A New Hampshire substitute teacher lost her job because she would not unfriend over 250 students on Facebook. Stevens High School officials gave the 79-year-old substitute Carol Thebarge an ultimatum after another teacher was charged for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student. According a the New Hampshire Valley News, Thebarge posted on her Facebook account: “It has been a sad day for me . . . I have loved to share pictures of the cats, my grandchildren’s achievements, and the wisdom I have gained throughout my journey. I have . . . always considered my site and messages those of Character Building.”
I’m certain Thebarge’s intentions were sincere, benevolent, and inspiring to many young people. This sounds like another situation of an innocent person suffering a consequence because of someone’s else’s careless, inappropropriate behavior. One student is talking too much—the whole class gets punished.
Still, it's inappropriate for teachers to have Facebook friendships with students.
Facebook is an online social space. The site is intended to help people connect with family and friends, not with professionals. I bet few of us are Facebook friends with our doctor, for example. If teachers interact with students as we share family photos, poolside or at a holiday party, or post jokes that may be suited for close family and friends, we build unprofessional relationships with school-age kids. In fact, Facebook friendships between teachers and students contribute to the de-professionalization of teaching. We become their friends—not their teachers.
These Facebook friendships create misguided opportunites for students to announce—“Hey, Teach—looks like you had a great party Saturday! How much did you drink?”
Or “Hey, Teach—looks like you’ve been workin’ out. I saw your Miami beach pictures. Nice pecs.”
Or “Hey, Teach—I see you’re no longer in a relationship. What happened?”
It also creates uncomfortable opportunities for us, the teachers, to see our students’ questionable posts: partying, smoking, participating in highly questionable situations in their teen world. So what’s a teacher to do if he sees 15-year-old Johnny or Janie from 4th period post a picture of him or herself smoking weed? Or what if 18-year-old senior Jose or Maria posts a revealing photo after his or her work out?
We’re strangely entering their world and they’re entering ours. We’re becoming peers, confidants who must keep secrets. And there are just some things we do not need to know about our students and some things they do not need to know about us.
Sometimes, we must remember, our students don’t even have their own parents as Facebook friends.
Despite the arguments that Facebook friendships help build teacher-student relationships—these online friendships are inappropriate.
Now, I am Facebook friends with 11 former students. I accepted these online friendship requests (that they sent, not me) after they graduated from high school. All of these former students are in their early twenties or thirties now. These are students with whom I had a stronger mentor-mentee bond. I continue to get plenty of former students request me as a friend but I click “Not Now.” Almost none of my current students send me requests. I’ve done a good job, I think, of setting teacher-student boundaries.
The Chicago Public Schools official policy articulated at the 2012-2013 principal training specifically says, “All employees communicating with students via electronic means must do so using CPS network systems.” I know. I know. It’s a CPS policy—people don’t like those. However, teachers should not be Facebook friends with students—we need to be their teachers, not their friends.
So what’s a teacher to do to stay in contact responsibly with students?
- If you sponsor a sports or club, set up an organization page on Facebook that people can “like.” This allows the teacher to post updates and pictures easily. Students who belong to the team or sport can also post and stay in touch with you.
- Use your district’s email—not your cell phone—to communicate with students. The only time I’ve given students my phone number was when I took a small group to see Sting at a Printer’s Row event last June. They were getting there on their own; we had to find each other. I wanted to make sure they got home safely afterwards. But we never communicated with each other after that. I didn’t have to tell my students, “Don’t text of call me.” They knew. They didn't have to tell me either. I knew.
- Use your school’s Website to post homework assignments and clarify questions. If lots of students have lots of questions each evening about homework—you’re not doing a good job of explaining it during the school day or maybe you’re making bad choices about homework assignments.
The substitute who got fired for not unfriending her students had an easy solution: set up a public individual Facebook page “Ms. T: the Caring Substitute,” that students could "like." She could, then ,still post her photos, students and anyone else could have "liked" them, and she could have kept her job. Technology will always be part of our world. But, as teachers, we must find solutions to help us succeed with it.
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