I got my first student friend request around the second or third year of teaching. I was on Myspace at the time and I simply ignored it, figuring that it was the most polite way to reject an invitation. A week later, I got another request.

Eventually, a few students cornered me and asked me why I denied their requests. I struggled for words. "It would seem wrong," I said.

They looked at me like I was crazy.

"I mean, I'm not your friend. I'm your teacher. I wouldn't go with you to Great Skate and I wouldn't invite you to the mall. We're not friends, you know?" To me, it was black and white. I didn't want to be the creepy guy with the treehouse open and no kids of his own.

Over time, I started to see a different perspective. Students came by to visit and shared their life stories with me. They said things like, "I tried to send you an invite to my graduation, but I realized you never accepted my friend request."

One student challenged me on the definition of a friend, "A friend is someone who has your back. If that's what a friend is, I'd like you on my friend list." It was touching in that macho, fist-bump kind of way.

Still, I have always been worried about rumors. I've heard stories of reputations ruined by allegations. My only solution has been to tell students they could friend request me once they are ready to graduate.  I have a few who seniors who slipped through when I wasn't keeping track of the years correctly. However, accepting a friend request has given me insight into the beauty of social media. Our stories aren't lost forever. We have a place to reconnect.

So, it leaves me with a lingering question:

Is it ever okay to "friend" a student on Facebook? If so, when is the right age?

42 comments:

  1. I may not be the norm on this but I will accept friend request from students right away. I just do it with certain rules in place. 1. If they send me a private message then I unfriend them. I usually provide a warning the first time it happens. I've never had to unfriend a student because of this. 2. If they are still a student and they post something inappropriate or illegal, I report it and unfriend them. I have had to do this multiple times. Now most students who post things like this don't "friend request" me.

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    1. Interesting perspective. I wonder if that approach might be the best.

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    2. I think this is pretty clever. However, this leads me down another line of thought: What are educators' obligations (if any) to inform parents that they've 'friended' their children on a social media site?

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    3. I also "friend" their parents. I am "friends" with all of my coworkers, including the principal. We have a school site, as well. I don't do private messages, and I un-friend students who post inappropriate things or try to send private messages.

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  2. I wait until graduation. Sometimes I've had students sende requests a few years early & ask me to hang onto them until the time comes. But, I have an open Twitter feed (and follow students), and have been very accessible via email.
    I used to add students as Facebook friends...but I found that it was TOO much insight into their lives. I realized I didn't really want to be aware of all of their personal life dramas, spontaneous rants against family, friends or other teachers, and I definitely didn't want to know about every time they slipped up as teenagers...I felt obligated to do something when I saw evidence of underage binge drinking, for example. Then I wasn't a confidante but another adult policing the rules. And while that's good for them...it's not always good. And, they also learned too much about me, I'm very careful with my online profile but even personal details about my life that maybe I didn't want as classroom conversation.
    Anyway lots of thoughts but I wait until graduation. I don't just ignore requests, I always talk to them ad explain and they understand :)

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    1. I like that idea of waiting until their in high school and giving them space along the way.

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  3. If a student requests a friend invite, I accept. We are a small rural school, so maybe the facebook friend thing takes on a different meaning than in a larger area, I don't know. I would never turn a student away if he or she stopped by my house or called me on the phone, so I don't feel like I should ignore them on the internet. Teaching isn't just about curriculum, it is about making connections with students, and for me, being available outside school hours if they need me.

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    1. I imagine that context makes a big difference. I wonder if being urban and not "knowing" people ahead of time changes things.

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  4. I agree - save it for after they graduate. If they are still your student or part of the school then they can contact you in person.

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    1. What do you miss in the process, though?

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  5. I also teach in a smaall, rural school and most of us teachers on Facebook Friend our students. We have a very progressive principal so when she did it we followed suit. I get kids friending me before they even reach my 6th grade class. We've had no problems. It seems like our kids are very comfortable having teachers and parents watching over them. Most of my over 400 friends are students past, present and future. Sure, they private message me at times but it's hasn't been inappropriate and it's usually to say hi. Often times they ask questions about class, about what's coming, or to get make up work. It's been very positive at our school and even at our high school too.

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    1. I think having leadership model it might make a big difference. Often leaders are risk-averse because of liability management.

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    2. Leaders often have belief systems about 'liability management' that in no way, shape, or form are rooted in the law or actual reality.

      Even if it's not a liability management issue, leaders also are extremely CONTROVERSY-averse, so much so that they're willing to risk violating the Constitution and concurrent legal/financial liability in order to placate local community members.

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    3. I like that distinction between risk-averse and controversy-averse.

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  6. I think it's a better idea for teachers to use a Facebook 'Page' rather than their profile to interact with students. Students and parents who want to connect like or subscribe to the page. Using a page allows the teacher to control the interactions and what appears under their name. It also keeps the inappropriate things kids post from appearing in your feed (see Brett's comment above).

    Who wants to walk in Monday morning and have a student ask about the pool party pictures that someone tagged you in? Although I'm in central admin now and don't have much contact with students, I still use a page and you can take a look here - https://www.facebook.com/pages/Scott-A-Ziegler-EdS/239872356132718?ref=hl

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    1. I think that might be a better "middle zone" for something like that. But I also wonder what the FB page might miss in the process. What random updates do you miss that might matter?

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  7. I apologize in advance if some consider this to be spam, but I feel it's important enough to discuss here. K12 Kit (www.k12kit.com) offers a free solution to the many dangers inherent in having students use public social networks for classroom applications. We offer FREE cloud-based communications platforms for schools. Everything is private, content can be filtered as desired, and all network activity is logged to provide evidence in cases of abuse. It includes a private social network (a completely independent and custom installation sharing absolutely no resources with any other) as well as several collaborative publishing tools. Each school is given as much space and bandwidth as they need, which means every class, group, activity, team, club, etc... can have their own section to manage, and educators and administration have complete editorial control over every syllable and pixel that's posted to their network. Contact us at the website for a free demo.

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  8. I teach 5th and 6th grades, and my general rule is that you have to be past my grades for me to accept a friend request. I never initiate a "friendship" with a student before graduation. I also want to avoid the "creepy" man syndrome, but I see value in connecting with students. This way we still get to be a part if their lives for years to come.

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    1. I'm with you on trying to avoid the "creepy man" syndrome.

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    1. Pretty emphatic. What rational do you use for the NEVER?

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  10. I never do, but I've never had a request. My high school students know that I have a responsibility to share dangerous and/or illegal behavior with their parents, and they don't want me judging them for their outside of school antics. The day after graduation, a majority fo them do request, and that's good fun.

    My grade 11s have a group they use for school stuff, and I asked about access to that, and they were reluctant, because of course they want to blow off steam and swear and all of that, so fair enough.

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    1. Interesting point. Do you think there's a way to model it differently for them? Or is that not a teacher's responsibility?

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  11. (Apologies, I got a little long winded here)

    Not all friends are the same. It's a distinction that Facebook doesn't emphasize (and a reason why I like Google+ being built with Circles in mind).

    I've got my friends that I go out on the town with, I've got friends that I knew in college and I just give the occasional supportive comment online. I've got my friends' friends. I've got my family, which are friends that I'm extra careful not to offend because they'll be around for the long haul. I've got my coworker friend that I tell all my secrets to and my coworker friends that are on a need-to-know basis.

    Of course students are teachers' friends, but it's a different type of friendship. We support them and are willing to know about students' lives, but we don't and can't share everything from our lives with them. Most friendships shouldn't be lopsided, but the student-teacher friendship, by necessity and by definition, is definitely lopsided.

    That's part of the logical reasoning behind not friending students on Facebook: Facebook friendship is the same for everyone in your life and is equal between Facebook friends. Student-teacher friendship is more restricted than other friendships and is required to be unbalanced.

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    1. I love your point about G+ and yet for me G+ is often a dead zone.

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  12. Don't know about Facebook, because I don't have an account, but I generally follow back on Twitter when a student follows me. I find it just another convenient way to get information to them, and because of the public nature of Twitter, I don't feel any obligation to "tattle" on them to their parents, since informed parents can simply check their child's public Twitter stream.

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    1. Interesting point. What do you say when someone mentions "professional duty?"

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  13. I struggle with this topic as well. First of all, I teach 5th grade, and Facebook guidelines say you must be 13 to have a Facebook account. Therefore since I teach 10-11 year olds, I always tell students who ask that the Facebook rules say you have to be 13, so maybe I shouldn't hear about you having a Facebook account. That usually nips the issues right then and there.

    My first three years of teaching, I taught at a private, Jewish school (before Facebook). It was a more intimate and personal relationship with students and families. I went to many of my students Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and have stayed in touch with families since then. As Facebook because more popular, I received friend requests from my students at the private school. Since I was no longer teaching in that school, I decided to accept their requests. I have been in a public school district for 8 years now and my former private school students are all in college. I have told my public school students that when they are graduating high school, then we can become Facebook friends if they friend request me. As a MALE teacher, I am very worried about this topic. I have an open Twitter account, and a Twitter account for my classroom as well.

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    1. I can see where it gets tricky. It's sad that the rumors, paranoia, etc. make it a liability in one environment when it is acceptable in another environment.

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  14. Interesting post, John. Are you also prohibiting yourself from being ‘friends’ with students in neighborhoods, at church, in volunteer organizations, at the mall, and in other non-school settings?

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    1. I am "friends" with them publicly in those places, just as I write publicly on their blogs and allow them to follow me publicly on Facebook. The issue with FB is that the privacy / chat function makes it so that I have the possibility to be "private" with them and that makes me nervous.

      Facebook isn't entirely public. It can be way too private. I think that's the real issue.

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    2. What if you joined an online community of interest for, let's say, comic books. And, then you saw that a student joined the online community as well. The online community is built on a platform that allows for private messaging. Given what you've said in this comment, are you then obligated to discontinue your membership in that community?

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    3. That's an interesting point. I just might have to do that, or at least see if private messaging can be disabled. However, the comparison is a little different. In an online community, I have little choice over who I allow in and out. I am not the gatekeeper. Often I can even block another user. However, in Facebook, I get to choose who is in my community. That's why I like the option of a Facebook group as opposed to "friending."

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  15. At what point (and cost) - and for what reasons - do we separate our humanity from our teaching?

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    1. No more so than requiring titles (Mr. Spencer), professional dress, or doing things we don't believe in (like standardized testing). The mask of professionalism and the fear of liability is what drives this. I'm a strong advocate for being humble, human, humorous. However, I also want to keep my job.

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    2. Fair enough. As you note elsewhere, so much of this fear culture falls on the leadership, not the front-line employee. Now, at what point do we draw the line and say 'enough! this is worth making a stand!' [you don't have to answer that question!]

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  16. I once heard a technology advocate say, "I think every educator should have a strong presence on facebook and I'll tell you why." After the administration in the room pulled their chins off the floor he continued with "just as a teacher's presence in the hall or cafeteria automatically discourages some behaviors, so will their presence on facebook." His point was if a student knows adults are watching, behaviors change. Pretty simple to me.
    As for me personally, I do not friend current students but will gladly friend them after graduation. I've only had to "unfriend" one student for language and told her so. A year later she invited me again with the promise of changed behavior.

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  17. I agree, waiting until after graduation is best. We live in a rural town as well. I would suggest creating a group on Facebook, for example, which students can join with the understanding/expectations listed. Students can then ask questions in safe/formal setting.

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  18. I teach 7th grade and have kids ask me all the time if they can friend me on FB. I always tell them I will friend them once they graduate HS. I have two former students that I am friends with, who were in my first 6th grade class in 1990-1991. Recently I found a letter one of them wrote to me at the end of the year about how much she would miss me and asking me if we could be "pen pals". Who would have ever thought 20 years ago we would someday be chatting with each other via computer (back then we used Apple II GS's.

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  19. I teach high school, and I always accept friend requests from students. (But I will never initiate a friend request myself.) Everyone knows that Facebook "friends" aren't really friends -- they're some combination of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives, political figures, etc. I fully agree with jb's observation above; I've thought for several years now that accepting friend requests from students is not only permissible but even essential. If there's no adult presence on FB, what do we have? Lord of the Flies, that's what. We can't let our teenagers live in a virtual world of adolescents without adults.

    As for private messages, the only ones I've received from students have been questions like "What's the homework?" or "What time is tomorrow's assembly?"; surely those are unobjectionable.

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  20. According aking friends to our student or teacher is not a bad thing. Because according to me In friendship age,relation doesn't matter.Only understanding matters.

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  21. Definitely a hot topic of conversation around staffroom tables at the moment. This was my blogged response http://ourmusingmatters.blogspot.com.au/2012/09/teachers-and-fb-dilemma.html

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.

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