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Friending Your Students: A Researcher’s Perspective

Friending Your Students: A Researcher’s Perspective

Jenny Luca | Teaching.monster.com

When I was in Form 6 (today’s Yr 12) I had a teacher who gave us his phone number so that we could contact him if we needed clarification about the work we were doing out of school hours. We knew that on certain nights he had umpire training and wouldn’t be home until after 10.30pm.

Did I ever call him? You betcha I did, and so did the other students from our class. Even after 10.30pm on some occasions. He was an extraordinary teacher; a real father figure who guided us and believed in us. Did we ever abuse the privilege and hassle him? Never. We respected him and would do anything he asked. I still hold him in high esteem and hope that I am modeling the kind of good teaching practice he lived and breathed.

Danah Boyd, Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society , has recently posted on her blog this post, ‘When teachers and students connect outside school ‘. It’s a common sense post in my opinion. Refreshing really. There is so much she says that I see as valid when it comes to this discussion. She makes these important points;

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.

I worked in a tough Govt. school for many years. (The same school I attended as a teenager as a matter of fact!) Many of the students there needed supportive and well intentioned adults around them who were looking out for their best interests. In quite a few cases, the only people in their lives who met that criteria were their teachers. These were the kids who’d turn up at school on pupil free days even if they’d been suspended the day before. School was the structure lacking in their lives. There were kids there who I gave my phone number to, kids who needed a supportive adult who would be there for them to listen when life was tough. Not a whole lot of those kids rang me, but I know they appreciated me showing them I cared.

One of my former students is my hairdresser now. She convinced me awhile ago to join Facebook and become a member of the school’s alumni group. So many of my former students have added me as a friend and left kind messages. Quite a number of them are the kids who would put you through the wringer in class. These are the kids who say, ‘Hey, great to see my fave teacher here.’ It’s amazing really. You see how much influence you have had, influence you may have never realised without a forum like Facebook.

Danah offers this when discussing whether or not teachers should be adding students in social networking sites;

Poll: Have you felt the pressure to cheat on standarized tests?

Poll: Have you felt the pressure to cheat on standarized tests?

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.

I have had current students request that I be their friend on Facebook and I’ve hesitated. I haven’t added them, but I’m not sure it would be problematic if I did. I’m highly conscious of my online behaviour and enter these spaces as a teacher, first and foremost. One of my students is on Twitter and I follow her. I do so to support her in that online environment and we often speak at school about something that may have popped up on Twitter. It is a mentoring role and because I use Twitter as a professional tool for learning I feel very comfortable about this.

It’s a debate that will continue I have no doubt. I encourage you to read Danah’s post and reflect about what you feel is appropriate. Danah leaves her post with these questions;

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?

I wonder what your answers would be. I’d love to hear them if you care to leave a comment.

Join the Discussion
Do you “friend” students on social networking sites?


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