Published on LinkedIn (1/5/2018)
I am often asked by independent school administrators whether their schools should have policies prohibiting texting between faculty and students. Sometimes, before I can respond, the administrator acknowledges that attempting to limit such texting would likely be impossible given the extent of its usage by students, parents and many, particularly younger, faculty. I understand both the concern behind the question and the frustration trying to find a solution.
Before considering how to address the issue, it is helpful to understand why texting by teachers is even a concern. When conducting after-the -fact reviews of cases involving problematic relationships between faculty and students, it is common to discover inappropriate text messages. Teacher – student misconduct, sexual or otherwise, often develops over time when the adult takes incremental steps, often initially well-intentioned, that lead down the proverbial “slippery slope”. Key dynamics that contribute to this downward journey include the adult's failure to stay in professional roles and the adult's lack of awareness of appropriate boundaries. Texting with students can contribute to confusing roles and blurring boundaries.
It is important that school professionals stay in their professional roles, such as teacher, advisor, coach, administrator, etc., when interacting with students and avoid personal roles. Personal roles, such as behaving as a student’s peer, change the nature of the relationship between adult and child and erode important boundaries. Teachers should model professional behavior, including setting limits and putting the student’s interests first. Peer-like behavior by adults breaks down necessary limits and promotes personal connections, such as friendship and special bonds, that can lead to inappropriate and unhealthy relationships. Such “special” relationships between teachers and students need not be sexual to adversely impact a student. The development of an unhealthy dependency by a student on a teacher is often present when a teacher’s peer – like relationship with a student escalates. This so-called “power dependency” relationship is, by itself, harmful to the student as it interferes with the student's healthy childhood development.
Texting, by its nature, is a peer –to – peer activity. It developed as a convenient way for friends and family to stay in touch. Compared to email, texting often involves more informal language, nicknames. symbols and abbreviations. Texts send alerts when they arrive and there is an expectation that the recipient will respond almost instantly, regardless of the time.
Despite the issues inherent to texting, its use is so widespread that successfully banning it would be difficult, if not impossible. Trying to prohibit texting would certainly be unpopular, not just with many faculty and students, but also with many parents who rely on texting to stay in touch with their sons and daughters and to communicate with their teachers.
Nonetheless, the risks associated with texting can be mitigated. I recommend a three step approach, involving technology, training and policy. Technology influences behavior. Consider that virtually all teachers have both school and personal email accounts. Yet they do not use their personal email account to communicate with students or parents about school related matters. By contrast, most independent school teachers have only personal texting accounts. Consequently, when texting students or parents about school business, they use their personal accounts to communicate because they have no alternative. The first step I advocate, therefore, is use of a school-based texting app. These services operate much the way school email services operate – meaning that messages are hosted and archived by the school and school IT services can monitor content if necessary to protect the interests of students. I believe that the behavior of teachers will change when using a school- owned texting service because teachers will be aware that they are using a school communication service whose content can be retrieved and reviewed. Texting with students will shift from being a personal activity to being a professional activity.
The second step to mitigating the risks inherent to texting is to conduct faculty and staff training which reinforces role and boundary awareness when using electronic communications with students and their families. Teachers should understand the importance of staying in their professional roles at all times when using any type of electronic communications. Similarly, they should be alert to how electronic communications, particularly peer- to - peer type communications, blur roles and break down boundaries. For example, they should avoid using screen names, emoji’s, slang and abbreviations. They should be educated on the risks and impact of their own after-hours texts and instantaneous responses to texts from students.
The final step for mitigating texting risk is to establish appropriate use policies for all electronic communications, not just texting, by employees with students and parents. Such communications should be limited to school related matters and only school provided services should be used. Employees should understand and acknowledge that all electronic communications with students and parents are subject to review by appropriate administrators to protect the interests of the students and the school.
Currently, texting between independent school faculty and students over their personal texting services is widespread and problematic. But it is not realistic to prohibit it. The proposed three step approach involving technology, training and policy is a practical way to address the problematic behaviors and help avoid otherwise well-meaning teachers from engaging in risky, and sometimes harmful, behaviors with students.