A Georgia Education Department leader was fired recently for implying on Facebook that students in his state can't perform as well as their peers in Finland because of their skin color. Incidents like this across the country have sparked a conversation about how education leaders should conduct themselves on social media.
"Social media has just brought to the forefront what people were able to keep secret in their homes until now," said Todd Nesloney, principal at Webb Elementary in Navasota, Texas.
Words on social media expose who people really are, for better or for worse. At some level, this exposure can turn into a positive for the communities they serve because their bosses can take corrective action and others can see the consequences of posting unprofessional comments online.
"If people out themselves as intolerant, ignorant people on social media, I think it's a good thing, and they shouldn't be in those positions to begin with," said Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent for Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts.
Whether they realize it or not, educators set an example for students, who are watching what educators say on social media and elsewhere — which is why it's important for education leaders to model positive interactions.
And that starts with realizing that everything posted electronically is public. While private Instagram accounts, Twitter profiles and Facebook pages provide some level of privacy, anyone can take a screenshot of what you post and share it outside of those walls — not to mention letting someone look over their shoulder while they read. Even if educators create separate personal and professional accounts, anyone can find the information they post on both.
"Just pretend you're talking in front of a football stadium's worth of people, because if you say the wrong thing, that's how many people are going to hear about it," Larkin said.
With the mindset that everything is public, it's critical to be professional in both personal and professional contexts, and use common sense. That said, what's common sense to one person may not be for someone else.
School district policies can help lay out expectations and spell out interpretation of common sense. Each community will probably have different standards of what's appropriate based on their values, but no matter what the standards are, educating students and school employees on digital citizenship is important.
With various education leaders getting fired for their comments online, some educators may not want anything to do with social media. But that shouldn't be a reason to avoid online platforms and give up their benefits.
For example, education leaders can share the great things that happen in their schools every day, communicate with parents, and learn from their peers by trading ideas and resources.
"It can be leveraged in very positive and powerful ways, or it can be used very badly," said Susan Bearden, director of information technology at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Melbourne, Fla. "And I think it's incumbent upon educators to learn how to leverage the power of social media while managing to avoid the downsides."