Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Oops, I think I may be in trouble. Well, at least I would be if I taught in Lamar County, Mississippi. According to an article entitled "Teacher-Student Web Friendships Restricted by Lamar School Board," teachers will no longer be allowed to have student "friends" on social websites like MySpace and Facebook.

So I guess it's time to fess up. I have accounts on both of those sites. I have all kinds of "friends" on those sites, and it is true - some of my friends are students. First, let's talk about the word "friend." Although social networks refer to online contacts as "friends," it doesn't necessarily mean that I go out to dinner with them. I have a MySpace friend in Oregon that I haven't seen face-to-face for twelve years. So to say that I am "friends" with my students is not the message that I'm trying to send. However, having said that, let me speak to the reasons why I am a member of these social networks and how it works with my students.

I joined MySpace a few years ago because someone had put up a fake page pretending to be my daughter. In order to get on the site and search around, I had to have a page of my own. Well, let's just say I signed up as quickly as I could to get on there and try to find out who was impersonating my child! (And so did a private investigator, a couple of law enforcement agencies, the Attorney General's office, and the National Football League.) Yes, someone was representing herself, on a MySpace page and reportedly during phone conversations, as my daughter who is a professional cheerleader. She had "stolen" pictures from an NFL webpage; her MySpace "friends" were talking to the imposter on the phone but trying to continue their conversations with my puzzled daughter at football games. So you can believe that I understand some of the problems connected to these sites.

However, since I had a page, I figured I may as well have fun with it. So I answered all of the "about me" questions, uploaded some pictures, and basically personalized it. I soon found that I enjoyed playing with it - it's a nice internet hobby and a fun way for me to communicate with my children who don't live at home any more. I also caught up with some of my former colleagues, some relatives I never get to see, and so on.

Soon one of my students found my page and did what's called a "friend request." It was a good student, one who wouldn't use this kind of situation in a negative way, so I clicked "accept." Days became months, and before I knew it, I had "friends" of all ages from all over the country. Students at school would look at me in disbelief - "YOU have a MySpace page?!" they would ask. Suddenly, I was cooler than the Monkees were when I was their age. I even began using MySpace entries while teaching writing as I described in an article I wrote for Teacher Magazine.

In addition, my participation with students on social websites has helped me stay connected to them and their interests, which of course enables me to be a better teacher. I'm afraid that once my own children left home, my finger was removed from the pulse of teenager music, fashion, and activities. Now all I have to do is click on a seventh grader's page, and I'm right back in the game!

I do have some rules for my interaction with students, and there are no exceptions. Here is a list of guidelines that I believe are imperative if teachers are to have a positive social networking experience:

1. I NEVER send out a request for a student to be my "friend." If they see my page, and send me a request, I first click on the student's page. If it doesn't appear to include profanity or anything else inappropriate, I merely click "accept."

2. I NEVER send a message to a student or post a comment that is unsolicited. And I rarely return a comment. If a student sends me, "How's your summer going?" I may write back, "Great! I hope you're having a great summer, too." If that student tries to continue the conversation, I don't reply. Kids are so busy sending messages to everyone; they eventually forget the last message, and the conversation ends. I don't believe it's appropriate to carry on long, drawn out online conversations with my students. A short "hello" is all that's necessary.

3. I WILL talk, in private, to a student if I happen to see something inappropriate on a page. I have had to have a couple of these conversations, and the students have been receptive. At the beginning of the last school year, I read some negative comments by several students about one of our new teachers. I was able to pull these students aside, at different intervals during the year, and talk about their posts. I believe I was able to effectively listen to their concerns while at the same time advocating for the new teacher. Again, I believe the fact that I have a page of my own helps me connect with my students in ways that are positive.

4. I WILL seek higher authority if I see anything illegal or dangerous. I once saw a student's profile picture - he was pointing a gun to his head. After I spoke with him about how horrified I was, I talked to the principal, who had a good relationship with the student. The principal asked him to take down the picture, and he contacted the boy's parents. For me, this rule is the same as the one I have for journal entries in my classroom. I tell students that what they write is entirely confidential unless they write about anything illegal or dangerous to themselves or anyone else. The same goes for anything I see on a webpage.

I do understand that students could get the wrong message if teachers are too "friendly" online. But for that matter, students could get the wrong message if a teacher is too "friendly" at school. This high tech environment is the world that our students are living in. A teacher wouldn't hesitate to sit down and write a handwritten note to a student. Could a handwritten letter contain an inappropriate message to a student? Absolutely. It is up to the individual teacher to be professional and appropriate whether the communication is written on paper or sent via the internet.

Unfortunately, if a teacher has bad intentions, a school board policy is not going to change that.


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Bets said...

Thankfully, with my students being 4th graders, I don't run into this.

I have pages on 2 social networking sites ... mostly just to keep in touch with high school and college friends and I would hate to have to take them down.

I also make sure that my pages are set to private and my rule of thumb is this: If I would be embarrassed for one of my student's parents or my principal to see something I have on my page... don't post it!

Cindi Rigsbee said...

Good points, bets! I do the same things - set page to "private" and nothing that would make my Mama mad!

dbanwart said...

Very interesting thoughts, I teach the middle grades also but have never thought about using the myspace, facebook line to get into their world a little bit. I may try it out and follow your set of rules. Thanks for the thoughts.

Amy Strecker said...

I'm not longer in the classroom, but I am friends with many of my former students through Facebook. My rule was that I wouldn't be their friend while I was teaching them, but after they left my class, I would accept their friend request.

For me it has been a great way to keep up with some of my old students and a great means for championing them, often from a few hundred miles away.

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