Should teachers friend their students on Facebook? Should teachers text their students?

There's no real consensus here. "No, never." "Maybe, sometimes." "Yes, but responsibly." Nonetheless many schools and districts are drafting policies that dictate how school staff can interact with students via new networks and technologies - in many cases, restricting or banning student-teacher interactions.

Such is the case with a set of guidelines, set to be voted on this week by the Virginia Board of Education, that will establish the state's policy for how students and teachers can interact via text-messaging, social networking, and online gaming. In a nutshell: they can't.

Ostensibly designed to help prevent sexual misconduct in the Virginia Public Schools, the guidelines set forth a "model policy" that restricts all teachers and school board employees from any electronic communications outside accounts and platforms provided by the schools.

The policy - "Proposed Guidelines for the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct & Abuse in Virginia Public Schools" - addresses a number of areas in which school board employees interact and communicate with students, a response to the 120 actions the state has had to take against employees for sexual misconduct against minors since 2000.

The language in the proposed policy reads:

  • Under most circumstances, Teachers and other school board employees must restrict one-on-one electronic communications with individual students to accounts, systems and platforms provided by or accessible to the school division.
  • Teachers and other employees may not use personal wireless communications devices to "text" students and are prohibited from interacting one-on-one with students through personal online social-networking sites. Teachers and other school board employees must decline or disregard invitations from students to interact privately through texting and personal social-networking sites.
  • If, because of an urgent or emergency circumstance, a teacher or other school board employee uses a personal communications device or account to contact an individual student, the date, time, and nature of the contact must be reported in writing to his or her supervisor on the next school day.
  • Teachers and other school board employees may not knowingly engage in online gaming unrelated to instruction with students.
  • School board policy on electronic communications with students also applies to teachers and other employees of virtual school programs and other vendors providing instructional services to students

While it's hard to argue against better transparency and accountability for teachers, particularly when it comes to student safety, many educators are wondering why electronic communication needs to be specifically singled out in the proposed guidelines.

As one Virginia teacher argues,

"A professional code of conduct should apply whether you are speaking with a student in person, on the phone, via email or through posts using a variety of online Web 2.0 tools. These tools actually provide a written record of communication, so that in itself provides a level of accountability. We should trust our teachers to interact in a professional manner instead of unplugging our students and quashing their ability to communicate and collaborate digitally. Part of our district's Technology Plan calls for students to 'possess the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to learn in and contribute to virtual communities.' How does restricting communication via 21st century tools help achieve this goal?"

The Board of Education says the new guidelines are simply recommendations, and if approved, schools will be encouraged but not forced to adopt them. However, some educators wonder if this sort of decree from the highest level of the state education system will make it harder for tech-savvy teachers and schools to move forward with new social learning and technology endeavors.