Student-teacher texting, write or wrong?
February 22, 2010 6:38 AM   Subscribe

High School Teachers! Would you ever let your students text you about school or personal situations? If you knew of a fellow teacher who was receiving texts from a student, would you say anything to them and how would you approach it?

My girlfriend is a first-year teacher at a public school and she recently moved into a shared classroom space with another teacher. Between classes yesterday, a female student came in to visit the other (male) teacher to chat.

In gf's words: "I'm not sure she knew I was there at first, but she asked "hey so did u get my text last night"? to which he responded "oh, yeah i did" and they got into a conversation about some life problem of hers, about a boy. They didn't mention the text again and i have no idea if he responded. Then we all went to class."

The student is 17, and the teacher is in his mid 30s. He's a great teacher, but often flouts the rules.

My gf's about 100% positive he's not having a relationship with the student, but the very act of texting seems inappropriate to her. She can't find anything in the rules specifically against texting, but there might be something she's missing. She is friends with this other teacher and doesn't want to get him in trouble.

She's trying to decide: Should she say something to this fellow teacher about what she overheard? What should it be?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My high school aged kids do text and email with some of their teachers but it's school related stuff - hs team leader texted a lot of kids about a recent snow day when the decision was made the night before. I think texting kids about relationship issues would be considerably less appropriate. I'm a parent not a teacher though.
posted by leslies at 6:41 AM on February 22, 2010

I work in a middle school. To answer your first question, no, I wouldn't let a student text me, share my Wii friend code (a student asked me once), or anything like that. If they asked I would just tell them that I was happy to talk to them at school and hang out during lunch if they need to chat. If I got a text I wouldn't text back. That's not to say this teacher is doing anything he shouldn't be doing with the student; I just tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to relating to the students.

As to what to do about it, I have no idea. There have to be faculty/staff guidelines for this sort of thing somewhere, I mean as far as your girlfriend is considered. Whatever those say, she should follow them to the letter.
posted by monkeymadness at 6:48 AM on February 22, 2010

I'd think that even if this is on the up and up, it's a liability issue for the teacher, and for the school, sadly. Can your girlfriend ask (without pointing fingers) if there's a school or district level policy on texts, emails, calls, etc. between faculty and students?
posted by availablelight at 6:49 AM on February 22, 2010

Oh, yeah. leslies has a good point; some administrative stuff is suited to texting.
posted by monkeymadness at 6:49 AM on February 22, 2010

I think she should talk to the teacher before jumping to any conclusions. Maybe he gave out his number on the first day of school in case of emergency, and this student decided to text him, and he is now discussing with her that it's inappropriate. Or maybe it was a real emergency (life problem of hers about a boy could be anything from "I have a crush" to "Help, I was raped").

She can always ask "Male Teacher, I'm curious about what Student was saying the other day. Do you text with your students often?"

That being said, back in high school I would have been, like, super-psyched to text my young, cute physics teacher, OMG, I would have texted all my friends about it because he like totally might have been into me, even though my lame mom sometimes spies on my text messages! He should tread very carefully.
posted by sallybrown at 6:57 AM on February 22, 2010

When I was teaching high school/middle school (right out of college), I had a limited texting philosophy. Because I was a music teacher that would often go up to school during long breaks to rehearse with small ensembles (2-4 kids), I'd get their numbers and send them a text to let them know when I'd be up at school.

If/when I go back to public school teaching after my grad work, I'd probably be more careful about it.

Nthing that he should tread very carefully.
posted by SNWidget at 7:09 AM on February 22, 2010

The texting is not the problem: it could just as easily have been an email, it's just the informality of text which sets the alarm bells ringing. So I would respectfully suggest you're jumping to conclusions based on minimal evidence.

If I thought anyone at the school where I work was receiving even slightly inappropriate messages from a student, I would rat them out to the head in moments. But i wouldn't want to be wrong about it.
posted by BrokenEnglish at 7:11 AM on February 22, 2010

I have a friend who graduated college at the same time I did, only she went the Education route. She took a job far from home. She had a hard time fitting in in the new town, as a young teacher. After a year or two she became a coach, and as part of her coaching she shared her cell phone number with her girls, who spread the number to anyone who wanted it. Fast forward a year, and students text her with questions/comments/etc.

Fast forward one more year and she got arrested and fired for illicit texts. I personally think the whole situation is blown way out of proportion, and that's not what I posted here to talk about. What I posted here to talk about was.......

How very very simple it is to spoof text messages. If anyone ever wants to ruin your friends life, they'll send a dirty text message "from" his/her phone and it's really all game over from there. Proving who sent the message is hard. Proving you *didn't* is close to impossible.

This is especially confounded when there are already texts between the two people, because you can't differentiate between legit and spoofed ones.

When working with kids or any population where being in a position of authority could be abused by the wrong person, you must remember:

The appearance of impropriety is as damaging as actual impropriety.
posted by TomMelee at 7:11 AM on February 22, 2010 [13 favorites]

I'm a high school teacher, and hell no would I let kids text me! The only electronic contact I have with students (and their parents) is through the board e-mail server. The only phone contact I have is through the school phone system. I would never give a student my personal e-mail or Facebook account. It really is all about liability, as well as maintaining appropriate boundaries.

Should your gf say something? Hm. I wouldn't say anything official. Maybe a "Wow, you're pretty involved with Jenny. Are you sure she's not reading too much into it?" or something of that nature (i.e. don't accuse the teacher of being inappropriate--express concern for the student). Things can get extremely awkward in shared classroom spaces between two teachers if they don't get along, so I'd be wary of creating offense, particularly when you're a first year teacher and need all the help you can get. Your gf could also certainly get away with asking the administration what the official policy is on texting since she's new and could easily pretend it was just for her own reference. She could then say to her colleague "I thought the official policy on texting was blah blah blah, but I guess in reality it works a bit differently?". You know, play the new teacher card and pretend she wants guidance when she's really giving him a heads up.

Regardless of policy, I'd say that texting is never a good idea, even for administrative stuff. I'd maintain a class website your students can check for updates or use the board server instead. As a teacher, I feel a lot better if every contact I've ever had with students and parents is through an official channel and has been backed up for future reference. Maybe I'm a little overcautious that way, but I've seen some pretty nasty disputes involving teachers, and the best way to protect yourself is to make sure you never engage in any contact which could ever be considered questionable. If you text a student administrative information, you're opening yourself up to them being able to say you texted them pretty much anything, and how could you prove otherwise six months after the fact?
posted by Go Banana at 7:28 AM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Substitute call and email for text.

Would you ever let your students call you about school or personal situations?
Would you ever let your students email you about school or personal situations?

Communicating with students about school is beneficial to students. Personal issues? Sounds like the teacher has poor boundaries. This can lead to trouble. A too-close relationship between a needy adolescent and an unwise teacher can easily become sexual, resulting in a teacher getting fired, or, worse, , going to jail and being tagged as a sexual predator for life. In some cases that predator tag is accurate, probably not in all cases. Smarter to have well-defined boundaries.

As a parent, I wouldn't be upset about a teacher communicating with my child, as long as the roles were clear, and the teacher seemed professional.
posted by theora55 at 7:31 AM on February 22, 2010

I have to apologise, I'm also not a teacher, but a parent.
I would say "it depends". I believe it's pretty standard in tertiary courses for lecturers/teachers to provide their students with their mobile phone numbers, and becoming more so in secondary schools. I gather that SMS messaging is much more common here in Australia than it is in the US and in many circumstances it's replacing telephone calls.
My daughter is doing VCE at high school, which is years 11 & 12. She is almost 16. I'm pretty certain she has the school email addresses & mobile phone numbers of most if not all of her teachers, & I'm also pretty sure she has the home phone number of at least one of one them. (It's 2am here so I won't wake her and confirm.)
I'm pretty sure the students are given these contact details with the understanding that they are not to be used without due reason. And they are only for discussing class work.
If he is discussing "personal" issues with her, and he doesn't also have the role of "student co-ordinator", "counsellor", "pastoral leader" or whatever the equivalent may be, then he might want to reassess some boundaries.
I agree with the above posters that she should approach him gently and just express her concerns .
I'd use something like "hey, I just happened to be here & overheard this conversation the other day. Can you clarify the policy on this for me as I'm not sure what the official guidelines are and I just want to be aware of what my boundaries should be in similar situation?" and see how he reacts from there.
posted by goshling at 7:32 AM on February 22, 2010

As a former high school teacher (and current college instructor) there are huge red flags about what this teacher is doing. Teachers should not be giving relationship advice or acting like a sounding board about relationships - if a student really needs to talk to someone the teacher should direct the student to a guidance counselor who is trained to keep appropriate boundaries. Texting is what you do with friends and family not students. Casual friendships with students can have disastrous consequences - one of the best teachers at my former school lost their job and their license to teach do to a friendship with a student gone awry. She should definitely say something - these things get out of hand way too quickly.

My first year teaching I gave a student my home phone number because he was going to be out 2-3 days a week for over a month. It was a disaster - 3+ calls a day, parents and school administrators had to get involved..... Since then I have used school email as the only form of communication between me and my students because all communication is on the record.
posted by a22lamia at 7:47 AM on February 22, 2010

There is a teacher in my town who is currently sitting in prison, and will be unable to teach anywhere anymore.

This being because texts easy to retrieve by law enforcement (and the guy used horrible judgement).

I would not do this.
posted by Danf at 8:22 AM on February 22, 2010

Wow...I'm really surprised to see this many people saying it's inappropriate. I know when I was in school texting wasn't really a thing, but these days texting is all these kids do. They are CONSTANTLY clickety-clicking on those phones of theirs. This is just how they communicate.

Second point: What happened to the 'If you ever need to talk to someone, I'm here' sort of line? I had a couple teachers in high school that I could confide in...I could talk to when I didn't want to talk to my parents about it. Sure there's a line, and texting sexual remarks and stuff like that is obviously a stupid thing to do...but being open and available with your students is HUGE.

I commend the teacher for making himself available and being willing to help a kid with a personal situation. As long as it doesn't cross the line, it's over-and-above what a public school teacher is expected to do. I wish there were more teachers like that when I was younger.

Note: I say this as the father of a 4 year old boy. He's not in school yet, and I expect that our relationship will be open enough that he can talk to me about anything....but when he feels like he can't talk to me about something, I hope there is someone out there willing to talk to my son and steer him in the right direction.
posted by AltReality at 8:53 AM on February 22, 2010 [7 favorites]

Middle school teacher here: I would absolutely, positively be sure to tell that teacher he was risking his job, if I were your girlfriend. And if he seemed to brush it off, I would probably ask an administrator to clarify the school's policies of good boundaries with students to the entire faculty. It doesn't matter if your girlfriend is sure that nothing is going on- the female student involved is entirely capable of inventing something going on or pushing the boundaries so subtly that the male teacher is in over his head and unable to do much about it even if his intent is not to be inappropriate.

I also speak as someone whose good high school friend ran off with her public school band teacher- leading to them both leaving the state, and to him never teaching again, and to criminal charges being investigated (although he was never charged, because she had terrible parents and they didn't want to bother to pursue it)- and it started with him helping her with some personal problems at home. She was desperate for some male attention and tada! badness ensued.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:12 AM on February 22, 2010

Second point: What happened to the 'If you ever need to talk to someone, I'm here' sort of line? I had a couple teachers in high school that I could confide in...I could talk to when I didn't want to talk to my parents about it. Sure there's a line, and texting sexual remarks and stuff like that is obviously a stupid thing to do...but being open and available with your students is HUGE.

There are conversations that you want to have in person and ones you want to have in writing. I can't imagine why you would ever want to have a personal conversation with a student in writing unless it is the student admitting in writing that they are trying to ruin your reputation. Because otherwise? Ruining your reputation.

And no smart student should be putting personal situations in writing to anyone that they don't want their friends and relatives reading in court later.

If I was a teacher and I needed to communicate about a snow day to a student and I just felt I HAD to text that info? I'd text it to the student's parents or appointed guardian.
posted by amanda at 9:49 AM on February 22, 2010

Also, to more specifically answer your GF's question: if she's friends with the male teacher, why not ask him about it? This could be a really great conversation about how this other professional manages (or doesn't) the boundaries between students and their teachers. Boundaries are important, right? Kids (and adults) these days!!
posted by amanda at 9:51 AM on February 22, 2010

When I was in high school, we had teachers who were there to talk, but we didn't have theri personal phone #s (though we did get some after graduation). If we did talk to a teacher about some personal issue, the teacher usually refferred the student to the guidance counselor / school nurse / other appropriate school entity to deal with the issue adn would accompany the student to said office and "vouch" for them. It's all about liability and when I was in school the student understood this as well so we knew that it wasnt mrs. smith being an uncaring bitch, but mrs. smith will try to help us, but can't be our personal crutch because crazy parents might think we are having sex.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:56 AM on February 22, 2010

Are we missing some of the context? It sounds like he didn't even respond to her text, since she had to ask if he'd received it.

And I realize there's a liability problem but I am so grateful not every grade school teacher is perpetually watching their back. Parents are often not available or safe to talk to. If teachers are also not available, that just leaves peers.

"hey, I just happened to be here & overheard this conversation the other day. Can you clarify the policy on this for me as I'm not sure what the official guidelines are and I just want to be aware of what my boundaries should be in similar situation?"

Does she really want to be aware of what her boundaries should be? Or is she using the question as a reproof? It sounds like the latter in this example, which would make this approach dishonest.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:14 AM on February 22, 2010

If the student had to ask the teacher if he got the text, that sounds like at least he didn't respond to it. That makes me think that perhaps he gave his number out to all his students (which isn't that uncommon), and the student is the one who is crossing boundaries. That being said, the teacher needs to know how to protect himself, so maybe he would welcome a non-judgmental conversation about what you overheard?
posted by katypickle at 10:20 AM on February 22, 2010

For context, my district's avoid-litigation-by-not-putting-yourself-in-iffy-situations training every year includes this document. They will not defend any teacher's actions that run afoul of these guidelines, no matter how well-intentioned.

If a student contacts me outside of class, they do it through my district e-mail, which runs through district servers and is archived as a public document. I have teacher friends who "friend" students on Facebook etc. and give out their cell numbers, and I have (politely) told those friends that I don't think it's a very bright idea to blur those boundaries. No one has been angry with me, and one or two have rethought their interactions.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:40 AM on February 22, 2010

Wow. I just hate the idea that public school teachers are more concerned with watching their backs and not about a student's problems. A Student is going to be more trusting with a teacher that they see almost every day than a school counselor that they rarely if ever see.

One step closer to home school every day. :(
posted by AltReality at 11:54 AM on February 22, 2010

You don't gotta look at it like that. It's not us-versus-them. There are guidelines which can be followed by teachers that can help the student w/o placing them at risk, and, further, you MUST be on the defensive because it's your career, your lifelihood, and your freedom at stake.

For example--you never let a door close on you when you're 1 on 1. You never go anywhere 1 on 1. You don't bend over when you give hugs to wee ones, you don't touch at all when you're by yourself. That's just a start.

All this teacher has to do to help this girl w/ her relationship issues are (ok, well first he shoulda sent her to the guidance counselor so there was a paper trail about what he was talking to her about) ask her to have someone else join the conversation. Best friend, another trusted teacher, a peer counselor, whatever. That simple.
posted by TomMelee at 12:00 PM on February 22, 2010

I'm not a teacher or a parent, just by way of full disclosure, but I think there's one other facet here that it would be good to keep in mind.

While it's important for teachers to have appropriate boundaries to safeguard themselves, their liability, and their careers, as well as the school's liability, I think it's also pretty valuable for young people to start to learn what solid social/professional boundaries are. Good boundaries are critical to maintaining good trust relationships & safety for everyone; it's not a bad thing for adolescents to learn these alongside other social skills/lessons learned in middle/high school.

I think that text conversations about personal issues between school staff & students is, at minimum, treading too close to a boundary line that shouldn't be crossed.
posted by dryad at 12:15 PM on February 22, 2010

I think it's also pretty valuable for young people to start to learn what solid social/professional boundaries are.

Yes! This is a very valuable skill that will help kids grow into successful adults. I feel like all this openness is actually harming kids' coping skills. There's a reason why adults are not always the best friends for kids. They need to act as role models and that includes setting boundaries.
posted by amanda at 12:58 PM on February 22, 2010

I think it depends on the school/city, and the context.

Some teachers at my school do text with students, although not very often, and almost always related to academic issues ("Don't forget to come in early tomorrow to finish your college application!") I have had students text me to explain why they were late to class or ask about missing work. Yes, I'd probably prefer an email through the school's website, but this is easier for the student.

I can think of some context when a text about a personal issue is reasonable - if a student is worried about something going on socially, maybe that they'll get in a fight with someone after school, and texts the teacher to update him that they got home safe. Or in this situation, perhaps the girl texted to say that she couldn't do an assignment because of something going on with some boy. Yes, it'd be better if the student didn't have to worry about these things, or if the student had a parent or other adult to rely on for this sort of support, but it doesn't always happen and sometimes the responsibility falls on the teacher. And it sounds like there was just the one text, that this teacher didn't respond to, so any personal stuff could happen at the school.

I'm not sure what gf's purpose is in talking to the teacher, but as a first year teacher, calling someone out on this could definitely come out the wrong way. small_ruminant's script sounds excellent.
posted by violetish at 2:35 PM on February 22, 2010

Wow. I'm so sorry to see that nearly all of you believe that student-teacher boundaries need to be so high and so strong these days. When I was in middle school and high school, I got so much out of deep, extended conversations with a few teachers. We didn't have no text messages back in the day, but those conversations, which went way beyond what was relevant to school, were so formative and so valuable.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 5:24 PM on February 22, 2010

I had a teacher who gave her phone number right before major holidays (e.g. Thanksgiving, Christmas). I thought it was really odd until I heard her explanation:

She'd had a student commit suicide over Christmas break, the kid was so depressed and isolated and had a pretty good in-class relationship with this particular teacher. So, after that incident, this teacher started giving out her number on the last day of class before these extended holiday breaks as a kind of "use in emergency" thing. A couple of her students actually did call her-- one was seriously pondering suicide, the other was being sexually abused.

I don't think my high school had a particular policy forbidding it, but she was one of those teachers who would do it anyway as a humanitarian gesture.
posted by Yoshi Ayarane at 9:09 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Of course not all situations are the same.

Personal anecdote: When I was in high school (less than a decade ago, which is still ages by technological standards), a teacher gave his IM name to all his students "for homework help." It was less than a year before he was asked to leave the school system for having inappropriate relationships with his students.
posted by citywolf at 8:00 AM on February 23, 2010

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