Teacher Abuse on Social Media: Moral Panic vs Common Sense

The NASUWT (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Woman Teachers), the largest teacher union in the UK, has reported that teachers are facing increasing amounts of abuse on social media (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32145849). About 60% of the 1,500 union members questioned in an informal poll for the union said they had faced online abuse compared with 21% last year. Examples of such abuse included insulting comments, remarks about performance, and ‘in one case a photograph of a teacher was posted online with an insulting word underneath’. Nearly half of respondents (48%) said these remarks were posted by pupils, 40% said they were put up by parents, and 12% said both parents and pupils were responsible.


While this announcement clearly highlights a very important issue faced by many teachers, the statistics are slightly problematic. In the first instance, a key issue is that there doesn’t appear to have been any effort made to distinguish between insulting online comments about teachers and behaviour that reaches out to teachers – an important distinction. Secondly, it’s very likely that a great deal of the kinds of online comments and behaviour described here could only have been discovered through active searching. Therefore, the rise of reported comments and abusive behaviour could simply reflect an increasing awareness by teachers that social media has become a forum for such activity and their willingness to seek it out.


However, it is arguable that the reporting of these statistics reflects a wider and subtle trend related to teachers’ expectations about the kinds of things young people and parents should and should not be allowed to post online and an emerging power dynamic that reflects a new negotiation of authority in schools. Education is inevitably a social context that breeds conflict at all levels, from the national policy level right down to the level of local schools. While certain utopian discourses may talk about partnership learning between students and teachers, the practical reality is that there will always be a certain degree of conflict between young people and teachers, no doubt rooted in a variety of complex factors from power and authority to a simple desire by students not to be in school. Given this constant underlying context in schools, young people have always and will always express this conflict and their dislike of certain teachers, authority figures and even certain subjects among their peers. Given the age and maturity ranges, it’s unsurprising that this frequently takes the form of insults and abusive language.


The difference between now and 20 years ago is that a great deal of young people’s peer-to-peer communication takes place via social media. As a consequence teachers are far more able to find the insults levelled at them than they were when abuse took place behind closed doors in offline interaction. The situation is similar for parents. The practical realities of the education system mean that a large number of parents may disagree with the teaching methods, disciplinary strategies, exam outcomes etc. of many teachers and consequently critique their performances. With social media providing a context for adult-to-adult communication, it is unsurprising that teachers are now more able to find these critiques.


While nobody wants to be criticised or insulted, there is a danger that we are entering into something of a moral panic about social media and teachers’ relationships with young-people and parents. With words like ‘cyber bullying’ and ‘abuse’ being used freely alongside alarming statistics, reports like the survey undertaken by the NASUWT can only contribute to this. A degree of common sense is needed and an acknowledgement that conflict between young people and teachers is an inevitable part of the messy reality of schooling and that insulting comments about teachers, when done on a peer-to-peer level, can actually help diffuse tension in what can be an extremely intense and power-imbalanced relationship with authority figures. It should also be acknowledged that parents, as stakeholders in their children’s education, are entitled to express opinions about the kind of education their children receive and this can to take the form of criticism often about teachers’ performances. In local communities teachers are public figures that play a major part in both young people and parents’ lives. As such they will inevitably be the focus of external conversation and should not have the right to censure the subjects of those conversations, whether on social media, in the playground or in the pub.


These kinds of peer-to-peer conversations, whether insulting, critical or not, should be viewed as taking place within a community of peers. Just because teachers can now eves-drop on these conversations through a Google search does not make them necessarily problematic or damaging to teachers or something that should be condemned. This kind of communication about teachers should be distinguished from behaviour that actively targets teachers online, posting insults to a teacher, for example. This should be seen as active bullying behaviour and should be condemned and the authorities should be involved.


However, conducting surveys that appear to lump peer-to-peer communication and criticism of teachers in with the far more problematic behaviour of targeted abuse appears to be vetoing all conversation about teachers in online contexts. It contributes to a moral panic about online expression and, if anything, muddies the issue of cyber bulling making action against really targeted abusive behaviour harder to take.


Although controversial, it’s arguable that it’s time to move the discourses around education and social media away from the apparently approaching moral panic. Social media is fast becoming a battleground for authority and power in our education system and narratives of victimhood all too easily dominate the debate. Instead, if a distinction is made between in group criticism and out-group targeted abuse, more can be done to stop the latter abusive behaviour and it might be possible to discuss the ways in which exposure to criticism via social media could be used as a way of increasing engagement between parents, young people and teachers and of improving practice.


Dr James Robson

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