It's impossible these days to walk through a school hallway without seeing students on their phones between classes. For better or for worse, texting has become the most common form of digital communication for Americans under 50.
"We know almost everyone has a cellphone, and this generation, particularly high school students, they are snap chatters, Instagram followers, and texters. This is how they connect. In general, they do not look to email or Facebook to connect," said Lisa Blank, a professor of science education at the University of Montana.
For teachers and coaches who work with teenagers, texting may be the most effective way to communicate with students outside of class about assignments, schedule changes or personal feedback.
But it also presents some risks.
As several instances across the state have shown — for example, the high school teacher in Kalispell who recently surrendered his teaching license after texting a student more than 70 times in one class period — it’s also an unmonitored, informal, and more personal way of communicating that can cross professional boundaries if done incorrectly.
"You do have an issue of crossing boundaries that makes people uncomfortable," Blank said. "You can't track as easily if these conversations are appropriate. People are more likely to make statements over text that they would not face to face. We need to think about how to balance this opportunity to connect with the educational value of the tool."
In Montana, each school district is charged with developing its own policy regarding student-teacher texting and social media interaction. Missoula County Public Schools has a policy that addresses social media, but there’s nothing that explicitly mentions texting.
Hatton Littman, Director of MCPS Communications, said the district hasn’t looked into a texting policy, but that expectations about professionalism remain constant no matter how teachers are interacting with their students.
“There’s always going to be some new form of communication out there, and as professionals who have relationships with students, it’s incumbent on us to always maintain that professional boundary,” Littman said.
The MCPS Personal Conduct policy says relationships that indicate “excessive personal involvement” are not professional. If a teacher crosses that line, there are policies in place.
But the lack of guidance around texting leaves it up to teachers to gauge to what extent texting can be part of their professional relationship with students, if at all.
"It's happening on an organic level. Many teachers are using it," said Blank, the UM professor. "I use third-party texting with my students, particularly my advisees, and I find it really helpful. I can be more responsive.
"It would be beneficial to have a teacher text policy so teachers know, can I use it? And if so, are there supports? How do I use it? What does the research say about how it advances learning in the classroom?"
Answers to these questions would help protect the needs of students, families, and teachers, Blank said.
Across the district, teachers are taking different approaches. Some stick to only email, not wanting to risk blurring any lines by using more informal methods of communication. Coaches and teachers of extracurricular activities might give out their personal phone number in case of schedule changes, cancelled practices, or reminders about events.
Others have found apps, which use a third party program through which all messages are sent, is the best way to go.
Even with the challenges of monitoring that professional relationships are upheld over texting, there are reasons to believe text messages can benefit students’ education.
There isn’t a lot of research about this yet, Blank said. But preliminary studies show some very positive outcomes when teachers communicate with parents and students via text or other instant messaging programs in the right way.
A 2012 study by two Harvard graduate students measured what happened when 6th- and 9th-graders and their parents received daily text messages and phone calls from teachers about assignments throughout a summer class. They found that texting helps personalize education for students, and improves their connection to school.
On average, teacher-family communication increased the odds that students completed their homework by 40 percent, decreased instances in which teachers had to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand by 25 percent, and increased class participation rates by 15 percent.
Blank put it this way: “When they felt teachers cared more about them, they were more engaged with school.”
The daily messages also helped parents be more involved in their kids' education, which has been frequently shown to improve student outcomes. Yet the study also has some limitations. Teachers already have enormous work loads, and should be able to separate their home and work lives, Blank said.
Taking time every night to text students feedback and personalized help would be too much. Being expected to respond to a student’s text about a homework question immediately is also a lot of pressure for teachers. But there may be a balance.
Some teachers have found that using messaging apps makes communication more transparent while retaining some privacy for everyone involved. Ryan Davis, the Orchestra director at both Hellgate and Sentinel High Schools, said in the past he used strictly email to update students about concert times, trip itineraries, and other details.
Since he started using the Remind app, he said his trips and classes run much more smoothly. “It has really cut down on a lot of confusion,” he said.
To use Remind, teachers create a class using the app, and then students and parents can sign up for that class by sending a text message. Both the teacher’s number and the student’s number are kept private in the app. Teachers can then send broadcast messages to the entire class, or to just one student or parent.
They can also schedule messages to be sent months in advance, as reminders for certain events or assignments. Parents can see the messages and stay up-to-date on assignments their kids need to complete.
The communication history is never deleted, and can be accessed by the school’s administration. Davis said he prefers that kind of oversight.
“It’s a protection thing for me, as well,” he said. “Because when it comes to texting people through my phone it doesn’t make me feel comfortable necessarily. I think texting students can maybe be perceived a certain way in the community. This is just out there, it's in the open. And I like that, I prefer that.”
Remind is used, according to its website, in 70 percent of public schools in the country.
Davis said it’s also important to him to not be receiving messages on his phone while he’s at home, taking care of his 3-year-old or eating dinner with his family. With Remind, he can turn off his “office hours” and not receive messages.
For the moment, no clear policies or guidelines outline the best practices for texting between teachers and students. As educators choose what feels right to them, students are also learning the appropriate boundaries in their professional relationships.
Blank says the potential is promising, provided all the supports are in place.
"If a teacher feels it contributes to family connection and classroom community, and the school has a policy that protects all stakeholders," Blank said, "I'm in support of whatever creates more connection with families and support for learning."