The Facebook Quandary
March 21, 2011 Leave a comment
Reading this post by Steve Jaffee on social media policy prompted a bit of a discussion here in the office, as while we often discourage teachers from interacting with students via social media due to the current complexity of the medium, particularly the security settings in Facebook which remain intentionally obscure and complex, we have true mixed feelings about going into our collective future with outright prohibition.
As a young teacher in the 80s, the convention for teachers was to be completely unlisted in the phone book to deprive students’ access to their teachers’ personal information (in practice it was mostly to avoid decorative toilet paper technology). I never fully bought into that ethic, as I felt the need to provide some means for my students to contact me in an emergency. While my address remained unlisted, my phone number was published in the phone book, and students took advantage of that exactly three times, all for life-threatening events in their or their friends’ lives. As Steve points out here, personal boundaries between students and teachers are not so clean and official as an outside observer might assume. Teachers of younger children often become surrogate parents with deep and lasting relationships, and that dynamic does not come to an end when a child leaves elementary school, rather it becomes even more complicated and volatile. Successful students are still in need of personal mentoring, intervention, and occasional responses to emergencies by teachers.
I currently “Friend” former students, students still in our school system, and I do so with mild trepidation, carefully installing them in their tightly constrained “Students” list. This allows me to look in on them as I wish, and gives them a means to contact me should they have the need. It does not give them access to my posts, photos, profile, and other interactions on Facebook. I say “mild trepidation,” because I have had technical issues with Facebook in the past that rendered my security settings utterly nonfunctional. They work now, but I have no idea when they may revert to their nonfunctioning status. As a result, I post to Facebook in a professional manner as if it may be viewed by those students, hoping for privacy, knowing it’s possibly not perfect. If I was still teaching and I lacked a district-provided web portal, I would establish a professional page on Facebook as a one-way communication device, and the means by which students could contact me off-campus. That’s not student access to personal information, but it is access to me in an appropriately defined context.
It’s probably going to take another generation or so before we work out the details of the current social contract, and we’re going to make errors in both directions. It’s important to keep thinking about school culture and relationships, and to mind the well-being of all parties without choking off meaningful interactions that let education happen.