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The majority of schools now have in place safeguarding rules for acceptable behaviour and teacher-student interaction on social media.

These focus on the safety and security of the children but sometimes don’t cover in as much detail what teachers should do to ensure that their own online interaction (even with friends and family) does not conflict with school policies.

Let’s explore the fine balance of safeguarding teachers and students, when it comes to social media. 

Safeguarding policies – defining rules for social media usage

As far back as 2012 teachers were warned over the act of befriending pupils on Facebook and other social media platforms:

Teachers must not establish or seek to establish social contact with pupils, children or young people for the purpose of securing a friendship or to pursue or strengthen a relationship. That extends to the use of social networking sites such as Facebook.

This warning came about as a reaction to the case of Lee Butcher, from Garforth Community College in Leeds, who was found to have had “inappropriate and sexually explicit” conversations with a former pupil.

This was also at a time when as many as one in 10 teachers accused of misconduct in 2011 had allegedly used social media and emails to foster inappropriate relationships.

Yet there are advantages to connecting on social media – and to holding conversations between teacher and pupil via this vital communication medium.

Just a few roles that it can play include: “collaborative planning, sharing resources, providing news and updates to pupils and parents, helping with homework and project assignments, promoting school and class achievement, recording and archiving lesson content for revision and keeping up to date with the latest pedagogy”.

Clearly, the answer then doesn’t lie in an outright ban on social interaction between teacher and student. Instead, simple, succinct steps are needed.

Teachers must ask themselves – ‘How do I look to the outside world?’

Never have teachers’ private lives been more exposed – without due care and consideration, entire classes can now know of their teacher’s relationship break up, wild weekend away or family disagreement.

First, their privacy settings must be configured to the most restrictive possible. On Facebook, this must mean that posts, photos and private information are only viewable by friends.

It’s also a good time to remind your teachers of your safeguarding policies – of what constitutes role model behaviour, and acting as a representative for your school.

Second, every single post, update, tweet or share must be considered, even with the strictest of privacy settings. What starts as an ill-judged joke, can turn into gross misconduct.

Case and point made by the teacher who mocked a student’s spelling in response to a school tweet.

Teachers can check through their past history, and ensure that there’s nothing to bring the school into disrepute, by checking their social media archives. For example, Facebook and Twitter both allow you to access and download your archives.

Lay out common sense ground rules

Ground rules help ensure teachers are on the same page as the school when it comes to online interactions and social media use.

The following rules create a basic framework with which schools can work:

  • Always think professionally – whether on Facebook, Twitter or any other social media network
  • Never post anything inappropriate that you wouldn’t be happy for parents, colleagues and students to see
  • Consider creating a professional profile where possible and within the rules of the social media network in question
  • Always check that you own the content you post/create – posting copyrighted material of someone else can prove problematic should a complaint be made
  • Always be clear to your pupils, school and parents about how you use social media for the greater good, and remember to seek and obtain permission where necessary

Remind your teachers – ‘You can be victims of online abuse too’

Social media networks, mobile phones and other technologies to which pupils have access make it so much easier to make a teacher’s life intolerable and his or her job impossible. Too often nothing is done to combat this behaviour and pupils believe that their conduct is without consequence.

An often-overlooked element of teacher-pupil online interaction is the possibility of teachers becoming targets for online abuse. This is every bit as unacceptable as if the roles were reversed.

According to a study in Scotland, it is female staff who are the most common target for cyberbullying – a study that also found teachers were being let down by their institutions, with little to no policies in place to protect them.

In short, this prospect is an important consideration – policies must be in place, reported occurrences must be documented and then swiftly dealt with. Communicating how unacceptable this is being important for both parties – pupils and teachers alike. 

Here are some helpful links:   

The GTCE (now TA)  code of conduct 

DCSF (now DfE) guidelines on how to minimise the cyberbullying of staff

The GTCS guide to teachers’ use of social media