I was sitting in a training that included teachers from the k-12 system. The presenter was talking about how to use social media to gather teaching ideas and research. During the discussion, there was some talk about the use of social media in general. One k-12 teacher said that he likes it when his students follow him on Twitter because then he has influence over them, including influence with faith. Yes, he mentioned influence over faith specifically. Let me just say that, yes, as an atheist, I’m bothered by that statement. But as an educator, I’m horrified.
Teachers play two important roles in a student’s life. Teachers impart knowledge and very often have discretionary control over what content is presented. Teachers are also leaders who serve as counselors (unofficially, of course) and role models. Students, especially minor students, are so heavily influenced by teachers that teachers have an ethical responsibility to not only be keenly aware of the influence they have over their students but also to minimize activities that could potentially sway students to think or act in one certain way.
A teacher’s primary job responsibility is to impart knowledge. This task alone requires a great deal of responsibility regarding both work competency (knowledge of your subject area) and bias. Teachers have to make sure that they don’t over-represent one side of an issue. Anytime a teacher presents on a topic that’s controversial, has more than one viewpoint, or isn’t simply a fact, they’re responsible for presenting multiple viewpoints and for working with the facts. They’re responsible for showing students how to use facts to form opinions and develop critical thinking skills. Teachers aren’t responsible for thinking for students.
Faith can be controversial, especially if someone believes they know the truth or subscribe to the one true faith or if we get into church/state violations. But also there is so much variety in faith and ideas about god that teachers have an ethical responsibility to either present multiple ideas about faith/god or not at all. Basically, do a good job of teaching comparative religion or don’t teach it at all.
The influence a teacher has over children as an intellectual and moral leader also makes talking about your faith troublesome for a few reasons. First, children look up to their teachers sometimes for guidance, sometimes for verification of ideas. Teachers have to take care as unofficial guidance counselors that they are showing student multiple viewpoints on an idea and lots of facts. It’s not the teacher’s job to make decisions for students or to encourage students to do as they would do. Second, teachers need to be aware that a child’s world is quite small, and it’s their job to open up that world. If you present only your religious viewpoint, you’ve done nothing to open up the world to a child or to encourage them to think critically about a variety of ideas. In addition, teachers could run the risk giving the impression that their ideas are the right ones, ostracizing anyone who thinks differently or encouraging everyone to subscribe to their worldview. Third, teachers have a captive audience. This kind of goes along with the last point, but when you’re in a classroom with a religious teacher and that teacher openly talks about their religious faith, a student can become intimidated and feel in some ways bullied into believing or acting a certain way. And in some situations, students are actually bullied by the teacher to participate in religious practices in the classroom.
So as you can see, ethically, I have a big problem with teachers who desire to influence children with their faith both in and out of the classroom. I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t have Twitter accounts and talk about their faith while on those accounts. But if your goal is to share your faith with your students for the purpose of influencing your students’ thoughts, behavior, and religious practice, then you have overstepped your bounds.
Social media is scary enough as it is when you have minor children. Do I now have to watch my children’s teacher accounts to make sure they aren’t crossing any lines? It seems that I might. If I had been a parent in that school district, I would have complained to the building principal. Instead, I’ve decided to take this experience as a warning. It seems that even in the “liberal north” teachers need to be reminded of their ethical responsibilities as educators, leaders, guidance counselors, and role models.