Updated 8:11 a.m. ET Friday
In case you missed it, a Baltimore dad struck his 15-year-old daughter’s teacher with a baseball bat last week. The teacher’s offense? Texting the daughter in what the father deemed was an inappropriate exchange.
The baseball bat notwithstanding, it’s easy to understand why many parents have a strong reaction to a teacher texting their kid. After all, creepy adults abound, and teens can be vulnerable prey. So, by extension, it’s tempting to want school districts to ban all such communication between teachers and students.
Even relationships that start out as innocent can take a bad turn. Better safe than sorry seems, on its face, the wisest course.
But research suggests it’s not that simple.
While certain safeguards that ensure texting can be monitored should undoubtedly be in place, the easy back-and-forth between teachers and students can create important bonds, especially for young people who are in need of extra help.
“Teachers are the first to spot trouble for kids who are at risk—kids with mental health issues, sexuality issues, problems at home,” says Danah Boyd, whose book, It’s Complicated is an anti-alarmist polemic that examines the social lives of networked teens. “These are kids who need more positive adult relationships, not less.”
Others who’ve looked deeply into the issue—the possible dangers weighed against the likely benefits—have reached the same conclusion. Mica Pollock, an education professor at the University of California, San Diego, found in a study published last year that texting “increased personalized student support by enabling, then strengthening, teacher-student relationships.” Pollock and her co-author, Uche Amaechi, a doctoral candidate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, spent a year following two teachers who texted with 40 at-risk high school students from Somerville, Mass.
Still, among parents, the most common reaction to teacher-student texting is fear. “I know teachers who are afraid to even give kids a hug because they are afraid to be sued,” Pollock says. “There is a lot of anxiety on all sides about the appropriate way to interact. But there is no teaching without teacher-student bonds, so the question is how do we form those bonds safely and effectively.”
This is a question all schools are facing—not just those with large at-risk student populations—given that texting is the primary way teens communicate.
Many school districts have created guidelines that allow teacher-student texting, but limit exchanges to school-related topics or confine them to group texts that would, for example, allow a coach to tell his team that practice has been cancelled or a teacher to direct a group of students to be prepared to answer a particular prompt during the next day’s English class.
But in their texting pilot, Pollock and Amaechi, along with the teachers and students they followed, came up with ground rules of their own—mostly to foster one-on-one exchanges, respect and to set some limits on encroaching on the teachers’ personal time: “Do not expect a text back before 8 a.m. and after 10 p.m.; no inappropriate language; and no sharing of anyone else’s business.”
They did not, however, set any limits on content, maintaining that the mix of personal and school-related messages were key to forging genuine trust and caring.
Texts were about school “mixed with lighthearted communication about life events and student needs,” Pollock and Amaechi found in their study.
Perhaps most important, the teachers in the texting pilot used technology that allowed them to use non-personal phone numbers and enabled texting over the computer on school accounts—providing both the transparency needed for safety, and the feeling of privacy that texting affords.
Most experts agree that this kind of balance is ideal.
“We should not ban the technology,” says Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at the department of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has studied sexual misconduct by teachers for 17 years. “It is here to stay, and it can be useful in education. But we can create guidelines that allow teachers to use it without blurring or crossing any lines. It has to be open and transparent, where everyone knows that it can be monitored.”
Indeed, it is fairly common for schools to insist that teachers and students communicate via email using open school accounts. In part that’s because adults are comfortable with the idea of using multiple email addresses—one for their work life and another for their personal life.
But they have a harder time thinking of texting in the same way—something that needs to change. According to a Pew Research Center study on teenage use of mobile phones, the percentage of all teens that used text messaging doubled from 27% to 54% between 2006 and 2010. More importantly, the study found that 70% of teens use texting to do "things related to school work."
“Kids use text the way we use email,” says Amaechi who is working on a dissertation that examines how students and teachers use mobile devices in the classroom for academic purposes and to communicate. “We have built the rules and polices around the technologies that adults use most—and not what kids use.”
“For kids, their phone is the most important thing,” he adds. “The first thing is to accept that as the reality. Kids want to interact not just with each other, but also with adults through texting. If you limit their ability to text, you are limiting their interactions with adults in ways that could be beneficial to them.”