Creative Commons/Khanes Athiratanakran

Creative Commons/Khanes Athiratanakran

The GEM Debate:
Should Teachers And Students
Be Facebook Friends? (POLL)

This question has been tackled before here on GEM, but this is a good time to look at it again because of this news story. A New Hampshire substitute teachers chose to end her 35-year career because she opposes her school’s social media policy.

Carol Thebarge has more than 250 Facebook friends who are students at her high school. She likes to share pictures of her cats, her grandchildren’s achievements, and the wisdom she has gained in her life. After another teacher was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student, administrators took a renewed interest in Thebarge’s friends list. Officials asked her to unfriend all the students or be terminated.

Thebarge says that students love her site and have used it as a place to send private messages about being bullied or feeling depressed. School Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin said that board policy bans teachers from being friends with students on social networking sites such as Facebook. He says, “In truth, being a caring, lovely woman doesn’t give you immunity to ignore a school board policy that’s designed to protect everyone.”

I’m not exactly crying tears for Thebarge. Administrators asked her to unfriend students years ago, and she did not. She got around that by hiding her friends list. I understand why she did it, but I find it unacceptable to ignore policy like that. Also, she wasn’t fired; she chose to resign when she was asked to comply with board policy. There are plenty of school districts that would have given her the ax—no chances or choices offered—if they found out she was not following protocol.

Related: The GEM Debate: Kids And Facebook – Do You Want The Law Changed?

What I don’t like here is that when one teacher steps way out of line, the rest of the teachers who would do no such thing are punished. Thebarge said on her Facebook page: “I honor the comments that disagree with this difficult decision, for I also recognize the inherent dangers within social networking. But I further recognize that the blanket policy intended to protect the children, also holds the subtle message that ‘all’ teachers cannot be trusted to communicate with their students outside the classroom.”

THIS is where I agree with Thebarge. I understand why school boards don’t want teachers and students to be friends on Facebook. As a parent, I understand that many of us don’t want that, either. And, yet, there’s that part of me–that professional teacher part–that feels offended with the implication that teachers can’t be trusted with students.

And if you’re going to have a no Facebook friends rule to protect kids, then there are other rules schools might want to look at instituting such as no field trips, not allowing students to get help from teachers before or after the school day, or teachers can no longer sponsor activities that might put them in contact with students outside the academic setting. In all of these situations, there is great potential for lines to be crossed. Such rules make no difference to the teacher who doesn’t have the sense enough not to engage in inappropriate behaviors with students. They always punish the law abiders.

Social media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Although parents of a certain generation remember what it was like before the Internet and can live without it, you’ll have to pry technology and social media from your kids’ cold, dead hands. I think it would be more effective if school districts and boards adopted policies that find a reasonable middle ground between protecting kids and allowing teachers to do their jobs in new ways.

If I was still teaching, I would definitely be one of those teachers who tries to reach kids where they are, and social media would be a part of that. I would set up another, non-personal Facebook page, one that would be strictly for students and their parents, where questions can be asked and class topics discussed. A strict social media policy would prevent me from doing that, even though my intentions would be nothing but professional. Surely, there is a way to create common sense social media policies that protect students and teachers.

Related: Kid’s Questions: Facebook Fall Out

What do you think? Can teachers be Facebook friends with students and maintain their professionalism? Take the poll and share your thoughts below.

[polldaddy poll=”7960660″]