Monday, December 13, 2010

Should Teachers 'Friend' Students on Facebook?

Recently, I noticed that my son was 'friended' on Facebook by a teacher who left the school and wasn't even his teacher. On visiting the teacher's wall, it was clear they had 'friended' many students. My son is 17 and clearly almost an adult. However, as both a parent and a teacher, I feel uncomfortable about him having teachers as 'friends'. This got me thinking. Why do I feel so uncomfortable about this? How do others feel about the idea of students or former students as Facebook 'friends'? What is the view of some of the professional bodies? Is there a specific legal position?

Personally, I feel uncomfortable about a teacher 'friending' a student on Facebook as I believe it blurs the lines of the professional relationship and opens up possibilities for potential problems. Without being able to rely on non-verbal cues, ordinarily available in face-to-face conversations, communication on Facebook most definitely has the potential to be misconstrued.

As a parent, I feel ill at ease about my son having ongoing communication with his teachers outside of school, on a social level. After all, he should be socialising and interacting with friends his own age. Since I feel this way, it is quite possible that other parents also have similar beliefs - certainly not in the best interests of a school!

A number of sources on this issue clearly reinforce the view that students and teachers are not 'friends' and that it is important for teachers to maintain a professional relationship. Teachers are not there to be students' 'friends'; they are there to teach, guide and professionally care for students.
There appears to be some support for Facebook connections between students and teachers, but only after students have finished their schooling. It also seems that a few teachers find it to be acceptable to set up a separate Facebook account, in order to communicate with students on a professional/educational level. Provided appropriate boundaries were maintained, I think this could work.

Curious about the general concensus on this issue, I asked my Twitter PLN for their views by tweeting the question, 'How do people feel about students as friends on Facebook?'

Here are some of the responses I received:
  • @kathleen_morris 'nope! Although I know some teachers have two FB accounts. One professional and one personal.'
  • @CorrieB 'Just my POV, but a bridge i am not willing to cross. Needs to be a line between teacher/student.'  Corrie later added: 'FB is a contentious issue at our College. Thinking of creating a College FB account for kids to friend.'
  • @jomcleay 'I always waited to accept FB friend requests from students until the students were ex-students'
  • @johawke 'I do the same.' RT @jomcleay: I always waited to accept FB friend requests from students until the students were ex-students
  • @StephanieK 'Not until after January the year after they finish, & even then I'm very selective.'
  • @avatele 'I don't know about having your students as FB friends.....not for it really'
  • @whartonag 'I personally do not think it is appropriate while they are still studying. Only once they have graduated. You?'

My professional association, Victorian Institute of Teaching (VIT), has produced The Victorian Teaching Profession Code of Conduct. The following stated principle makes it fairly clear that teachers should not communicate on a personal level via electronic means:

 
"Teachers hold a unique position of influence and trust that should not be violated or compromised. They exercise their responsibilities in ways that recognise that there are limits or boundaries to their relationships with students. The following examples outline some of those limits.

A professional relationship will be violated if a teacher:
...d holds conversations of a personal nature or has contact with a student via written or electronic means including email, letters, telephone, text messages or chat lines, without a valid context ..."


The linked clip below of a 39 News report (2010) outlines some attitudes to this issue:



Still seeking some form of 'official' or 'legal' guidelines, I had a look at a handbook recently supplied to all teachers at my school - 'Teachers, students & the law: A quick reference guide for Australian teachers' (2008). Somewhat surprisingly, I could find no mention of social networking or social communication. There is a brief reference to inappropriate relationships, whereby teachers should 'take care not to be involved in an improper relationship with a student, as such relationships can threaten the teacher's employment...' This refers to relationships characterised by 'close emotional ties, and sometimes involve expressions of love or deep affection'. Having a 'friendship' with students on Facebook, could feasibly be interpreted by others as involving such emotional attachments.

Having considered elements of this issue, I personally believe that it is not in my best interests, nor those of my students, to 'friend' current students or anyone under the age of 18. As for students who have left school and are now adults, I think perhaps I will decide on a case-by-case basis.

What do you think? Please respond to my survey:

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References:

Victorian Institute of Teaching, 2008, Victorian Teaching Profession Code of Conduct, http://www.vit.vic.edu.au/SiteCollectionDocuments/PDF/1543_Code-of-Conduct-June-2008.pdf, accessed 14/12/2010

Hopkins, D, 2008, Teachers, students & the law, Victoria Law Foundation, Melbourne