There has been a lot shared lately as a part of Connected Educator Month about the benefits of connecting online. In many respects, I agree with +George Couros that ‘isolation is now a choice educators make‘. However, something overlooked in many of the discussions and debates are some of the taboos associated with being a connected educator. Some of the reasons why teachers do make the choice to stay isolated.
 

Teacher-Student-Friend?

In a recent post, Peter Dewitt spoke about how he saw a photo come up in his feeds from an ex-student, whom he had taught in Year 1. She was photographed finishing her last teaching round. It got me thinking, when is it ok to connect with students (and ex-students) online? Another similar example that comes to mind is from +Adam Bellow‘s inspiring keynote from ISTE2013 where he invited people to ‘change the world’. A part of this is utilising the power of social media to connect with students through such mediums as Facebook. In addition to this, +Anne Mirtschin‘s many posts and presentations on connecting online seem to be littered with incidental connections with students in and out of school in a whole range of spaces. Now I am not saying that any of these situations are wrong, but it begs the question, when do we cross the line, when does our relationship with students go from being a professional one to being personal?
 
A few years ago, a friend of mine who works at a different school told me about how his principal directed teachers to remove all ex-students from their social media accounts. He spoke about the threat of images and ideas being spread, the spectre of being sued for negligence and a litany other things. Now I am not sure if the principal in question was mandated by their region to tell the staff this, but what confuses me about such situations is that little attention was given to what teachers actually publish online in the first place. I know some teachers who won’t even connect with other teachers online, let alone ex-students, in the fear of being caught out and incriminated, while there are others who won’t connect with anyone and simply leave social media altogether. I have written about the culture of fear elsewhere. To me, this makes me wonder what are they afraid of? For some, it is a fear of their lifestyle choices outside of teaching crossing over into their professional life. Others, it is a political decision, a refusal to share personal information and ideas with online corporations. Sadly, what is not brought up enough during such discussions amongst staff is what is published online, rather than who we are publishing too.
 

Connecting in the Classroom

Attached to his website, +stephen heppell and his wife, have provided a different take on the social media phenomena. Instead of running from it, the Heppell’s propose that we run to it in a safe and constructive manner. Correspondingly, they have developed a list of some do’s and don’ts associated with using social media safely in the classroom. 
 
Some of their do’s include:
  • Developing a personal and professional presence online 
  • Let students ‘friend’ you, not vice versa 
  • Build groups for your classes and share information and resources 
  • Post positive information 
Some of the don’ts include: 
  • Don’t FB chat 
  • Social networks in school are not places for criticisms or whingeing. 
  • Don’t look at, let alone comment on, pupils’ pictures 
Now in some respect, I think that sites such as Facebook and Google+ have actually come a long way since 2010 when the Heppell’s space was last updated. For example, you are now able to ‘post’ and ‘share’ with different groups and circles, you are therefore supposedly able to maintain different connections within the one ‘presence’ (although I wouldn’t want to post the wrong information to the wrong group, may be a bit awkward.) However, many of the original tenets remain pertinent today. Whatever medium you are communicating in, it is always important to have boundaries. 
 
I think that this is sometimes why some staff have issues with students sending emails to their school email account. For them, this crosses their private and personal boundary. They just don’t expect to have students sending through questions, while they are checking their work email. Whether it is using a school’s student emailing system to engage with students or setting up spaces like Edmodo, the most important thing is to set up boundaries. The problem is though that such boundaries are often left unset or worse, they are set by the habits of other teachers whose classroom culture creates a different set of expectations.
 
A simple example of where a clear set of boundaries has been set up comes from +Richard Lambert. In his school two different email accounts have been created to differentiate between staff to staff communications and student related communications. The school’s Google Apps for Education account email that staff and students get is used to facilitate collaboration and connections between staff and students, while staff’s edumail accounts are left for professional correspondences.
 
Sometimes though there is something even more than boundaries, sometimes the question is what we choose to publish in the first place.
 

Duty of Care … To Ourselves

 
 
Just as there is some confusion at times where duty of care and professional responsibility starts and stops, so too is there a dangerous blurring between our private and professional relations when it comes to our online identify. Often, through social sites such as Google+ and Facebook, we connect with people in the community that we work in. Whether it be someone met at the gym or a team mate at a local sporting club, these online associations often compromise who we are and raise questions about our actions. The big challenge is that we are all many things to many people. For some, this is just too much to handle.
 
I have been privy to many a holiday briefing where staff are warned about how they ‘act’ in public over the break. This fear can lead to some staff almost refusing to go out in the community in which they work in, instead going to great lengths to create a divide between their professional and private worlds. Sometimes though, you can never escape past students or parents in the community. I remember a fellow staff member sharing a story about how she bumped into an ex-student at three in the morning a long way from home.
 
I think that this dilemma of trying to create a divide between our private and public worlds relates to our online identity as well. No matter how far you run, how many walls you hide behind, you still leave a trace whether we like it or not. Often we provide information to corporations whose goal is to make money, they often slip with keeping information and accounts private. Facebook, for example, has a long history of ‘accidentally’ changing users privacy settings, switching them from private to public.
 
Although I clearly don’t agree with what Facebook does, my bigger concern is what we put up online in the first place. The big question, in my view, is that we continue to think that we can really have a public and private divide completely separated from each other? We speak to students about the issues associated with digital citizenship, when in fact many of us fail to heed the warnings ourselves.

In an insightful article, ‘On Best Behaviour: Three Golden Rules for Ethical Cyber Citizenship‘, +David Tuffley suggests that:

Eventually, but not soon enough for some, society evolves rules of acceptable use that become established as standard behaviour.

As various sources of technology becomes a part of our everyday lives, we need to consider what these ‘rules’ should be. Addressing our universal actions online, Tuffley appropriates Kant’s notion of ‘categorical imperatives’. He outlines three suggested guiding principles for the ethical use of technology:
  1. Before I do something with this technology, I ask myself, would it be alright if everyone did it?
  2. Is this going to harm or dehumanise anyone, even people I don’t know and will never meet?
  3. Do I have the informed consent of those who will be affected?
Whether Tuffley is right or wrong, I think that it highlights one important factor, that we need to better self-monitor ourselves when it comes to technology. For in the end, our first duty of care should be to ourselves, for if we cannot maintain our own public identity, what hope do students have?
 

Conclusion

Now I am not saying that all the points and ideas that I have discussed here are right, such as connecting in the classroom, but they do deserve to be given due diligence. If teachers are to become more connected, then these are some of the things that need to be discussed. Instead of young potential leaders going offline in the fear that their digital footprint may hinder their climb or locking themselves within their gated communities, we need to discuss these issues in a more meaningful manner. The question that we always need to be mindful of through all of these discussions is what are the consequences of our choices and, in particular, what possibilities are being missed if we make the decision to stay isolated, rather than being connected.

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In a recent blog post on being a connected educator, Tom Whitby suggested that:
The unconnected educator is more in line with the 20th century model of teacher. Access to the Internet is limited for whatever reason. Relevance in the 21st century is not a concern. Whatever they need to know, someone will tell them. If they email anyone, they will follow it up with a phone call to make sure it was received.
The question that it got me thinking was that if not being connected means not being a part of the 21st century, what does it actually mean to be working within the 21st century? There are many contrary opinions out there about what 21st century learning is and what are the skills associated with it. However, the one thing that stands out across all discussions is that to ignore one element often collapses the whole definition.

 

Reading, a Sum of Many Interconnected Parts

The other day, I was discussing the practise of reading with a fellow teacher. Although seemingly obvious now, it occurred to me that although there are various strategies and focuses (inferring, summarising, questioning etc …), they are all interrelated and interconnected and cannot really be taught in isolation. Take inferring for example. Students are asked to refer to background knowledge or text structures in order to develop inferences from the text, even if they are not necessarily the focus (see Harvey & Goudvis Strategies That Work). The reality is to talk about any strategy or skill-in-itself often misses or denies something else that is happening during the process of reading, pushing the other activities into the margins. Reading is subsequently often taught in an isolated fashion, with ‘focuses’ and so forth, based on the effort to structure or organise practices. In this situation, I am reminded of Roland Barthes’ S/Z where he unpacked the different layers of meaning inherent in Balzac’s novella, ‘Sarrasine’. Barthes approach was to be open to the meaning within the text, rather than restrict himself with a predefined focus. This seems in vast contrast to the practise of reading with a ‘focus’ in mind. The question this poses then is whether focusing one particular strategy really constitutes reading? (I have also written about this elsewhere). To me it is comparable to a running through a training drill as opposed to playing a game. Clearly they are related, but are they really the same? 

 

21st Century Learning, A Whole or Many Parts?

In an effort to organise the different skills associated with the 21st century learning, the researchers at ATC21S divided them into four different categories:
Ways of thinking. Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning
Ways of working. Communication and collaboration
Tools for working. Information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy
Skills for living in the world. Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility
Often this division into separate categories leads to people responding to the different parts in isolation. However, when you start to look at the list, you begin to realise that each of the different categories are inseparably interlinked. For example, it is through the use of Blogger that I am able to critically engage with ideas and communicate them with others. The question that needs to be considered then is whether the different categories can really be dealt with in isolation? Are they things-in-themselves or just a way of thinking about the bigger question of learning in the 21st century?

I think that this point is particularly comes to the fore when you consider the use of ICT tools. It is often believed that teaching the tool somehow automatically  equals  utilising 21st century skills. However, in my opinion, this is a bit of a misnomer. Too often the focus of professional development revolves around the use of a particular tool, as that is where the money has been spent, rather than focusing on the skills that are made possible and the changes that this might bring to learning.

Take for example the failure of interactive whiteboards. I was once privy to an inspiring presentation run by +Peter Kent for Promethean. His main point was that the interactive whiteboard offered an opportunity to modify the way we teach and the way students learn. Take this possible sequence of events as a model: after brainstorming ideas, students are invited to come up to the board and engage with the content by reorganising the information, these choices are then used to develop a further conversations, such as ‘why did you make that choice’. This series of events shows the possibility of the interactive whiteboard to not only decentralise the classroom (at least remove the teacher from the stage), but also the ability to engage students in the critical question of ‘why’ they made the decision that they did. Sadly, from my experience, the use of IWB’s has never really gotten past using the boards as an overpriced projector, a part from those few cavaliers trying to lead the way. I feel that there are two things that have inhibited the take up of IWB’s by teachers. Firstly, many staff struggle to utilise the associated software to its full potential (this is often the biggest hurdle), but more importantly, there is often an inability to link the use of IWB’s with the skills of thinking and collaboration. Is it any wonder then why they have never really taken? (I am of the belief that many of the benefits of interactive whiteboards are slowly being undermined by the rolling out of 1 to 1 devices, see Rich Lambert’s blog on the matter.)
 

Thinking in the 21st Century

Once again we come back to the question, does focusing on one particular category really constitute 21st century learning? Does the fact that you are focusing on thinking-in-itself simply equate to focusing on the skills of 21st century learning, rather it means you are focusing on thinking. Would you consider teaching students how to infer as covering all the different skills associated with reading,? Clearly not, it is simply teaching students how to infer. Why then does the same not apply to the different skills associated with the 21st century? When introducing 21st century, it is not about a solitary category or skill, rather it is about the projects, the problems and the many possibilities. There are sometimes in life when the sum of the parts are just different to the whole.

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It’s interesting, when you let go of the usual teacher/student hierarchy, as +Joe Mazza has with the idea of the ‘lead learner‘, all else seems to slowly crumble around it. Take for example the notion of ‘professional relationships’. I am not so sure which of the two words has had the biggest change. The profession to which everything has become seemingly so serious and accountable or the concept of relationships, which in the past were always so haphazard. Let me firstly look at the profession.
 

What’s in the Name?

Often people say that you don’t always choose your family, I think that the same thing can also be said about colleagues and clients (that is what students are, right?) This may have been different in the past where a student could have been ‘expelled’, where they would be shunted off to the next school and then the next school until they eventually flunked out of school. The profession of teaching has changed, subsequently highlighting the how unprofessional such actions are.

These days, students (and parents) have more rights as to where they go, often more power than the schools themselves, with their entrance often more likely to be dictated by location rather than anything else. (I would deem this a question of ethics rather than a question of professionalism.) Some complain that with the introduction of various institutes and the registration of teachers that the profession has become too legal minded. (Often these people are rather nostalgic and believe it was better in the past.) However, the one thing that this recognises is that, whether you think of it as one or not, teaching is a profession. Just like lawyers and nurses, teachers are now mandated to obey a clear set of rules and regulations. (I assume that there were always rules and regulations in place, but creating professional bodies makes them clearer and more explicit.)

One of the key changes is the sense of responsibility associated with the duty of care. When I was growing up, it seemed almost a novelty for a student to quip to the teacher that they (well there parents) will ‘sue you’. The reality today though is that this is no longer a throw away line, it does happen. Teachers are responsible for providing a safe and productive environment to learn, that is their ‘duty of care’. This means maintaining an orderly classroom and adjusting to the needs of each students. (I know it is more than that, I just didn’t want to go into it here.) However, the biggest change that this move towards legality emphasizes is the seemingly arbitrary nature of it all.

Sadly, professional can often equal forced. I was talking with a clinical educator at a hospital the other day about approaches to education. She pointed out the seemingly obvious, that the nurses under her watch were required to complete various modules as a part of their competences to practice as a nurse. As she stated, ‘it’s in their contract’. What this points out is the current trend towards professionalism and the challenge that it brings to authenticity. The strength of professionalism is also its weakness, that is, in making everything more rigid there is something that is lost in the process. The idea of learning because you have some intrinsic desire to be better often goes out the door and is suffocated by the endless list of required learning. The question then is, how does this relate to relationships?
 

Relationships, Just Not Like That

I think that in the past if you’d spoken about having a ‘relationship’ with a child everyone would have looked at you strangely, whereas with the inundation of such measures as Restorative Justice, Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty and Ramon Lewis’ Developmental Classroom Management, relationships have become the heart and soul of the classroom. It could almost be argued that in today’s day and age the ability to build rapport with students is just as, if not more important, than having curriculum knowledge. You watch some teachers from a distance and it seems as if they possess some sort of magic the way they manage to extrapolate work where no work had ever been done before. It kind of seems obvious when you consider any filmic representation of a teacher, from Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers to Kenneth Monnitoff from Donnie Darko, but too often these examples were far from the reality in the past. When I think back to my own past, Mr F’s reward of a Mars Bar (was this gamification in its infancy?) for carrying around the roll all week is the closest thing that comes to mind. (Let’s be honest, I am probably being highly subjective and I’m sure their are better examples, apologies to all my great teachers who have helped guide my learning.) 

I think that the challenge today is to firstly find a way to foster a relationship with every student in the classroom and then to incorporate the new found knowledge to add to the special herbs and spices that make Kentucky Fried Learning, that secret mystical experience that occurs like a bleep on a radar and then disappears once again. It begs the question, what does the notion of relationships mean for a home economics or woodwork teacher? Teachers who may see a student only once a week and see hundreds more on top if that. Surely their experience of relationship is going to be different to the mathematics, let alone English, teacher who may see their student every day if they are lucky. I think that this is where taking extra classes and spending time out in the yard can be so powerful. This time is usually devoid of any notion of curriculum and is often solely about rapport. For example, a science teacher may be taking one of their students for a Japanese extra. In this situation all notion of teacher/student dynamics is broken down as the teacher (unless by chance they can speak the language) is just as much a learner as the student.

In addition to building a relationship outside of the classroom, it is also important to work as a team. Often one of the biggest challenges in starting a relationship is having some sort of entry point. While on the contrary, one of the first ways in which relationships fracture or are stunted is when a teacher may not be aware of an issue or some background information, subsequently sabotaging the whole situation. This is where working with a team and as a team can also be so useful.
 

One Moment at a Time

In the end, I think that the biggest thing to say about the notion of ‘professional relationships’ is that it does not occur naturally, that is, it is not chance, rather it takes time and takes effort. Often it may be a chance occurrence here or magical spark there. That is where developing relationship over years can be so powerful. However, one of the biggest difficulties is maintaining it. For as the saying goes, often it only takes one bad deed to undo ten good ones. The biggest challenge today with being ‘professional’ is persisting and persevering no matter what. The question that remains is how are you building relationships with your students and are they professional?

 


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