Should Teachers Friend Their Students?
On Facebook, how classroom rules do and do not apply.
In real life, people don't just usually walk right up to you and ask you to be their friend. Little kids do, I guess, but adults generally see that sort of question as just plain weird. I think of this sometimes when my students friend me on Facebook—adding yet another layer of complexity to the question of how best to balance the teacher-student-friend relationship—a layer of complexity that just five years ago did not exist.
Many schools have responded to this new reality by creating official Facebook policies. But mine is a private high school that trusts its teachers to behave responsibly until, I suppose, someone doesn't. Nonetheless, in an effort to avoid potential controversy, I told all of my students at the start of the year that they could only be my friend on Facebook after they graduated. It just seemed easier that way.
But my self-imposed policy fell apart earlier this year, thanks in part to a spunky gymnast named Tara Potts. Tara’s dad teaches American history across the hall from me, and despite her tendency to sleep through my class last year because of her grueling training schedule, Tara was always one of my favorites. This year, injuries and perhaps sanity pushed her to finally quit gymnastics, enabling her to come to class with a lot more energy—energy with which she proceeded to badger me every single day to let her be my friend on Facebook.
Her dad was already my real-life friend—the sort of jovial, laid-back kind of guy to whom I wrote good-natured notes on his daughter’s quarterly grade reports suggesting that he might improve her GPA with an upsurge in beatings—and eventually I figured, “What the heck? Why not?” One afternoon I caved and finally approved Tara’s friend request. As expected, the floodgates opened and my friend collection has now bloated to the point where I look like one of those shallow people who defines himself by his absurd number of acquaintances.
Have I, as a result of this, fallen into all sorts of inappropriate relationships with my students? Do they forward me dirty pictures and propose scandalous midnight rendezvous? No, of course not. My students receive plenty enough cues from me during the school day to know better than to expect me to tolerate any hanky-panky online. Teachers live their jobs more than most other professions, accountable for their behavior not only in and out of school—but now on Facebook, too.
While it does bother me that in only five short years Facebook has managed to single-handedly distort and degenerate what the term “friend” really means, it is a reality that is better faced than feared. As an educator, I am glad for yet another opportunity to engage my students. Teaching is a fabulous shortcut to learning, and Facebook is a wonderful learning tool—a gift, even.
I have often had cause this year to use Facebook as an easier, quicker form of communication—one that my students are 10 times more likely to check and actually respond to. With it, I have tracked down missing assignments, informed students of last-minute changes to after-school programs, and even kept in touch with a number of my favorite graduated seniors—who continue to make my other, non-school Facebook friends laugh by referring to me as "Mr. Barkey" on my wall.
This is not, however, the greatest benefit I have received from the relaxation of my Facebook principles. The internet (as you may have noticed) has started to fill up with really interesting, creative stuff. As a 30-year-old, who can still remember when the internet did not exist, I have trouble forcing myself to sit around staring at a computer screen all day, sifting through the garbage. Enter my students, who cast about with their hundreds of little pop-culture savvy eyes, snag the most interesting gems, and link them either to their Facebook pages or email them directly. I not only have nifty reading material and videos at my personal disposal, but also a whole lot of ways to ensure that what I'm teaching is not only purposeful but also relevant.
Does Facebook friending have the potential to be a really ugly thing in student-teacher relationships? Yes, of course it does. But we can either bemoan the dangers and whine and complain about the way Facebook breaks down traditional, hierarchical classroom structures, or we can be grateful for a creative new platform on which we can engage our students.
For the time being, I will continue approving my students' friend requests, with thanks to the pioneering, somersaulting Tara Potts.
Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.