In my last entry, I made a comment about the value of “cool” teachers interacting with students on social network sites. I received some push-back from non-educators. Most of the concerns revolved around teachers’ ethics and their responsibilities with respect to legal structures like the Federal Rights and Privacy Act. There were also concerns that teachers who would interact with students in these environments would be putting themselves at risk.
There is undoubtedly a lot of fear about teacher-student interactions, both in the US and elsewhere. All too often, there is an assumption that when teachers interact with students out of the classroom, they have bad intentions. This breaks my heart because, for all of the fear, most of the teachers that I’ve met in my line of work have really meant well by their students and their engagement with their students has helped their students tremendously. I’ve heard so many stories of teachers intervening and helping kids who really need it. Stupid things like giving them lunch money or being there to listen to their woes or helping a first generation kid learn about college.
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.
Do teachers have to comply with federal privacy laws? Absolutely. Do they need to maintain a high level of ethics when engaging with students at all times? Most definitely. But I worry when folks translate this to suggest that teachers should never interact with a teen outside of the prescribed setting of a classroom. As a society, we desperately need non-custodial adults who teens can turn to for advice. Adults who can help guide youth without playing their parents.
Most of what teachers hear from students outside of the classroom might be answerable by students’ parents if only youth felt comfortable asking them. Teachers get asked about learning in general (e.g., “Why should I care about Shakespeare anyhow?”). They get asked health and sex-ed questions (e.g., “When will I get my period?”). They get asked for relationship advice (e.g., “How do I ask Alex to go to prom with me?”). They get asked about the future (e.g., “How do I get into college?”). Teachers get asked about the serious and the mundane, the personal and the abstract. But most of it has nothing to do with harm or abuse. Youth turn to teachers because they trust them, because they need advice from an adult and because they think that a trusted teacher might be honest with them. While some teens have other adults they can turn to, this isn’t the case for all teens. And for those teens in particular, it’s absolutely crucial that teachers are able to be there.
Students used to approach teachers before/after school, during lunch, or between classes. I’ve found that in many schools, this is no longer viable. These days, strict rules about being on campus before/after school and limitations to student mobility during school often make such face-to-face encounters untenable during the school day. As teachers started encouraging students to email homework assignments, students started approaching teachers online. Not surprisingly, social network sites (and IM) have come in as a new wave of this.
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.
We used to live in a world where space dictated context. This is no longer the case. Digital technologies collapse social contexts all the time. The key to figuring out boundaries in a digital era is not to try to revert to space. The key is to focus on people, roles, relationships, and expectations. A teacher’s role in relation to a student should not end at the classroom door. When a teacher runs into a student at a local cafe, they are still that student’s teacher. When a teacher runs into a student online, they are still that student’s teacher. Because of the meaning of a teacher-student relationship, that should never be relaxed; the role of teacher should always be salient (except when the teacher also happens to be the parent which is when things get very murky very fast).
If a teacher is capable of interacting with students as a teacher in environments other than the classroom, they should be empowered to do so (and given the tools to do so well). On the ground, many teachers are motivated to help students beyond the classroom and many students need that help. To prevent them from doing so, to say that they shouldn’t respond when a student asks for their help simply because of the technology, is to do damage to students and society more broadly. Teachers certainly don’t enter the profession for the money; they typically enter it for the service and the potential to help. I am worried about mandates that prevent teachers from doing what they can to help youth.
So here’s a question to the teachers out there: 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?