional role. In one case, offensive and racist comments a teacher made on Facebook were held to demonstrate “a lack of tolerance and respect for the rights and/or beliefs of others”. Although he said he was provoked by previous comments and his remarks were taken out of context, the panel held that “no matter what the context or provocation, those comments were offensive and racist”. However, they did note that the comments were outside the educational setting and would not affect how the registrant fulfilled his role as a teacher. Moreover, it was unlikely that students would see them and be negatively influenced. While not amounting to unacceptable professional conduct, the panel made a finding of “conduct that could bring the profession into disrepute,” recommending prohibition with a possibility of review in 3 years’ time. Interestingly, an important factor in the decision was the panel’s lack of certainty that the teacher would not react similarly in response to provocative content online. It would be advisable, therefore, for sensitive or hot-headed teachers to block upsetting or controversial political content and learn to ignore the “trolls”. Teachers who themselves “troll” online (i.e., post crude, offensive or deliberately provocative material) can face consequences even if they do not use their real name. Mr Kevin Regester, posting on a public profile under the name “Kev Raven”, described his classes in extremely profane terms and posted racist and offensive photographs. This, and his repeated denials and attempts to deflect blame onto others, led the panel to impose a lifetime prohibition. Teachers must also be aware of the need to respect students’ privacy and protect them from online exposure. A recent professional conduct panel imposed a prohibition order with a minimum of 3 years before review for a teacher who uploaded personal information about teachers and colleagues to a publicly available social media website. Of course, social media and messaging opens up a whole new area of misconduct as regards inappropriate contacts and relationships with students. However, where there is no finding of more serious misconduct (such as “grooming” or sexual interest) the panel is generally lenient on teachers pushing the boundaries of appropriate communication with students. In a 2016 decision, a teacher “friend requested” a student on Facebook and gave her his personal mobile number, which the panel found amounted to unacceptable professional conduct. While it was a serious lapse in judgement, it a well-intentioned, one-off incident; no prohibition order was made. Similarly, where a teacher exchanged Facebook messages and played online games with a student, this was held to amount to unacceptable professional conduct but no prohibition order was made. These and other cases concerning vulnerable students and technologically unaware attempts at support point to a general need to educate teachers to set boundaries online. Teachers who are active on social media have got into trouble for inappropriate sexual advances to past pupils on Instagram and for accepting pupil’s Instagram follow requests (even with the permission of a parent) and exchanging messages. However, a teacher who failed to maintain professional boundaries by exchanging Facebook messages with students and posting inappropriate sexual material on Facebook (and publically discussing these posts with past pupils) managed to avoid a prohibition order. These issues in the UK give a useful insight into what role social media plays in complaints of serious misconduct against teachers. It appears that schools and regulators could further clarify what kind of social media contact with students is acceptable and consider how best to harness emerging technologies for teaching and learning.

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