Saturday, December 24, 2011

Digital Footprints Prove Costly

Few of us give much thought to life before digital communication permeated every facet of our lives.   Social networking is now so woven into our society it is difficult to remember life without it.  But the existence of Al Gore's internet and Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook have changed things in ways we could not even imagine just years ago.    Online has become the place we buy things, connect with our friends, research illness and read the news.  Education is no different from the rest of the world and having an online presence is now an effective way to engage and reach out to your students.

I attended a seminar put on by our division at the start of this school year for athletic coaches, many of whom are not teachers.  I think the goal was to have those less familiar with  the dynamics in education reflect on the appropriate use and also the pitfalls of social networking and E-mail when working with kids.  As both adults and youth increase their virtual presence we all struggle a bit to keep up with the impact on our professional and personal lives.  The attorney presented myriad examples of staff who were dismissed for all sorts of things.  Some were pretty dumb and were clearly warranted while others crossed into a much more nebulous area.   One thing I took from the session was that in today's interconnected world, there is no separation between your personal and professional lives.  

Which brings me to the curious case of Ashley Payne.  She was the 24 year old Georgia teacher who 2 years ago was pressured to resign after an "anonymous" parent complaint about a photo she posted on Facebook.  The photo in question was from her European vacation showed her drinking alcohol and was far from offensive or what most level headed people would consider questionable.  She also had commented on her profile page using some objectionable language referencing a trivia contest.  None of which was open to the public even though claims were made Payne had "friended" her students.   Nor was Payne "friends" with any of her students.  Nevertheless she was abruptly forced to choose between being suspended or resigning. 

As usual there's more to the story.  A local reporter determined the "parent" E-mail complaint was likely sent by an anonymous individual and received less than 2 hours before Payne was confronted by her principal.  The sender was never identified and the most plausible explanation is that an adult sent the E-mail to get rid of Payne for reasons unknown. 

What this curious case reveals is that privacy as we once knew it no longer exists.  We have virtual footprints that remain in place despite our efforts to the contrary.  Harmless things now can return and cause trouble for us down the road.   No matter the specifics it brings into question issues my colleague covered to some degree in his earlier post "Free Speech and Ultimate Education Taboo".   Any good teacher recognizes they are role models to some degree and behave accordingly when in public.  This world where lines get blurred between public and private makes all of this more complicated. 
Educators know all to well how kids can lose perspective and common sense when they plug into the virtual world.  It brings to mind how we need to educate our children about what is OK and what is not OK when online and how important it is to use good judgment.   Cases like this make such tutelage difficult as it seems to me Payne wasn't doing anything that would even raise an eyebrow in many instances.  I had the opportunity to cover some of these issues with a group of students some time back and my message was simple..."don't be an idiot."  That was actually the title of my talk.  I stressed the need to stay safe,  keep personal information private and finally remember when you put something is no longer yours anymore and is likely public forever. 

I find the lack of fairness and degree of haste used by the school division in dismissing Payne troubling.  Maybe she was a bad teacher and a crummy employee.  If so she could be let go for that.  But in this case it appears she lost her job because she drank a beer on vacation and used objectionable language.  Not in the presence of her students, not at work...but online. Could this same standard apply to a restaurant?  Doubtful. 

The legal case involving Payne has yet to be resolved 2 years later and as far as I could tell she is not currently teaching.  A state standards board investigated the matter and said there was no cause for any sanctions against Payne.   So we are left with the reality that what is acceptable is "muddy" at best and most districts likely are playing catch up when developing policies.  They likely include broadly worded guidelines under legal advise.  So we have to always watch even more what we do and say as no doubt others are.   The new Barrow  County superintendent perhaps said it best:
“I always encourage our educators to recognize that the network is a public forum and that we need to always set our professional image and standard for how we are depicting ourselves for our students and community.”  So in a sense the internet is the same as your classroom.    

 I think most teachers realize you are not just a teacher between 8 and 4.  You are a teacher 24 hours a day.  That's generally a good thing.  The practicalities of being a teacher  usually means you will have some sort of online presence.  In doing so we must not forget to use good judgment. Even if those people who expect us to do so do not follow suit.

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