Teacher, Mentor, Facebook Friend

Should educators allow students to ‘friend’ them?

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I have 621 friends on Facebook—no, wait, 623. I just accepted two of my 10th grade English students’ friend requests. In fact, well over half of my Facebook friends are current or former students.

Why does this feel like a confession? Because the only teacher-student relationships normally deemed interesting are those that end in jail time and a scandalous 30 seconds on The Insider. American audiences soaked in reality TV and infamous-everyman-of-the-moment gossip luxuriate in stories of execrable behavior, especially when it centers on someone in a trusted profession.

Couple this suspicious misunderstanding of social networking with sensationalist media, and parents are bound to paint cautionary crosshairs on teachers who have student Facebook friends.

Those concerned about electronic social networking feel that sites such as Facebook and Twitter are pedophile thoroughfares designed to assist sleazy teachers on the prowl for young flesh (there’s an app for that?). Surely the only reason a teacher could possibly have for wanting to be friends with students on Facebook is for the express purpose of sexually exploiting them.

This fear sometimes drives policy and legislation. Last summer, Missouri passed the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, which was designed to protect students from sexually predatory teachers. The act—named for a woman who, in 1980, was repeatedly sexually abused by her middle school teacher—included language that prohibited teachers from being in contact with students under 18 on any website that allowed private communication. This effectively made it a crime for teachers to accept Facebook friend requests from students. To their credit, Missouri educators fought back, and the “Facebook ban” language has since been declawed.

Debating whether it’s appropriate for teachers to connect with students through Facebook is like arguing about whether students should be allowed to talk to their teachers outside of class. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are by now fully integrated aspects of who we are as social beings. The electronic forum is essentially the same as the quad, student union or water cooler. Social conventions still apply in the electronic public space. My students are well aware of meme propagation and words that travel at the speed of light, and they craft their online faces as carefully as they craft their in-school faces.

So please, let me briefly go over a few advantages to having your kids connected with their teachers on Facebook and try to dispel some of your fears.

First, getting individualized help at school is difficult. Classes of 40 students shuffled through in 55-minute blocks of time is hardly enough to keep up with group learning. Before- and after-school tutoring is an option, but many students have extracurricular activities or have to catch transportation home to babysit or go to a part-time job.

Thus, students fairly routinely message me with questions. This is gold to an English teacher. In the vast majority of cases, students are quite aware of their audience and compose their communication with care and diligence. In the few instances where this is not the case, it becomes a teaching opportunity and an invitation to revise.

Some might argue that teachers can use official Clark County School District websites like My.CCSD.net, a place on the web where teachers can post assignments, review materials, and podcasts, as well as host forums and class discussions. But if you think any but the most energetic students go to My.CCSD.net, you are severely out of touch. The same goes for suggestions that teachers set up class-specific Facebook pages. Those languish in Internet backwaters. Anything having to do with studying is, for the most part, studiously ignored unless it is placed directly in a student’s path. And that path is composed of well-trodden social networking sites.

Second, teachers are urged to identify, address and report bullying—and, as we know, cyber-bullying is all the rage. This is, of course, because there is no longer a distinction between our electronic and physical social lives. While students may be afraid to report a bully at school, teachers can be passive monitors of online student interaction and identify potential sources of trouble.

Third, in order to more effectively teach, we are continually being urged to go beyond the lecture, to build appropriate mentoring relationships with students. This requires teachers to understand their students’ lives in ways that often touch on the personal. Teachers can address student needs better if they understand what triumphs and disasters the student faces outside the classroom. A 15-year-old breaking up with her one-and-only true-love-for-life is almost laughable from an adult perspective, but it is often a tragedy of momentous proportion for the kid. The birth of a new family member, divorce, anger at parental controls, getting a part-time job or a driver’s license: All are important. Just the fact that the student knows you know—even if no words, typed or spoken, are exchanged—builds stronger ties.

Teaching requires an almost parental level of engagement with young people. It is not uncommon for children to spend more waking hours with teachers, counselors and coaches than with their own parents. Those who choose to violate boundaries aren’t going to do so in a public space, electronic or otherwise. If Mr. X wants his electronic fingerprint all over his skeazy activities, he is just making himself easier to detect and making the prosecutor’s job that much simpler. And inappropriate relationships with students can unfold in a quiet classroom after school or in a gym’s empty locker room just as easily as in a public online social forum.

In 1980, when the young Missourian Amy Hestir was sexually manipulated and abused, her teacher didn’t have Facebook. The last time he raped her was in a church coat closet.