color-networkI just read this article in the Houston Chronicle, and it’s got me in a tizzy again.  Just reading that a teacher’s union representative would say this drives me crazy:


Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said she would advise members to avoid connecting with students on social-networking sites, though the Houston Independent School District doesn’t have a specific policy about it.

“Ninety percent of the time it would be OK,” Fallon said. “But what do you do with that one whose parent goes nuts: ‘What do you mean you’re my kid’s friend?'”

I’ll tell you exactly what I would say to that “nutty” parent.  First, I would point out that we teachers are human beings and members of the community in which our students live.  I am just as likely to bump into a student at WalMart as I am to see them online.  What makes the latter more dangerous (to the student and to my career) than the former?  Lots of child molesters troll for victims in public places, so what makes them safer than public social networking sites?  If you watch your kids at the supermarket, why don’t you monitor them online?

Second, I would remind the parent that making a connection with a student has been shown to be one of the most important factors in academic success for that student.  If a child feels that the teacher cares about him, he learns more.  It’s that simple.

Third, I would ask the parent why there is an assumption that contact online is inappropriate.  What educated adult in this era of digital records would believe that he or she could write something improper to a student on a social networking site and not get caught?  Call me naive, but shouldn’t you assume that a teacher has the best intentions until you see otherwise?  Why do you thank me profusely for phoning your child to see if she is okay after being out sick for several days, but assume that an electronic copy of the same message is laced with sexual innuendo?

Fourth, How am I supposed to find a good babysitter in a pinch from amongst the plethora of qualified former students without Facebook?

4 thoughts on “Cyber-paranoia

  1. Hi there – just found your blog via Twitter, thought I’d say hello and leave a comment. You make a great point that a key element to prompting student learning is a solid connection with the teacher. But I disagree that it’s good practice to make this connection though online social networking (ie MySpace, Facebook). In my opinion, social networking relationships imply peer-ship; I think it’s important to be friendly with students in order to foster a positive working relationship with them, but I also believe that it’s important to maintain boundaries with adolescents, particularly with regard to the distinction between caring-friendly (non-peer) and caring-friend (peer).


  2. Jonathan,
    I’m glad you found your way here and I appreciate the conversation. I agree that social networking sites can create the sense of “peer-ship” (great word, by the way), and that can be a problem. I try to counter this attitude in the way that I interact with current and former students through sites like Facebook. As others have noted, it is often useful to make a clear distinction between the two. I interact much more with former students who are now in high school, with whom a certain level of camaraderie is acceptable. Current students occassionally attempt to create a more friendly relationship than is appropriate, but I make clear where the line is.

    I think that the idea that “friending” someone on Facebook implies that they are a peer is changing. Remember that celebrities and performers build online profiles to promote themselves and give their fans a way to connect. That may be the future of this technology.


  3. I agree that there’s a difference between social networking with current students v. former students – I think it’s a clearer distinction for those of us in high school / secondary ed programs, but I can see how you’d naturally be more open with a student who’s not your charge anymore. The more interesting part to me is that I think you’re right on in pointing out that our cultural norm for “friend” is changing as a result of that term’s use by online social networking (not ideal, but understandable … I don’t think they would be very successful in getting us to click on a button labeled “associate”). But I think that’s exactly part of my reason for keeping the line distinct, particularly with students, along with the fact that communication is contextual. My communication with friends – both to and from – is fundamentally different than my communication in a professional setting. Most, but not all, of my friendly communication – whether face to face or online – fits within classroom norms. Since “friending” students would expose me to their peer-to-peer communication, and exposes them to my peer-to-peer communication, I think that it would bring me in to a rather “gray” area.

    It would certainly be my MO, as you describe yours, to make sure that I clearly behaved professionally in those particular relationships. But I don’t think that communication with students on social network sites would always be at the “inbox” level; one of the most popularizing aspects of online social networking is that it facilitates the user’s ability to see and be seen beyond direct communication (ie – I can see “Z”s photos of a recent event even if I wasn’t there, didn’t know anyone else there with “Z”, and “Z” didn’t send them to me directly … and vice versa). Now, I’m not categorically opposed to operating within the gray areas – I don’t believe the world is exclusively black & white. However, I do have a pretty black & white thought pattern toward maintaining the distinction between student and professional educator, so I’d want there to be a very compelling reason to enter the gray area and “friend” a student on MySpace or Facebook.

    As those technologies exist right now (within the digital ecosystem of other technologies), I’m just not seeing a big enough benefit for the cost of potentially being seen – by the student or by colleagues – as a student’s peer. But I’m interested to know more about what you see as the benefits and costs, both potential and actualized? In other words – what is it that friending a student through online social networking technology allows you to do that is more difficult / impossible to do through other options?

    Maybe someday we’ll see a distinction in social networking technology that will allow me to differentially assign relationship status as “friend”, “associate”, “colleague”, and so on, and then make choices about content access for each group (or perhaps at the level of individual). Until then, I think the better option, as I commented over at LeaderTalk on a recent post about Facebook, is to keep social networking for the personal aspects of life, and to use macro/micro blogging for the professional side. Thanks for bringing some attention and thoughtfulness to this issue, particularly from the angle of improving student learning through positive student-teacher relationships.


  4. Interesting exchange. I’ve debated this topic on my blog as well.

    I think it’s also important to consider how you and your students are using this social network. If you use it to connect with friends, share pictures, etc, it may be transcending the level of professionalism you have with students. On the other side of the coin, students may have comments or pictures on their profile site that you’d rather not know about.

    For example, if you see a photo of a student drinking on facebook, are you obligated to tell a parent?

    There may certainly be middle ground that could avoid some of these problems.

    What about starting a “class” group or making tests/study group “events”? That way, you can send out alerts and foster sharing of information between classmates without actually being their “friend.”

    Perhaps the answer is to create school-wide social networking within classroom websites for alerts, homework assignments, etc. Until then, you could always create and email ring that includes teachers and parents (to ensure that all parties are informed and no one can deem the communication inappropriate).


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