Friending your students – a researcher’s perspective

When I was in Form 6 (today’s Yr 12) I had a teacher who gave us his phone number so that we could contact him if we needed clarification about the work we were doing out of school hours. We knew that on certain nights he had umpire training and wouldn’t be home until after 10.30pm.

Did I ever call him? You betcha I did, and so did the other students from our class. Even after 10.30pm on some occasions. He was an extraordinary teacher; a real father figure who guided us and believed in us. Did we ever abuse the privilege and hassle him? Never. We respected him and would do anything he asked. I still hold him in high esteem and hope that I am modeling the kind of good teaching practice he lived and breathed.

Danah Boyd, Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society , has recently posted on her blog this post, ‘When teachers and students connect outside school ‘.   It’s a common sense post in my opinion. Refreshing really. There is so much she says that I see as valid when it comes to this discussion. She makes these important points;

The fear about teacher-student interactions also worries me at a broader societal level. A caring teacher (a genuinely well-intended, thoughtful, concerned adult) can often turn a lost teen into a teen with a mission. Many of us are lucky to have parents who helped us at every turn, but this is by no means universal. There are countless youth out there whose parents are absent, distrustful, or otherwise sources of frustration rather than support and encouragement. Teens need to have adults on their side. When I interview teens who have tough family lives (and I’m not talking about abuse here) but are doing OK themselves, I often find that it’s a teacher or pastor that they turn to for advice. All too often, the truly troubled kids that I meet have no adults that they can turn to for support.

I worked in a tough Govt. school for many years. (The same school I attended as a teenager as a matter of fact!) Many of the students there needed supportive and well intentioned adults around them who were looking out for their best interests. In quite a few cases, the only people in their lives who met that criteria were their teachers. These were the kids who’d turn up at school on pupil free days even if they’d been suspended the day before.  School was the structure lacking in their lives. There were kids there who I gave my phone number to, kids who needed a supportive adult who would be there for them to listen when life was tough. Not a whole lot of those kids rang me, but I know they appreciated me showing them I cared. 

One of my former students is my hairdresser now. She convinced me awhile ago to join Facebook and become a member of the school’s alumni group. So many of my former students have added me as a friend and left kind messages. Quite a number of them are the kids who would put you through the wringer in class. These are the kids who say, ‘Hey, great to see my fave teacher here.’ It’s amazing really. You see how much influence you have had, influence you may have never realised without a forum like Facebook.  

Danah offers this when discussing whether or not teachers should be adding students in social networking sites;

Teachers do not have to be a student’s friend to be helpful, but being a Friend (on social network sites) is not automatically problematic or equivalent to trying to be a kids’ friend. When it comes to social network sites, teachers should not invade a student’s space. But if a student invites a teacher to be present, they should enter in as a teacher, as a mentor, as a guide. This isn’t a place to chat up students, but if a student asks a question of a teacher, it’s a great place to answer the student. The key to student-teacher interactions in networked publics is for the teacher to understand the Web2.0 environment and to enter into student space as the mentor (and only when invited to do so). (Translation: teachers should NEVER ask a student to be their Friend on Facebook/MySpace but should accept Friend requests and proceed to interact in the same way as would be appropriate if the student approached the teacher after school.) Of course, if a teacher wants to keep their social network site profile separate from their students, they should feel free to deny student requests. But if they feel as though they can help students in that space, they should be welcome to do so.

I have had current students request that I be their friend on Facebook and I’ve hesitated. I haven’t added them, but I’m not sure it would be problematic if I did. I’m highly conscious of my online behaviour and enter these spaces as a teacher, first and foremost. One of my students is on Twitter and I follow her. I do so to support her in that online environment and we often speak at school about something that may have popped up on Twitter. It is a mentoring role and because I use Twitter as a professional tool for learning I feel very comfortable about this.  

It’s a debate that will continue I have no doubt. I encourage you to read Danah’s post and reflect about what you feel is appropriate. Danah leaves her post with these questions;

What do you think is the best advice for other teachers when it comes to interacting with students on social network sites? When should teachers interact with students outside of the classroom? What are appropriate protocols for doing so? How can teachers best protect themselves legally when interacting with students? How would you feel if you were told never to interact with a student outside of the classroom?  

I wonder what your answers would be. I’d love to hear them if you care to leave a comment.

The comment thread on Danah’s post is interesting to read. John Heffernan shares this (and I’m sorry John, there is no link to a blog that you may be writing. Are you,  I wonder, the John Heffernan who writes children’s books in Australia?) ; 

I wonder if Socrates was walking in the Agora, would he stop and talk to his pupils outside of teaching time?

Teenager’s Agora is now predominantly online.

If Socrates was alive today, where would he sit and would he still be charged as “corruptor of youth”?

 

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15 Replies to “Friending your students – a researcher’s perspective”

  1. Great post Jenny. I am an English teacher in NSW, and my personal rule is to only let Year 12 students friend me. And you are spot on – only ever accept, never request the friend contact.

    The whole thing is a very big deal up here. Some school Principals have told their staff directly that communicating with students through social networks is forbidden…but when pushed, we don’t get a straight answer on whether this is policy or an informal rule. I think it should be governed by the same ‘duty of care’ rules that apply to any other interaction.

    1. I think we are only at the beginning stages of the debate Kelli. So many administrators have probably not yet even fathomed what social networks are about. I just hope the discussions are kept in perspective and take a commonsense approach and not the heavy handed dictate from above approach that so often happens in our increasingly litigeous world.

  2. I see there being two things that are different from when I was in High School. First, in the US at any rate, any teacher ACCUSED of student/teacher misbehavior is publicized in the media, whether the claim is true or not. Many teachers have been wrongfully accused by an angry student and later proven innocent. However, if proven innocent, this is often not publicized and the teacher’s reputation has already suffered.

    As a result, a teacher who shows too much interest in students is suspect automatically. While this is unfortunate, it is a fact of life. Teacher interest, therefore, would need to be very public. As facebook is suspect among older users as a tool for preditors, teachers friending students would be suspect.

    The second concern is that many students on facebook reviel information that as a teacher, I may be required to report to officials. While a student might trust me with confidential information that they want to be just between us, or they may not see as something I would report to officials, I may have to report it, especially if it is in writing. As a result, I would prefer not to put myself or the student into that situation.

    This doesn’t mean I can’t support them. I have begun to create links with students AFTER they have left my class.

  3. Very relevant post Jenny. I have also been thinking about this after I read Danah Boyd’s article.

    My policy here in Finland is similar to Kelli’s, ie. I never ask students to be my friends on Facebook. Mostly it has been students who have already left school, and it is so nice to get in touch with them, just as Jenny described. But some present students have asked as well, and I have accepted. However, I don’t actually go browsing through their profiles, and only ever interact with them online if they initiate it.

    Our society is much less litigeous than in many other countries, but there has been talk in the press about administrators starting to work out policy guidelines for all teachers about interacting with students on social network sites. Interesting to see what they will come up with!

  4. Hi Jenny,
    topical post – my thoughts are about legal liability and I do not have a Facebook page for student access because I do not want to be put in a position where I might have to report something that is on their page.

    I spend time in class lecturing about cyber safety and professional digital footprints – so I’m not sure how I could do that and also ignore some of the images and conversations that go on on kid’s sites.

    However, I have added students as friends on social collaboration Nings. Before I do that though the class has already had the coversation about representing themselves professionally, we have already seen examples of what to and what not to do and we go from there. Nings have chat functions and students can be my ‘friend’ and chat to me within the learning space – and so all behaviour is the same as if we met in the hall at school. My class Wikis also have discussion forums which can operate in the same way.

    This is my preferred way of connecting with students in a forum they know well…and yes I do give out my phone number to Year 12s, I have never been prank called and, as exam time approaches, they definitely DO use it. Once I had a call from a student in December who just wanted to tell me how she went on the exam – she just thought I’d be interested and I was…

  5. Great post, and definitely some food for thought. Personally, I love running into students outside of school, but I also strive to create an effective work/life balance, and so I don’t like when my personal and professional lives collide. As much as I enjoy talking to students outside of school, this puts me back into a different ‘work’ headspace, and so would having them as friends on facebook. I’ve chosen to use twitter as a professional tool and facebook as a personal one, and hopefully, never the twain shall meet.

  6. I am making the move from middle school to high school in the fall as a drama teacher and really want to use Facebook for communicating info about productions.

    I decided to take on a separate profile from my personal facebook profile (I just changed my name slightly and used my school email address as my main contact). I will not accept friend requests as it will not be necessary. I will make a group for our productions where we can write on the wall, post pictures, … but I will totally be in control of it. I will invite students to join the group so it will be private. If they want to get ahold of me, they can email me at my school address (just like everyone else at school). We’ll see how it goes!

    My rule on my private page is “I will not friend a student unless:”
    1. they are no longer a student in my school or
    2. I haven’t taught them for at least 5 years.

    Of course, I keep my facebook page fairly clean since these students, even though they are now adults, still think of me as their teacher! It is a great way to keep in touch with students that I taught over the last 18 years.

    Hope this is helpful!

  7. Great post Jenny! Very timely. We have been looking at the issue of Cybersaftey at my school and I recently attended a presetnation by Susan Mclean the Cyber Cop on it. She raised a very pertinant issue, in the VIT Code of Conduct Principle 1.5 d. it says: Principle 1.5: Teachers are always in a professional relationship with the students in their school, whether at school or not
    Teachers hold a unique position of influence and trust that should not be violated or compromised. They exercise their responsibilities in ways that recognise that there are limits or boundaries to their relationships with students. The following examples outline some of those limits.holds conversations of a personal nature, or has contact with a student via written or electronic means including email, letters, telephone, text messages or chat lines, without a valid context. That was very difficult for me to hear as I had current students as friends on Facebook. I suspect if anything happened we wouldn’t have aleg to stand on legally. I have since deleted my current students (even though most I what I was saying to the students was about the subject I teach or providing them with the link to the school portal when they lost it etc) which was very hard to do as I felt like I was taking a big step backwards.

  8. Hey Jenny,
    Great post! We’ve talked about this and although it’s not relevant to my position, my rule is, that no matter what I do online, I am teacher and therefore must always follow our behavior codes. And I know we think the same. Lots to debate!
    Cheers Nina

  9. Thanks for this timely post Jenny and for the ensuing discussion.
    It is a murky area. I have both current and former students on my Facebook – all of whom have requested my friendship. I manage the access they have by using the lists feature and privacy settings. So current students see only a limited version of my Facebook page. Our school has a public Facebook page and a library Facebook page – both of which I administrate. Because we are an international school with a transient population of students, teachers, alumni and parents, Facebook provides a unique way for us all to remain in touch with the school and each other. We are conscious too that Facebook provides us with a great opportunity to model positive online behaviour to our students.
    I also use a Ning with the elementary students to facilitate reading and sharing books. They have had fun creating and using their own space and I have been amused and amazed at their creativity and interesting discussions. Again it is an opportunity to demonstrate, in an authentic way, the importance of appropriate online behaviour.

  10. Hi Jenny, This is such a big issue right now, as the other comments bear out. At the moment we are trying to set up guidelines for teachers and students, and a lot are based on common sense. At present we use facebook for the Year 12 English students, but it is private and for education-based issues.
    There has been much discussion about letting past students on to mentor and share their ideas and advice about all things “English”. Personally I like the idea, as it is easily controlled and/or monitored by the teachers, but we have to convince others.
    The discussions about the personal-public use of the facebook are still going on. At present teachers are advised not to add current students as friends and not to friend students. The aspect that has caused a lot of discussion is about just how much responsibility would be expected of a teacher if they found out something about a student’s activities (even by accident)? By that – could a teacher be held responsible (or to what extent) if there was information about something could be self-harming. Who should you – would you report worries to? If a student asked a teacher was to keep something private how far should or would the teacher take that?
    I have my ideas but there are others who see things slightly differently. We are still talking and trying to work out the boundaries and the guidelines so the discussion here is really invaluable.
    Thanks for the post

  11. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to leave a comment. Obviously there is much to discuss about this issue. Ultimately, I hope a commonsense approach takes precedence over a dictating from on high prescriptive approach from school organisations and representative bodies. As Rhonda and others point out, the discussion is valuable.

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