How far can schools go in regulating teachers' social-media use?

Natalie Munroe, the Central Bucks East High School teacher who might lose her job because of her blog posts about her students, is the latest example of a local teacher dealing with the consequences of blogging or social media.

She is unlikely to be the last, though, as those in the first generation that grew up using social media are now old enough that some are becoming teachers.

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Mary Beth Hertz says that blogging makes her a better teacher - and that she is careful never to mention students by name.

Last year, Elizabeth Collins, an English teacher at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, a private all-girls school in Villanova, was dismissed after she wrote on her blog about a student's classroom presentation.

Munroe and Collins have joined a list of teachers and professors nationwide who have found themselves in hot water for expressing their views through blogs and social media. Both were critical of students, though neither used students' names.

Some educators who blog or use social media as part of their teaching argue that when done right it can provide tremendous benefit. They say students will need to be proficient and should learn to use such tools responsibly.

"When you look at the essential skills - problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, creativity - we're really preparing these students in essence for jobs that aren't even created yet," said Eric Sheninger, a principal at New Milford High School in North Jersey, who is considered an expert on social networking and technology in schools. "We need to do a better job of preparing them to think critically and authentically."

Some districts are doing that with guidelines for using social media, including discouraging teachers from linking to - or, in social-media parlance, "friending" - students on Facebook. But most in Pennsylvania have not, according to Jeffrey Sultanik, a lawyer who has represented dozens of school districts across the region. Sultanik said social-media policies raise legal concerns, including those involving the First Amendment.

School boards might justifiably regulate employees' use of social media when it interferes with the school district's work, he said. Boards could also ban social-media use that breaches confidentiality obligations or school regulations.

"The ultimate question is whether a public entity such as a school district has the right to mandate what people do off school property," Sultanik said.

In Munroe's case, some objected when she wrote that she would like to tell some parents that their children were "ratlike," "frightfully dim," "whiny," and "utterly loathsome in all imaginable ways."

Collins criticized a student for a speech she made in class, and the girl's parents called the post an "attack on a child."

The New Jersey School Boards Association developed a pioneering social-media policy in 2009, spokesman Mike Yaple said. He said that a number of districts had adopted social-media policies but that many might not until the issue hits closer to home.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, advises its members to think about whether they would gladly show anything they post online to their mothers, their students, their superintendents, and the editor of the New York Times.

The union also urges members to avoid posting anything on profile pages about "colleagues, administrators, or students, as well as using inappropriate or profane messages or graphics, or anything that would reflect negatively on your workplace."

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has offered its members training on the issue. Stuart Knade, chief counsel for the association, encourages school districts to deal with situations that arise as teaching opportunities.

"The thing about social media that seems to lead to difficulties . . . is that people tend to say and reveal things about themselves . . . that years ago, they wouldn't say in a roomful of friends, and yet they feel comfortable writing about it online," Knade said.

Despite the potential risks, some educators argue passionately in favor of social media as a part of teaching and learning.

Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, said that blogging can be a powerful tool for educators, as a way to reflect on the practice of teaching, to celebrate the successes in education, and to strengthen the bonds of a school community.

"I think it's a good thing that most of the kids at Science Leadership academy know the names of my children . . . and that I'm a huge sports fan," Lehmann said. "Whenever we can allow ourselves to be seen as real people, remember the humanity of our children and take joy in that shared humanity, we're going to do it better."

Mary Beth Hertz, who teaches digital citizenship at Alliance for Progress, a charter school in North Philadelphia, said blogging helps her be a better teacher.

"I do my best teaching when I'm a reflective practitioner, and blogging for me is a great way to think about what I do in my classroom, and it helps me to learn from mistakes instead of getting upset about them," Hertz said.

Hertz, who recently wrote her school's acceptable-use policy, said she was careful never to mention students by name. If she does write about specific students, it is always in a positive context, she said.

It's not that teachers can't write about their struggles or their frustrations in the classroom, Lehmann said, but whether they respect their students.

"When I say I believe this as an educator, and here was a moment that challenged me, when other educators, parents and students read that - when we endeavor to do the things we do humbly, and write about that with humility, and write about the ways we fall short of our own best expectations of ourself . . . then blogging is an incredibly powerful tool."

 


Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 215-854-2624 or alu@phillynews.com.