By Melinda Collins
Immediate and easy communication is with us and here to stay, but with it has arrived the potential and opportunity to abuse the very advantages information-age technology offers. Concerns about abusive exchanges and inappropriate relationships are esculating as teacher-student texting is officially encouraged.
The Ministry of Education has just finished its New Zealand-wide tour addressing parents and senior school staff about online risks and benefits. Meanwhile there has been a spike in inappropriate teacher-pupil relationships strongly linked with text messaging and social networking sites.
Secondary Principal’s Association (SPANZ) vice president, Patrick Walsh is in the disciplinary tribunal of the Teachers’ Council which hears misconduct cases when charges are brought by the Complaints Assessment Committee. He has noticed an increase in cases stemming from text messaging and says it generally stems from younger, more inexperienced teachers in particular. “Unfortunately in a number of the cases the tribunal has had to deal with in recent times, the genesis has begun in texting between teachers and students.”
While not all of this year’s cases have been published, the rise in is cases involving text messaging is obvious. In 2006 none of the 16 published cases involved texting. By 2008, on the other hand, five of the 18 cases involved texting and/or mis-use of social networking sites such as Bebo and Facebook.
Walsh says the texting is often innocent, but there is a fine line between personal and professional texting which can be easily blurred.
“It often starts as something as innocent as complimenting someone on what they are wearing,” he says. Adding, that when teacher-student text messaging crosses into weekend or holiday time, it is beyond the professional boundary.
Walsh says the text messaging phenomena has evolved without a great deal of forethought. “There haven’t been policies or guidelines put in place to minimise risks or dangers to how texting can take place. That has led to risks and, in some cases, inappropriate relationships which have developed from it.”
He suggests the Ministry of Education, the Teacher’s Council and schools themselves look at specific training on professional boundaries and developing relevant policies.
Although he agrees text messaging does have its place and is handy to text pupils with regards to sporting practice and assignment reminders. “In its purest form it is a useful communication tool between teachers and students. In effect, you can’t fault any texting used for professional educational purposes.”
Many schools are now encouraging parents to text notification of absences. Some recent cases listed on the New Zealand Teachers Council website include a Hamilton teacher who was deregistered after her text messages to two female pupils became personal, stating she loved one of the students and couldn’t live without her. Another teacher was suspended for sending text messages to a pupil regarding a date, a relationship and a strip dance. While another teacher voluntarily resigned after texting about his feelings for the pupil which later developed into a sexual relationship.
“It comes down to the important issues around professional boundaries which is something education providers and boards need to ensure is taught.”