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Response: Can Teachers Be Friends With Students Using Social Media?

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 01, 2011 5 min read
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(NOTE: This is the concluding post in a three-part series)

Brad Patterson asked:

Can we be friends with our students? Where do we create barriers? How about social-media wise? I’m interested to hear about your experience, lessons learned, regrets, what you would offer as advice for new teachers.

Rick Wormeli provided his response in the first post of this three-part series. In Part Two, I shared how this issue relates to the differences between a “public” and a “private” relationship and Jose Vilson’s response to Brad’s question.

Today, I’ll conclude this series with two guest responses -- from Bud Hunt and Ernie Rambo -- primarily answering the question through the lens of social media.

Though the term social media also includes tools like public blogs (which many educators, including me, use in our classes), this post is primarily looking at tools like Facebook and the more recent Google Plus. These also allow private communication, and Missouri unsuccessfully attempted to prohibit teachers from using them with their students. The school district in Dayton, Ohio recently announced similar restrictions.

I generally accept “friend” requests from students after they have graduated, though sometimes also say yes if they are seniors still attending our school but not in any of my classes. Others, including today’s guest writers, have devoted far more thought than I have to the issue, and you can read further reflections at A Beginning List Of The Best Resources For Learning About Facebook.

Response From Ernie Rambo

Susan “Ernie” Rambo is a 23-year classroom veteran who currently teaches in the Clark County School District of Las Vegas, NV. She is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

I’d rather be friendly with my students than friends with my students. In social networking, this question takes on additional meaning. Can we be friends with students on Facebook or other social networks? Several of my colleagues refuse all friend requests from students, usually because they prefer their private lives to remain separate from their professional lives. Other teachers enjoy getting to know more about their students - and find that using social networks is an effective way to communicate with students about upcoming assignments and motivating them to complete their work. I sided with the latter example for a few months, but then “unfriended” my students when my school district “strongly recommended” that we not associate with any students on social networks. It seemed as if the school district was protecting itself with that recommendation, but they gave us several examples of how students had taken well-meaning posts out of context and used them to discredit teachers.

Technology specialist Patrick Ledesma makes a strong point in an article about social networking with students. Patrick mentions that while educators will see social networking as an effective way to “enhance instruction and communication,” students see social networks differently: as a place for social interaction and not much more.

There are other ways to communicate with students in a friendly way. Instead of friending students on Facebook, I encourage students to post their assignments on Collaborize Classroom and Edmodo. I remind them that these are academic networks, not social networks and that they need to remember to post accordingly, providing a few silly examples for them and they get the point. I enjoy getting to know my students through their academic posts, without the potential for misunderstandings that might occur in social networking. And after the students have completed their assignments, they can tell their friends all about it on Facebook.

Response From Bud Hunt

Bud Hunt is an instructional technologist for the St. Vrain Valley School District in northern Colorado. This is an excerpt from a longer post at the Powerful Learning Practice blog.

One of my favorite teachers told me once that he dressed the way that he did -- jackets, ties, and other business attire -- because he wanted us to know that, while he was our teacher, he was not our friend.

And I thought that made sense. It was his job to advocate for us. To challenge us. To help us be the best we could be. And so he wasn’t our friend. He was our teacher. To keep those ideas separate, he used his dress. I think that’s worth remembering as we move more and more of our work as teachers into online spaces.

One of our many jobs as teachers is to keep a professional separation between who we are and what we do. When we are doing our best, we are presenting ourselves in ways that help to manage that professional distance in thoughtful and productive ways.
In social networks, this looks like being present, being thoughtful, and being intentional in the ways that we use those spaces to promote what we think is essential -- ways that do not confuse our teacherness and our friendness and help our students understand the difference between the two.

I made a choice as I moved forward in working with and building online spaces for teaching and learning that I wouldn’t friend current students on Facebook. My wife, a high school language arts teacher, has adopted a rule that I think is a fine standard. She does not friend students until they graduate from high school.

Facebook is not her primary online space for interacting with students. She has created course spaces where students and she engage in course-related conversation and content. And she maintains a professional presence in her personal Facebook account. That’s a good thing. Graduates who choose to continue the relationship past their time in high school find much the same person that they found in the classroom. And those students talk with her, mostly, about the same things that they would have in their school spaces.

She is never not a teacher, though.

I’d encourage you to do the same. Wherever you are as a person and as a professional, you are still a teacher. It’s a high calling that we’ve gone after. Whenever and wherever you are, seek to model the best of your professional and personal self. Keep a sense of professional distance.

A professional persona

Professional distance doesn’t mean be a heartless, soulless automaton. Certainly, care and love and concern for the young people in our work is paramount. But it does mean be intentional and purposeful about the ways that you present yourself, wherever you may happen to be.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks again to Brad for posing this week’s question and to Bud and Ernie for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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