The annual North Dakota Council of Teachers of English conference in Mandan this week provided ND English teachers the opportunity to collaborate and reflect on their profession. One of the sessions involved discussing a Young Adult Literature text in small groups. The book, Period 8 by Chris Crutcher, is popular among young readers. It provided teachers a unique discussion about possible teaching strategies and literary strengths/weaknesses.

The novel centers around a group of high school students who attend a voluntary open period during their lunch hour, which is called period 8. This group is led by Mr. Logsdon, a teacher at the end of his career who develops strong, open relationships with each student in his room. His rapport with students is so strong that he works out with them, texts them, calls them and they feel comfortable stopping by his house at random hours when they are distressed. He plays a vital role in helping students find safety from destructive environments.

It is this behavior that led discussion participants to decide whether or not Logsdon is an effective teacher. Everyone agreed that his strong relationships with students made him a great teacher. In fact, one ND English teacher explained that the most effective teachers are those who have strong student relationships. West Fargo officials also recognized this during the 2008-2010 school years and encouraged “Relationships” as one of the BIG 5 components to the staff’s educational philosophy.

Recently, the process of developing and maintaining strong student relationships has come into question. With the recent false accusations against Aaron Knodel that led to a faulty investigation, five criminal complaints, a trial and possible reinstatement, the discussion of student communication remains the focal point.

The WFPS School Board and Superintendent Dr. David Flowers emphasized this in his statement July 13th. He said, “Our focus is on questions of behavior and judgement, and whether any ethical lines were crossed that would cause us concern or influence recommendations regarding Mr. Knodel’s employment in the district.” The fact that Aaron was exonerated from the false accusations will play no role in his reinstatement. Officials are evaluating his communication with a student and whether “ethical lines were crossed.” The only statistics available from this communication is the number of calls/texts sent and received and the communication time. The final district decision is on the agenda for the July 27th board meeting and my next post will reflect on that decision.

As a teacher and a co-curricular coach, the concept of evaluating ethical boundaries based on communication volume and communication times is deeply concerning. I have hundreds of communications with various students through various media (texting, voice calls, Snapchat, Twitter) each school year.

Here are a few text conversations I have had with students the past few months:

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This conversation refers to the day we were taking our group photos. I could not attend school due to illness. Notice the candid language used by this student.

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Here is another text conversation from the national journalism convention trip last spring in Denver. I require students to text me back immediately so I’m constantly aware of their whereabouts. The two eating location requests were accompanied by several phone calls so I could check on the student.

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This text conversation was last month during yearbook camp. Students had an 11 p.m. curfew, but chose to stay up in their rooms and work on their yearbook projects. I offered assistance via text messages. Notice the times of these texts. This assistance continued for another half an hour.

If an outsider evaluated my communication volume and time period without content, the perception of my communication could be skewed if accompanied with false accusations. Even as Aaron was exonerated from the criminal complaints, the public remained focused on the volume and time periods of communication discussed during the trial process.

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These comments concern me because of the role today’s teacher plays in a student’s life. Effective teachers no longer limit communication to classroom direct instruction. Understanding the various methods for extending instruction beyond the classroom differs between digital immigrants and digital natives. This article suggests that the former struggles understanding the communication methods of the latter. (Sidenote: The article also discusses how companies are creating a CXO – Chief Experience Officer, to guide customers’ experiences. A perfect example of how teachers need to prepare students for positions that do not currently exist) Properly preparing students for success is nearly impossible without expanding learning and communication beyond the classroom walls.

The agents at the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation simply focused on times and call volume without the content. (Sidenote: former Towner County Sheriff Vaughn Klier said BCI agents “…think they’re above the law.”) BCI agents used the communication volume statistics, in addition to the misinterpreted colleague comments and the unqualified hand writing analysis, to make the accusations against Aaron seem legitimate. Now that those accusations have been proven false, the fact that district officials and public perception see a specific volume and time frame of student communication as possibly unethical without knowing the content concerns me.

As a dedicated, passionate educator who wants to give students every opportunity to find success, it is difficult for me to see perception skewed over the volume and time of student communication. It seems as though teachers might have to choose between assisting students, who are digital natives, through various modes of communication or maintaining strict communication policies, possibly weakening student rapport and losing effectiveness along the way. That is a sad reality.

Stay tuned for:  “Reflection regarding WFPS board decision” Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his nine year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us

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