It happens. Frustration regarding a particular issue in a school or between colleagues spills over into open criticism in an online environment. This can lead to significant distress to members of that school community who are on the receiving end of that criticism. The fault-finding voice may choose to remain anonymous or they may choose to put their name to their claims, either way this will prompt reaction from those affected.

So, how do we deal with these matters, as a school, so that we strengthen ourselves as a learning community and resolve our differences?

Schools can develop a social media policy or a professional code of conduct with a set of guiding principles that include behaviour expectations in response to provocative situations.

While a school may put policies and principles in place to guide behaviour, the hardest thing to do is not react to what is posted online and respond  directly to the criticism. This reflects badly both on us, our colleagues and the school as a whole. Even if you feel the matter is personal, we are still representatives of our schools and we should talk it through with a supervisor.

If it is clear who made the comment or post, then it is important to find time to talk it out in person. This is easier said than done and may require a school leader, counselor or staff representative to help facilitate the conversation. One could, of course, sweep it under the carpet, which could possibly lead to frustration, anger and resentment in the long-term that is not helpful to all involved.

If is is unclear who posted the comment, then we may be itching to speculate who is behind it, which we then discuss with friends and colleagues. While it is important to talk about it, there is the possibility that our colleagues, as well us ourselves, may become even more worked-up about the criticism and we may not be able control any decision of others to respond. This may exacerbate the situation. Again, it is best to discuss the best course of action with a school leader that you know can be calm, rational and supportive. It is likely that they will find a way to speak with those affected and advise on how to respond.

When anonymous comments are posted online and specifically aim to criticize us, it is important that we remember the following:

  1. If we respond, we may not present ourselves and our schools in the best light.
  2. We have to keep working hard to build a school culture where people feel able to voice concern or opinion respectfully without fear of repercussion. Even if we work in a school or lead a team where we think that this may be the case, there will still be people who will not be able to have difficult conversations in person despite our very best efforts – we must accept this as part of life.
  3. Comments in online forums are often generalized and may be unsupported, without evidence to support the view presented. In fact, an online comment may be made about a particular situation or event that does not fit in with a broader pattern or picture and, therefore, detracts from the good things we do in our schools.
  4. An online post may be simply one person’s opinion and, more often than not, do not support the views of others. This opinion may be based upon something very personal to the individual who posted the comment about a decision that they did not take kindly to, for instance. Remember, school leaders cannot please everybody. Often, provocative comments about school matters raised in an online forum say more about the the person posting the comment, than they do about those on the receiving end. Most sensible people will know this.

Let me clarify, however, that I am not dismissing comments about a school and its staff that may be posted online as being absolute garbage. There could be an element of truth in their comments that make us pause and reflect on our own actions in asking hard questions of ourselves to improve what we do. In the end, we will only grow and improve our school and working relationships, if everyone understands that conversations matter most and this means face-to-face or side-by-side conversations.

If you are an educator that works hard, openly seeks feedback and leads with integrity, you will know if you have the backing of those you lead without having to worry too much about what one person may say in an online environment, as personal as the criticism may feel.