Social media may not be “the new thing” in secondary schools anymore—schools started using it long before formal policies around it were developed. However, successfully managing this powerful tool still takes considerable planning and calls for practical guidelines. Creating a social media policy has become increasingly critical for school districts and, once developed, must be refined on a consistent basis.

Your social media policy should be like any other school policy—created in concert with your school system and placed in your faculty handbook. Like most policies, it is up to school leaders to implement, which brings a certain degree of subjectivity and will vary from one school to another.

The use of social media spawns policies that are often based on problems that have surfaced. Understandably, as the nature of social media changes—and it does so constantly—the policy must be revised when something happens that is unexpected, such as an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student. Holding students, teachers, and a community accountable for how they use social media must be at the forefront of this valuable tool.

Avoid Isolated Communications

As with any policy created for a school system, a focus on students is the most important factor. Look closely at how social media relates to student interactions with teachers and coaches and the dangers associated with digital conversations. As Facebook became an instant hit, suddenly students were “friend-requesting” teachers who may have accepted the invitation without thought. Though unintentional, this can lead to conversations that are questionable between students and teachers, because written text lacks the voice intonation that can help people gauge intent.

School districts must develop policies that clearly state what kinds of communication are inappropriate between teachers and students. For instance, in my opinion, there is never a time when isolated communication should happen between students and teachers, as it places administrators and parents in positions of doubt if a conversation can be construed as even slightly inappropriate.

For example, “It was nice seeing you at the game Friday night” can be perfectly innocent, or it might be received as a precursor to sexual harassment. As a private conversation, this phrase can be interpreted as unacceptable; it likely would not be posted if a group conversation were occurring. Keep in mind that mundane messages can be easily misinterpreted in times of stress—for instance, if a student is failing or an athlete is not getting playing time. Once that occurs, every subsequent statement can be analyzed or become problematic or ambiguous. Simply put, your policy should always include specific guidelines about the use of isolated forms of social media, including direct messages and instant messages.

Remind teachers and students that utilizing GroupMe or Remind can be safe ways to send group messages. Creating a class Facebook page, or using Instagram or Twitter correspondence, can track meaningful group conversations that connect to the curriculum. While it takes some time to set up a group approach to social media initially, once completed, it allows for easy communication.

The Disappearing Conversation

School and district policy should also strongly suggest staying away from social media platforms designed to allow conversations to disappear, as with Snapchat. It is difficult to rationalize a platform that uses social media created to function in secret. The minute a teacher or coach uses this platform, there can be an instantly negative assumption made about the intent of the communication—i.e., that he or she wants to keep it a secret.

Jennifer Martin is principal of Apalachee High School in Winder, GA.

Making It Work

Crafting a Social Media Policy

Here are some tips to ensure that educators, parents, and students understand the expectations surrounding the use of social media:

  • Create a policy with specific guidelines and examples. Ensure you spend time sharing the social media policy with your faculty and staff in a serious, dedicated conversation. Have them sign off on this policy, in addition to standards of ethics and professional behavior.
  • Make a student-focused policy. The language of a social media policy should reflect practices that promote doing what’s best for students and the community. Be sure your policy is about using social media to communicate for the sake of an improved learning or extracurricular environment. Never suggest that social media should be used for communicating in isolation.
  • Model effective use of social media. The school should regularly model how social media is used by communicating with shareholders to create positive conversations about teaching and learning, and to improve community spirit.