It is Easter, and Easter is the time when teachers’ unions hold their annual conferences. It is not unusual for the British Press to cover these conferences, providing stories of a discontented workforce who are threatening to strike over the testing of children, as well as the publication of league tables. The same is happening this year, with reports that at least two of the main teaching unions are threatening to boycott this year’s Key Stage 2 ‘SATs’.
Additionally, this year, the subject of social networking sites and its impact on teachers has received attention media. The ATL (The Association of Teachers and Lecturers) conducted a survey, along with the Teacher Support Network of UK teachers on the use and experiences of social networking sites. Findings from this survey were discussed at the ATL conference and have been covered in the press. The news reports have focused on the cyberbullying of teachers by pupils and teachers, contributing to a popular discourse of the Internet as a dangerous place, where teachers are at risk.
The survey, however, was not focused solely on cyberbullying, but also asked teachers about their use of social networking sites.
The results show that the use of social networking sites is increasing, and so, it can be deduced that social networking sites are not purely the domain of young people. 57% of respondents to the ATL/Teacher Support Network survey reported having a profile on Facebook. A quarter of respondents also reported that their schools use a range of Web 2.0 applications (such as wikis and blogs) to support learning and teaching. The need for young people to use such technologies was highlighted in the recentRose Review on Primary Education, so we should, perhaps, expect this number to increase in the future. However, over 40% of the teachers surveyed reported that their school or LEA has a policy restricting the use of social networking sites, with half of these banning their use in schools altogether. So, in other words, in school at least, pupils do not have unbridled access to social networking sites, the Internet has not entirely invaded the offline world, and it is possible for schools to restrict access to such sites.
However, it is the issue of the cyberbullying of teachers which has received most media attention. Cyberbullying, is, according to ATL an example of the “darker side [of] social networking”.
BBC News used the results of the survey to claim that “pupils are increasingly using social networking sites to bully and undermine teachers”, while the Telegraph led with the headline: Teachers being ‘victimised’ on Facebook. These are dramatic claims, suggesting that this is a widespread problem which is happening to every teacher in the country, with any child who uses social networking applications under suspicion.
Actually, the ATL survey revealed that 94 of the teachers it surveyed reported that they or someone they knew had some experience of cyberbullying. This amounts to 1 in 7 teachers having some experience of cyberbullying, though not necessarily direct experience as a victim. So, even the figures from the ATL survey do not suggest that this issue is a widespread problem.
Nevertheless, the range of experiences that some teachers report are disturbing. For example, respondents described the setting up of ‘hate sites’, sometimes containing false allegations of illegal activity, while others reported that pupils had posted videos of teachers to YouTube. Unsurprisingly, teachers reported on the stress that had resulted from such actions.
However, it should be remembered that it is not the technology that is the problem, per se. Social networking sites do not cause cyberbullying. Where hate or resentment of teachers exist, pupils and parents will find other ways to express this, if technology is not available to them. Therefore, it is no use following the technologically determinist route of seeking a solution to cyberbullying within the technology.
Further, as the survey reported, teachers, as everyone, need to be aware of the information that they share. Nearly a quarter of teachers reported that they or a colleague had been advised to remove something from their social networking profiles. Internet Safety awareness, already identified as an issue in protecting children, may well also be needed so that adults can protect themselves online.
You can download a pdf of Cyberbullying: Supporting School Staff here. This publication recognises the harm that might be caused to school staff as a result of cyberbullying and provides advice on responding to and dealing with incidents.