As a teacher, I have always had a hard and fast rule about social media connecting teachers and students: It is a bad idea. Every year students ask if we can be Facebook friends. Every year I say, “four years after you graduate, you can.”
The thought is that most of them will forget, and the ones who remember are the ones I truly want to stay in contact with. It was a sort of weeding out process about which I felt no qualms whatsoever. Over the years only a few have actually ended up connecting with me down the line and we are now Facebook friends; they are the ones with whom I had a true (not virtual) connection.
And then, this year, I changed my mind. Well, no. They changed my mind.
I taught some phenomenal seniors this year. I also advised a club, which consisted of even more amazing seniors. And I really didn’t want to lose track of them. I felt this need to continue to be a part of these students’ growth toward adulthood and beyond. And then I thought about the juniors I taught last year. They were graduating now too. They were pretty awesome individuals as well.
When the question started popping up towards the end of the year, mostly as I signed yearbook after yearbook, I found myself saying yes, “friend” me.
I would inwardly cringe as I said it, thinking about the red flags and warning signs, and mostly, my husband’s reaction to the ever-growing digital footprint associated with my name. But I no longer wanted to say no. And generally I believe in trusting my gut. I knew, however, that I would need something stronger than my gut when I tried to defend myself to my husband.
Now, I don’t have any hard data to back up this next point, but I did do some anecdotal research. I asked these same students how they used Facebook. The answer, overwhelmingly, was that they used to it to post about accolades and to post pictures of which they were proud. They seem to consider Facebook as the place where their parents and extended family will look to get a sense of how they are doing when they are no longer at home. I clearly would not have to worry about seeing anything illicit, that I would then feel responsible for reporting to parents. Cue my sigh of relief.
I thought about my use of Facebook. I post accolades, pictures of my kids, and the few pictures of myself of which I am proud. I rarely write political commentary, but when I do, it is not so different from what they would be hearing or seeing in the world all around them. And these students are all 17+, graduating into the adult world, where they may find out that they disagree with those they respect. After teaching them for one or two years, I’m sure my political leanings are of no shock to them, anyway. So, when it comes down to it, I could still feel comfortable with my decision.
And then I started to think even more about friending my students. Facebook has become a platform for me to share my beliefs and my voice. It is a place where my friends can get a sense of the things I stand for and why. I do not post anything thoughtlessly. I am well aware of the “public” nature of the things that might be deemed “private” in social media.
Then again, I am well aware of the public nature of my entire life. I live in the town where I was raised. I teach in this same town. My parents are well-known entities in this town, as is my brother. One of the reasons I chose not to change my name when I got married, is so that I would not lose that connection to my family. I am my family through and through. My life is an open book, and I may as well use it as a literary text.
I want my students to learn from my life experiences, when appropriate. So, why not continue those lessons after high school? And why not give them one more adult to reach out to, if in need? And why not follow them and their successes, if only to show that I remember them and support them and still care for them years down the road.
Why not, indeed?
I no longer have an answer that appeases me.
If it’s true that these students are my students forever, than it must also be true that I am their teacher forever. But now, once they graduate, they can also be my “friends.”
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Emily Genser is the mother of Abigail (7) and Josh (4) and a high school English teacher in West Hartford, Connecticut. She is passionate about both jobs and spends most of her time laughing. You can find her blogging away her few free moments of the day at Exhausted but Smiling.