As my year 12s finished school this year, they gradually found me on Facebook. I’m loving this different way to connect, and the confidence that we will keep in touch. These people have a special place in my heart, as all my students do. Once you’re one of “my kids” it lasts a lifetime.
It’s been interesting connecting with them and flicking back through their timelines, because I have learnt a lot about them that I didn’t know before. I suspect some of them have learnt a lot about me the same way.
For example I now know that one of them plays the piano alarmingly well – and although I had a great relationship with this student, somehow I’d never found that out.
I also know that another is a lot more politically aware than I ever realized – and that our politics are very closely aligned. Think of the conversations we could have had!
I know that still another came from a school just around the corner from my house, and that we have friends in common. Also that he is a loyal and loving friend (which, to be honest, did not come as a surprise).
I know that another is an amazing athlete, has a part time job, and stayed up all night to finish one of my assignments (sorry!).
And one has the most incredible artistic talent – how did I miss that??
I know which ones are in long term relationships, which ones have strong ties with friends from their previous schools, and which ones have pets. I know what music they like, what issues they are passionate about, and what they believe in.
Of course, not everybody posts much on facebook, but for the most part being connected this way has enhanced my understanding of them – and no doubt their understanding of me.
Yet there is an unofficial, unwritten rule that teachers don’t friend students on Facebook. And I can understand why – kids don’t need to see pictures of their teachers getting blind drunk on Saturday night (although really, if that’s what’s going on your Facebook feed then you’ve got some serious questions to ask yourself, teacher or not). But in this increasingly public and online world, not much is private anymore. The chances are that students can find those pics of you if the pics are online, especially if someone else put them there and they’re not careful with their privacy settings.
I also understand that there is concern about blurring the boundaries between teachers and students. That some people feel the more formal, distant relationship maintained by using teacher’s surnames and never seeing them outside the school grounds is an important ingredient in maintaining discipline and avoiding “inappropriate” relationships forming, especially between young teachers and students who may be only a handful of years younger. Yet going on camps inevitably blurs these boundaries anyway – sometimes first names are allowed on camp, casual clothes are worn, and interaction is inevitably more casual and less constrained.
The truth is that we are all going to have to be professional and draw the line at times, whether we are connected on facebook or not. And it’s true that sometimes knowing where the line should be is tricky.
But I do wonder if we are losing opportunities to reach our students, to build meaningful connections and understand them better. Of course I know that sometimes teachers and students cross the boundaries, but I am becoming more and more convinced that in trying to avoid that we have swung far too far in the other direction. We have all but banned touch between teachers and students, and if you are never allowed to pat them on the shoulder, hug them in times of stress, or hold their hands when they are scared, surely touch becomes far more highly charged and problematic when it does happen?
And, as teachers, our duty is to support and nurture our students as much as to educate them, and as social mammals, touch is a crucial part of that.
One of my students was once so overwhelmed by having passed an assignment that she cried out “oh! Can I have a hug???” and I gave her one. Telling this story in the staffroom later got a whole lot of horrified looks. “oh, you took such a risk! I’d never do that!” they said. How tragic it is, and how impoverished our interactions, that this is where we have arrived. In a place where we can’t touch, mustn’t acknowledge each other as human beings with lives outside the classroom, and draw careful boxes around our private lives. We are more concerned with not putting ourselves “at risk” of an accusation than with the emotional needs of our students.
Similarly never interacting outside school, never recognising that we are multi-dimensional human beings, not simply students and teachers, might actually create an unrealistic portrait-style image of each other that intensifies the risk of unrealistic and inappropriate relationships.
I think these nice safe lines that we are drawing are far outside the range of what’s reasonable. I think that in protecting ourselves we might just be leaving our teaching impoverished. As one of my former students said to me last night (on facebook, as it happens): “But to be honest, I reckon I’d be way more likely to pay more attention in class and have a better attitude to learning if I had a better relationship with my teachers.”
I’m really not sure. Social media is a whole new minefield that we, as a society, have yet to really understand, for all we have dived into it headfirst. We don’t actually know which way these connections might lead us, so maybe it’s sensible to plump for the most conservative option.
So what do you think? Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater here? Are we protecting our kids, or are we actually depriving them of meaningful connections with their teachers?