Overcorrecting for abusive teachers
When technophobia infuses a herd mentality in a climate of public hostility toward teachers, otherwise reasonable people lose their grip on reality. I am talking about the latest craze to ban or severely limit the digital contact between teachers and students.
Here in the U.S., 7.2 million teachers work with students from grades pre-kindergarten through 12. Some dozens of these teachers -- .000007 percent of all teachers -- have abused their power recently to sexually abuse minors. While empathizing with the suffering of those kids and their families, not to mention those children whose suffering continues undiscovered, we have to agree that the number of sexually corrupt teachers is very, very, very small relative to the population of our teaching force.
Because a subset of this few have accessed the private space of kids with the help of technologies that include cellphone and online social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, some of our political and educational leaders are advocating laws banning all private conversations between teachers and students. The interpersonal line between teachers and students is getting too blurry, they say. Problems arise when kids know too much about the personal lives of their teachers, and vice versa.
Once upon a time Missouri teachers lived in the homes of their students, moving from family to family throughout the year so that the whole community might share the expense of boarding. That it might be possible to know too much about the person who is teaching you is a thoroughly modern notion.
And besides: "It's like taking cars away from everyone because of what drunk drivers do," says a 30-year classroom veteran. Actually, there are far more drunk drivers per total number of drivers than there are active child-abusers among teachers; alcohol-related crashes account for the deaths of thousands of people, including minors, every year. Yet we would never even consider taking everyone's cars away.
Furthermore, even before there was any such thing as improper digital interpersonal relations, or a digital on-ramp to outright pedophilia, there were teachers taking advantage of kids. Most of us can name both the teachers and the kids we knew firsthand whose relationships veered into a domain that we (outsiders) recognized as illicit. Our technologies are only making easier what has been going on for a long, long time. Teacher charisma exists on a spectrum that ranges from the entertainingly engaging, to the warmly supportive, to the seductively guru-esque. (Not all gurus are dangerous. They are simply potentially dangerous.) The point is, all good teachers use whatever interpersonal skills they have to get kids to learn.
The appropriate response to the expanded frontier of sexual predation is expanded education and conversation for kids and adults both. Parents are responsible for teaching their children what we believe they should be doing with their bodies and hoping that they (more or less) do it.
But what we believe they should do changes as they mature. How to integrate what they do with their bodies with what they do with their tools is something we all need to be talking about with our kids from the moment they have access to the tools. In other words, while child abuse is never the child's fault, children still need rules for the tools.
Districts and schools rushing to establish technology policies governing teacher behavior (in Missouri these policies are due next spring), need to drain the hysteria around this topic.
All teaching and learning takes root in what students already know and can do. Many more students know stuff about using computers, phones and other things with batteries and screens than know how to read books. Teachers who incorporate technology into their practice to teach kids are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Whether it's developing in-class Wikis or blogs, or following up on a student's homework question via a text message, or posting a message or assignment on Facebook, or guiding classes toward useful internet sites for research, or any other of the myriad ways teachers are exploring and documenting, all of this is moving the field into the future because the future is where students are heading.
Of course, as educational practice pushes forward, our questions need to be about how to maintain parental access to school-related goings-on. I'm all for sensible guidelines around technology and communication in schools. But any guidelines must be designed to nourish, not destroy, the mutual trust and accountability among parents, students and teachers.
Inda Schaenen is a writer and teacher in St. Louis. To reach Voices authors, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.