Jake Zebley knows he has some old-fashioned ideas about communication for a 27-year-old.
But when you’re teaching sixth and seventh graders, it’s better to err on the side of caution, Zebley said. He’ll begin his seventh year of teaching in Cecil County Public Schools this fall.
He keeps his social media feeds separate from his students, declining to friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, though he acknowledges this is a popular way for teens to communicate.
...And forget about texting or calling them.
“My cellphone is mine and mine alone,” Zebley said. “If students have questions, they can find me on email.”
For teachers like Zebley, the possibility of misinterpretation is too great. And he may have good reason to be concerned.
Last month, a Baltimore County teacher found himself in hot water with the father of one of his female students after text messages he sent to the teen surfaced.
Baltimore County police have not charged the teacher with wrongdoing, though officers said the text messages indicated an emotional relationship that seemed inappropriate.
The Perry Hall High School teacher, 42, went to the 15-year-old student’s house after her parents reported the text messages to police.
The girl’s father struck the teacher with a baseball bat, and the teacher declined to press charges.
The incident illustrates why many teachers might be gun shy about texting students outside of class, said Andrew Reiner, a lecturer in the English department at Towson University.
“The lines can become really blurry,” Reiner said. “I definitely don’t think it’s the norm.”
Social media sites such as Facebook are a little different. There’s a distinction between communicating through a public news feed and exchanging private texts, Reiner said.
“It’s much less of an invasion,” he said.
Reiner said at the college level, more instructors are using a service called Blackboard, an online platform that allows students to communicate with teachers in a “more sequestered, roped-off way.”
While many schools have policies guiding teachers’ social media use—usually as it pertains to educational purposes—few have policies that explicitly address texting.
Last year, the school board in Raleigh County, West Virginia voted for a policy that bans teachers from sending personal texts to students. Three years ago, the Virginia Board of Education considered a policy that would have banned teachers from texting students, as well as from contacting them on Facebook and Twitter. The board backed down from the policy after teachers complained about it.
The National Education Association encourages teachers to use social media to enhance classroom lessons, it hasn’t taken a position on texting, said spokeswoman Sara Robertson said.
Reunite Johnson, who teaches sixth grade in Worcester County Public Schools, urges teachers to use common sense.
Sometimes, it seems to be in short supply, said Johnson, who has been teaching for 12 years.
“The only way I am going to text a student is if I am trying to help them in some way,” she said.
For example, one of her female students recently lost her great-grandmother and was going through a challenging time, so Johnson let her have her personal cellphone number to call and text when she needed to talk.
But she draws the line at giving her number to any of her male students, because there’s too much room for misinterpretation, she said.
“Especially with texting, there’s that fine line,” Johnson said.
As for social media, her personal rule is not to friend students until after they have graduated. She does have students who are following her on Instagram, forcing her to be careful about what she posts.
Three years ago, Brett Kopf co-founded Remind, a texting service for teachers. It allows teachers to message no fewer than three students and parents while concealing their phone number.
“The student will never see the teacher’s number and vice versa, so there’s never, ever a line that you’re crossing,” Kopf said.
About 15 million teachers in the United States and Canada are signed up for the service, and they mainly use it to send out reminders about assignments and the occasional motivational message, Kopf said. Remind101 is available as an app on the Apple and Android operating systems.
Some teachers prefer to email students, but a lot of students don’t check their email, Kopf said. Texting them becomes a matter of efficiency.
“There are just liability issues when you have, for example, a 30-year-old teacher texting a 10-year-old student,” Kopf said.
Nissa Quill, an eighth grade French and Spanish teacher in Baltimore, said she likes Remind101 because it keeps a record of all messages.
“This is very useful for accountability purposes,” said Quill, who relied mainly on email before signing up for Remind101.
Before she used the service, Quill said she ran into a growing number of families who do everything via a cellphone
or tablet-- with the exception of email.
“Many students and parents have never used email and may never use it in the future,” she said. “Texting is their primary method of communication.”