The Folly of Friending Students Online
Missouri held at least 15 minutes in the media spotlight a few years back when Senate Bill 54 went into effect. As Charlie White from Mashable reported, Missouri passed a law forbidding teachers and students from being Facebook friends. Although the bill doesn't mention Facebook specifically, it does require that school districts lay out policies in writing that define appropriate communication between teachers and students via social networking, text messages, and other forms of electronic communication. So, just where do you draw the line between what is and is not appropriate?
Maintaining Professional Relationships
The Missouri Senate Bill does in fact pertain to much wider issues than online student-teacher communication. Its main aim is the prevention of sexual abuse against children, and it legislates for all manner of issues like background checks, mandatory reporter training, and the establishment of a task force whose mission it is to investigate and make recommendations to the Governor of Missouri on the sexual abuse of children. However, the inclusion of the social networking clause has rekindled a well-worn debate on the relationship between students and teachers online.
Missouri's heart is in the right place, and the same with other states that have questioned the issue. No parent or educator likes to read about cases of child abuse involving teachers. I've been a teacher for ten years now, and my heart always sinks when I hear of such things, but the fact remains that it does happen from time to time, and the use of social media sites to foster a relationship with a student appears to be a growing trend.
So, are the politicians over-reacting? Absolutely not. The relationship between a teacher and their students has to be a professional one. There needs to be boundaries and an acceptance that outside of school you live separate lives. This is how a professional acts. It is common sense and the best way to maintain a good working relationship with your students. Consequently, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that 'friending' a student is the wrong thing to do.
The Importance of Social Media
I have nothing against social networking sites. In fact, I believe that they have a very important and positive role to play in schools. They are an ideal platform to educate children on the merits of being responsible digital citizens. They encourage cooperation and communication while providing levels of engagement that are hard to match with other activities. They are also free and this guarantees access for all, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds.
However, some educators denounced the bill as anti-social media. It's not. If it was, it would doubtless dedicate more than one page out of the thirty-five pages in this bill to hammer home a point. This small section is about inappropriate student-teacher relationships. It is about enforcing professionalism and trying to minimize outlets for child sex abuse cases. Nothing more, nothing less.
It states, "No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student." The keywords here are "nonwork". If it is not school related, then there is no need for your students to be involved in any way.
So, what about work related sites? "No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a work-related internet site unless such site is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian." This means school blogs and websites are okay, as are public Facebook sites (a.k.a. fan pages) because they are open for everyone to see.
As a profession, teaching is now more open and transparent than it ever has been. As such, if we want to maintain the public's trust, we have to have professional boundaries in all forms of communication.
Appropriate Use of Electronic Media
The relationship between a student and a teacher is an important one. After all, when school is in session, we see these children more often than their parents do. We need to be able to communicate with each other on a number of levels in order to maintain this relationship and build trust. Electronic communication is a great way to do that, but it has to be appropriate.
The Missouri bill calls for school policies that lay out the terms of an "appropriate use of electronic media such as text messaging and internet sites for both instructional and personal purposes." It doesn't outlaw these forms of communication; it merely encourages schools to make sure that teachers know that this kind of communication needs to be appropriate. To my mind this means that it has to be professional, at appropriate times of the day, and related to conversations that have been started in person, at school.
How is this different from the likes of Facebook? Well, for starters, it is a lot less formal, and depending on your privacy settings, it can reveal a lot of personal information about you and the people you are friends with. This type of setting is not conducive to maintaining that appropriate teacher-student relationship, and if you have friends from college that like to post stories or pictures of you that you are less than proud of, this environment only gets worse. Because of this, there is no way that teachers should friend their students.
Striking a Balance
Let's be realistic. If a teacher really wanted to prey on a student, he or she would find a way to do it regardless of this legislation. Just because someone tells you to act appropriately, it doesn't mean you will. However, if the awareness that this bill brings helps avoid even one sexual abuse case, then in my book it is worth it.
The vast majority of teachers love what they do and they would never dream of abusing the relationships that they build with their students, but we don't live in a perfect world, and we see reminders of that on a daily basis. So, common sense has to be applied, and if that means teachers are prohibited from friending students online, it makes sense to me.