Chicago schools issue strict guidelines on appropriate communication between students and staff
- The Chicago Board of Education has approved wide-ranging updates to the policies on appropriate communication between staff members and students, notes the Chicago Tribune. The existing policies had been in force since before the advent of the communication technologies that are ubiquitous today.
- Chicago's school-based employees, including teachers, coaches, vendors and volunteers, are prohibited from communicating with students, and vice versa, via personal mobile devices, personal email accounts, and personal social media accounts.
- Chicago school board members are currently coming up with a plan for promoting the changes to parents, auditing school messaging tools, and designing classroom lessons on what is and isn't appropriate when communicating with teachers and coaches.
With experts maintaining that building emotional bonds with students can improve outcomes, teachers and principals can find themselves walking a fine line in well-meaning attempts to get to know a student.
The new rules in Chicago shed light on how difficult it is to regulate behavior in a school community when every member of it has a smartphone and often social media accounts that enable communication 24/7. Legislators are wrestling with how to craft laws around what can be a very gray area, when the benefits of teachers efficiently communicating with students using the same mediums they use are considered. Legislation or strict policies have the potential to chill rapport between school leaders and students.
The most visible problem with casual, digital communication between teachers and students is the potential for one high-profile instance, such as a teacher asking outright for sex to ruin more innocent exchanges. A cheerleading coach, for example, was recently fired for using a curse word in a text with a student in frustration over the season, even though the student's parent was included in the text and rushed to the coach's defense.
Most states do not require districts to have electronic communication policies, but some large districts, such as New York City, have taken it upon themselves. There, teachers can only communicate with individual students on classroom networks. In Louisiana, teacher-student contacts through social media or personal devices are allowed, but have to be pre-approved and documented. (A similar rule in Missouri was repealed after objections from the teachers union.)
Still, experts maintain that the content of communications is what matters, not necessarily the mode of communication. Clear policies that take into account evolving technologies and give staff detailed directives on what is not appropriate will be most effective, but will have to be continuously refined.
In the meantime, school leaders can always take "old-school" avenues to building bonds with students. These can include learning all students' names, leveraging lunchtime to engage with and watch students during unstructured social time, regularly greeting students face-to-face in the mornings, attending every school function, and holding regular classroom chats to talk to students about topics of concern.