Friday, January 4, 2008

Teachers and Facebook

I am reminded that I am not too far removed from my student's age on a regular basis. We listen to similar music, go to similar movies, and even wear similar clothing when not in school. I'm not trying to say that I'm particularly cool, just that the generational gap between my students and me is easily bridged. Give it a few more years and it'll grow into a chasm.

One of the dangers of being so in touch with the culture of young America has to do with the fact that I as well as my students are fairly connected to the social networking scene of the internet. In my case, it's Facebook. I've been using Facebook since its inception a few years back and I have no plans of giving it up in the near future. It's a convenient way to stay in touch with friends as well as share pictures and information. On Facebook, users create a profile where they can add information about themselves, post photos, and write messages on other user's public "walls." Recently Facebook opened up their site to third party applications, which translates into even more inventive, and in some cases contrived, connections with people. Individual users can control who can view what information on their profile by inviting or being invited into a "Facebook friendship" with another person. I apologize if what I just said repeats the obvious to you, but not all my readers are familiar with the Facebook interface.

The problem I've found is that some of my students want to be friends with me on facebook. At first I was surprised that they found me, but I was even more surprised that they wanted to add me as a Facebook friend. Ultimately, I turned down the invitations and told my students that I couldn't be Facebook friends with them. There's nothing inappropriate on my profile or in my pictures. That's not what I'm worried about. What prevents me from becoming "facebook friends" with my students is not wanting to cross that teacher-student boundary. In a sense, it puts students on equal ground with you in an arena where equal footing should not be the norm. Let me repeat this again, Facebook is a SOCIAL networking site. It's sole purpose is to connect individuals socially. In social situations with students, there can and there should be a discrepancy of power. While I'm supportive of treating students fairly, I also support the idea of professionalism.

While it wouldn't be impossible to maintain this standard of professionalism, why set yourself up to that added scrutiny? Once you put your digital footprint on the internet, it's almost impossible to erase. Hypothetically if you were accused of abusing a student, having the courts find out that you're friends in the same social networking site is not going to look good for you. It's simply a difficult position to defend and justify. Things will look especially bad if the court orders Facebook to hand over the records of your viewing history in order to see what profiles you had been looking at.

I can honestly see some benefits of being facebook friends with your students. For one, it could increase rapport. Two, it could increase your credibility as someone to be trusted. Three, it could give you an ear to the ground on the going ons in your school. However, rapport and credibility can both be strengthened and increased in other ways. Also, I know enough about what my student's do in their free time without having facebook fill in the gaps for me.

Though I believe it's possible to safely be Facebook friends with your students, it's not something I would recommend for the young teacher. Trying to establish your role and position as an authority figure can be difficult enough without Facebook undermining it. I may change my mind in the future when my temples are shot with grey and I start telling stories about walking to school 15 miles in the snow, but not right now or any time soon.

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