Digital Identity Search

I thought it was a great idea.  My school issued laptop, a 2010 Macbook that I have used, abused, and then some, has been running very s.l.o.w., the spinning wheel of death appearing in the middle of my screen at very inopportune times (hey, I’m trying to buy a purse here!).  With renewed energy for the new school year, I decided to tackle the problem.  Clearly, the hard drive was too full and in need of purging and shifting files to external drives. I was up for the challenge and thought it could even be kind of fun,  a little nostalgic journey  through my accumulated digital artifacts.  With three external hard drives at hand, I decided to spin off and backup the content of my computer according to the following plan:  one drive for personal stuff, one for student-produced content, and one for professional files.  You can probably guess where this is going.

According to my digital artifacts, my personal and professional lives are wholly intertwined. My digital photo library tells the story of a teacher/ mother/ community volunteer/ friend who blurs the lines between the professional and the personal.  Documents, videos, and photographs capture the many ways that my family has been involved in my school community and the multiple ways that my roles as mother, citizen, student, and teacher overlap and intersect.  I found happy photos representing moments of true contentment. There is one picture of my son Dylan and his friend Thomas standing next to two of my students. My colleague Pat and I are standing next to them.  We are at the Maryland History Day competition, and the four teenagers are wearing medals around their necks.  I am smiling, a proud mother and teacher sharing the moment with my colleague who is also a friend.  We look tired. It’s a Saturday morning during the busiest time of the year, but we were glad to be there together, having enjoyed the chance to talk and linger over coffee while waiting for the results. Once the picture is taken, we will all hug the photographer (the boys’ History teacher), each other, the kids, and their parents.  Where does this picture belong?  There are many like this: my children at school functions, my parents at community events where my students are being recognized, my husband working with community organizations at my school, and many competitions where I am both a judge and a mom.  My life clearly rejects my categories.

This makes me  wonder if I ever did pay much attention to the notion that teachers should maintain separate personal and professional identities.  There seems to be much concern about that right now with regards to teachers’ personal social media use.  I distinctly remember sitting through a faculty meeting a few years ago in absolute disbelief.  Our principal presented to us a county mandated training on “Crossing THE Line.” Most of the examples provided focused on online communication.  Don’t ‘friend’ students on Facebook.  Don’t send professional emails from your personal email account and vice versa.  Don’t respond to students’ emails, only their parents (really?).  Other warnings crossed over into our personal time.  Don’t accept invitations from students’ families. Don’t meet students outside of school.  Most of the examples suggested that being a teacher was somehow in opposition to being a person, a parent, or a member of the community.  I remember feeling outraged and saddened as one by one teachers presented hypothetical questions that were met with answers that could only be described as condescending and inhumane. If I had actually tried to keep my personal and professional lives separate, I really wonder if I would still be teaching. 

I spend a lot of time these days thinking about issues of online presence, privacy and security, as well as perhaps more important concepts of the risks and rewards of transparency.  danah boyd talks about a collapse in contexts in online spaces that requires youth to negotiate multiple invisible audiences.  As educators, I think it’s important for us to experience that phenomenon for ourselves.  For me, there really is no doubt that the risks and rewards of transparency and the mingling of contexts are bound up in the risks and rewards of leading an authentic and fully engaged life. When I think about my own collapsed contexts, a familiar picture emerges.  In addition to personal friends, I am friends with colleagues on Facebook, and former colleagues, as well as former students, former parents, fellow grad students, my family members and their family members (many of whom are educators), my professors, my children’s friends, and many elected officials and community leaders. It’s cliche, but what a rich and vibrant tapestry! I want our lives to be intertwined. I want community leaders to know what the life of a teacher is really like (with all the messy, meaningful crossing of lines).  As I consider whether or not to create professional, in addition to personal, identities on social media sites, I think that my digital artifacts hold the answer to that question – that’s not my life, and I probably couldn’t untangle those identities to tell them apart, anyway.

 

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About emsingleton

I am the Co-Director of the University of Maryland Writing Project and a Gifted and Talented Education Program Resource Teacher in the Howard County Public School System. Also, I am a Ph.D. candidate in English Education at the UMCP with a focus in 21st Century literacies. Through my work at the UMdWP, I am also interested in teacher community learning. I am the proud mother of two young adults and three spoiled cats.
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4 Responses to Digital Identity Search

  1. Sarah says:

    I struggle with the idea that we must have distinct categories in our lives, too, Beth. One of my dissertation themes was wholeness, in fact–a prevalent theme for the teachers in my conversations was that they had to be whole people in order to be effective teachers. More so (in my opinion) than in any other profession, teaching is being. You capture that well.

  2. Michelle Koopman says:

    Your description of the required training reminds me of the training we have every year at which we are told to NEVER touch our students. I make an effort to break this rule every day! Tomorrow (the first day of school), when my children from last year come through that front door you can bet that I will be literally jumping for joy and delivering (almost) rib-breaking hugs.

  3. So happy to hear all of your resounding “no” s to the idea that we must somehow shuck our personal selves to be good teachers. Michelle, I would not have been able to teach elementary school without touching my students, from helping them wash their hands to their frequent wardrobe malfunctions and what if I had? Think of the message that would send to kids. And the idea that we should try to segment our lives, having no non-school contact with students, is maddening. I embarrassingly once misquoted this to Janet Emig who wrote that “indeed impersonal learning, like the notion of objectivism itself, may be an anomalous concept” So, if learning must be personal, as it most surely is, how can teaching be anything but that, and who would want it to be otherwise?

    It brings me to another question though – who is the middle man in this kind of directive? If you were my kid’s teacher Michelle, I would be so sad if you did not hug them, help them up if they fell etc. And when my daughter’s Kindergarten teacher showed up at one of the student’s birthday party’s every parent said what a dedicated and wonderful TEACHER she was – tying her care for students to the work she does. (Not to mention her rock star status to every 5 year old there) Who, in this equation, believes that the kind of segmenting Beth so wonderfully describes is good for teachers or learners?

  4. rmhessong says:

    You are so right, Beth, when you say, “I probably couldn’t untangle those identities to tell them apart.” How can one untangle pieces so intimately connected and blurred that they are, in fact, all part of the same? I’m thinking of a chemistry analogy (which is coming from who-knows-where); you can separate the H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, but then you no longer have water. If it’s water you want, you need both together, just as if you want the whole Beth, or Rebecca, or _________ (pick your teacher), all the components must be in the mix. Any other version would be incomplete, hollow, and ineffective.

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