By Kevin Lungwitz
Once upon a time there was a one-teacher schoolhouse on the rolling plains of the Upper Midwest, where 20 students from agrarian families gathered each day for class. When a parent wanted to discuss matters with the teacher, the parent had to show up in person. There was no principal. Although you can catch it in reruns, the days of Little House on the Prairie are over, and now school employees are connected to students and parents 24/7.
Technology and the ability to be connected 24/7 has created the biggest “doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t” scenario. We are all expected to be “on” all the time; but being “on” all the time, or at the wrong time, can lead to a variety of trouble. Having the ability to communicate with everyone all the time does not mean we should. Are there new ways of thinking about employee communications with parents that could benefit everyone?1
Texting vs. Email
I like texting, but I rarely allow texting in the professional relationships with my clients for two reasons: First, it erodes boundaries. Clients need to know that except for deadlines, emergencies or by appointment, I am not available late at night and on weekends. (I often work at night and on weekends, but clients don’t always need to know that.) Second, I cannot easily keep a professional record of the text exchanges. I need a record of my client communications stored on my computer where they will be easy to access and read. Call me old-fashioned, but email does exactly all of that. Texting does not.
There are always exceptions, but I avoid giving my clients my cell phone number, because that is the gateway to weakened boundaries. I now have the ability to receive calls to my office on my cell phone, and when I return the call, my office number appears on the client’s caller ID. This is some pretty cool technology that allows me to stay connected as I see fit, without sharing my personal cell phone number.
For communication purposes, is your relationship with parents any different than my relationship with my clients or a doctor’s relationship with her patients? Educators need boundaries, now more than ever. Also, educators need to have an institutional record of the business communications with parents and students. Texting does not easily allow for this.
What about the need to text legitimately important information (i.e., PTA meetings, band concerts, sporting event updates, etc.)? Consider using a texting application that allows an authorized user (i.e., the principal, the coach, the band director, even the math teacher) to send a one-way text blast to a specific population. As principal, you should be on the recipient list of all of those groups. Texting can be a great way to reach people with important information. Restricting that to authorized, one-way, group text blasts will eliminate the boundary problems created by normal texting.
By the Way, Texts about Work are Discoverable
One more word about texting: It seems school employees—especially management—got the memo 5-10 years ago that nosy lawyers and parents might ask for their emails under the Texas Public Information Act. So, school officials stopped emailing and started texting each other about professional matters. Those texts are arguably just as discoverable as emails and even more dangerous. Since school officials believe texts on their personal phone are not discoverable, they tend to be unvarnished and can cause more heartburn once they are disclosed.
Slaying the 24/7 Dragon
We just established being “on” 24/7 is the key to weakened boundaries. Add morale burnout to that list. No matter the medium, if you are expected to be on 24/7, your professional career will be shortened. Administrators can do more to help staff. You should inform staff at August inservice a law was passed last year that gives school employees (including you) the right to not share their personal phone number or personal email with students or parents, and you do not expect them to do so.2 Tell your staff to work with parents through school email and school phone to the best of their ability and that you will do the same.
You can also inform staff that, except in extenuating circumstances, they are not expected to communicate with parents between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m., or whatever reasonable time frame works for you and your staff. Teachers grade papers late at night. Administrators attend meetings and school functions most nights of the week. Most people know educators work long hours, and work will continue, but wouldn’t it be nice if you eliminated the expectation of late night communication with parents?
Telling your staff is one side of the coin. Communicating this to parents is the other. This is where campus administration can be heroes to staff. At the start of the school year, inform your parents of the new law discussed above and that staff is not expected to share their cell phone or personal emails. Further, staff will not communicate with parents between certain hours. My daughter’s school implemented this rule last year, and parents mostly reacted with a “Well, that makes sense, and it’s about time,” attitude. If a parent is able to communicate with an educator late at night, the parent will assume it is OK to do so, and then it will become an expectation, through no fault of the parent. Once ground rules are established, parental conduct and attitude will change.
Deciding to give your cell phone number to the PTA president—or if the volleyball coach decides to give her cell phone number to the volleyball booster president—is a choice that could legally be made. On the other hand, educating your parent-leaders about new rules may actually be the best place to start spreading the news.
Social Media and Private Communications
So far, this article deals with the implied expectation staff must professionally communicate with parents 24/7. You have some managerial control over your staff’s professional communications. You have less control over their private communications. Employees have a First Amendment right to speak privately about matters of public concern as long as they do so on their own time and equipment, and in a manner that is not harmful or substantially disruptive to the school environment.3 Staff may even have a First Amendment right to peacefully associate with whom they please. Parents have even greater First Amendment rights, since they operate as free-wheeling civilians, unencumbered by governmental employment limitations.
When parents go rogue on social media and are openly critical of you, your staff and your school, it is usually best to let that flame die a natural death. Counter-punching on social media will drag you into a fight that is not fair. You will be held professionally responsible for what you say by your employer and maybe even TEA. The parent has no such restrictions.
You have a right not to be defamed and you can take legal action if you are defamed, but that is a tough row to hoe and a legal lecture best left to another day.4
1This article will not directly address inappropriate student-educator communications, a topic worthy of its own title. Suffice it to say that good communication boundaries are key to good relational boundaries in all respects.
2Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 38.027. View your school district’s policy DH.
3Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 103 S.Ct. 1684 (1983); Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968)
4See, Kevin Lungwitz, I’ve Been Slammed on Social Media, TEPSA News, September/October 2015.
Kevin Lungwitz is TEPSA’s Outside General Counsel.
TEPSA News, August 2018, Vol 75, No 4
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