The Social Media Minefield

Is it appropriate for teachers to communicate with students via social media?

As the way we communicate becomes more and more digital, the boundaries of acceptable social conduct become more and more blurred.

There, of course exist paradigm cases: it is fine to email a friend, it is unacceptable to text someone to sack them. When you are in the classroom, however, it gets even more complicated. For a young teacher educating senior pupils, the binary opposition of friend and teacher can sometimes blur into a minefield of legal, social, and moral questions.

This exact issue came to national attention recently when a PE Teacher in Scotland, Nicholas Torsney, was sacked, reinstated, and now faces a further disciplinary hearing for Facebook messaging a number of pupils. Described as an ‘exceptional teacher’, he had a promising reputation in the field, but has since found his career in jeopardy for 4 messages sent to pupils, all apparently over 18.

Though there can be little doubt of the innocence of the messages – the questions about how the prom was or whether they want to play golf seem rather banal – the fact that they ended in “Xx” is one of the key issues in this controversial case.

He broke the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s (GTCS) guidelines on Social Media which states pupils “should not contact pupils through Facebook, text messaging and personal emails.” This much is blatant. Plus the use of ‘Xx’ and text shorthand – “Hey man, u looking forward to this ski trip? I'm not... Sorry I've messaged u xx” – seem to indicate something a little more than meets the eye.

The teacher clearly knew that he was in the wrong for sending the messages, even as he was typing it. If this is the case – why click send?

Mr Torsney has since gone on-record to confirm his complete shame and remorse about the incident and to confirm his attendance on a child protection course. After his initial sacking, thanks in part to a petition from his colleagues, he was reinstated and moved to a different school. He now, however, faces further action from the GTCS who, if they find him guilty, can strike him off indefinitely.

Is this a case of the school acting before it was too late – catching a potential predator before he couldn’t help himself? Or is this an example of education bureaucracy counteracting a natural evolution in communication?

Facebook is used so casually by people who have grown up with it (Essentially, anyone under 25) that can be hard for people outside of this demographic to understand the lack of distinction between a Facebook Message and a conversation in the street. Can we imagine a situation where the conversation Mr Torsney had with the students being investigated if conducted at the end of a class, or if they met in the street; or even on the phone?

What might seem a horrible breach of privacy by those not familiar with Social Media could be run-of-the-mill for those who use it many times a day.

Even if you find yourself thinking that this teacher’s sacking is absurd political correctness, you would surely be in the minority for subscribing to a completely unregulated social media policy. Therein lies the crux of the matter and the problem with social media.

It is not that it is being used to groom children, it is that it can. As every pupil, certainly, now has their own Facebook page, which they almost definitely don’t share with their parents, social media offers a direct path to a student’s mind.

That’s why, perhaps against common sense, perhaps against technological advancement, and perhaps fated to fail, teachers cannot use personal social media to contact students.

But perhaps there is a solution? Is there a way schools can keep up with the revolution in communication without compromising child safety? As Nicholas Torsney awaits his fate, what do you think should happen to him? 

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