Do Teachers Need to Be Facebook Friends With Students?

A case in Missouri tests the limits of online interaction

I went to an elementary school that believed in respecting kids as individuals. Unlike my public school, where I got in trouble for dropping my pencil, my new school approached every misstep as an opportunity to make me feel special. “You dropped your pencil? Bravo for clearly expressing a disdain for graphite instruments.” The teachers wore jeans and urged us to call them by their first names to promote equality. Sometimes we’d hang out at their houses after school. The boundaries were porous.

In high school we also called our teachers by their first names, though some teachers got nicknames. Our beloved dean was hailed as “Doug E. Fresh” as he walked down the hallway. Relationships between students and teachers were good-natured and amiable. It was a lesson for us, like a daily PSA called: “Adults Are People Too.”

Some of those relationships were unusual by today’s standards. There was “Laura,” for instance—a smoky-voiced student who formed a friendship with a married teacher. Despite his goofy bell-bottoms, he was quite handsome. (Even in my virginal state, I could see him smolder.) During lunch, Laura and the teacher would walk off campus together to … what? Some said they were hooking up. Others said he was giving her advice. Whatever the case, they were alone quite a bit.

Both schools struggled with scandals, though I wouldn’t say it was cause and effect. According to various sources, my fourth-grade teacher was fired for having “an affair” with a 13-year-old student. The former headmaster of my high school was fired for a “relationship” with a student. And there were plenty of private connections that crossed boundaries that would now be considered inviolate.

But at least we didn’t have to deal with the Internet.

In the last few years, online evidence has played a part in numerous cases of student-teacher misconduct. The worst are the embarrassingly girly texts from female teachers to male students. Flirting like a nubile cheerleader loses some appeal when you’re also handing out grades. But teachers are also victims. What seem like innocuous text messages have supported false accusations that ruined careers.

In Missouri between 2001 and 2005, there were 87 teacher-misconduct cases, some of which involved online contact. That number prompted the state to more explicity regulate contact between students and teachers. Now the Missouri Teachers Federation is suing the state in protest of the new law, which prohibits teachers from “friending” students on Facebook, messaging with them privately, texting privately and emailing privately. The state wants all online communications between student and teacher to be transparent. Teachers may contact the students via email or text messaging as long as the message is copied to another person. Social media sites can be used for interaction but only if the URLs are visible to outside users. That doesn’t mean the conversations will necessarily be monitored. But it does mean that if a mom wants to see what her child and his teacher are chatting about, she’d be able to do so.

The teachers argue this law will compromise the educational process and prevent them from communicating about bullying and emergencies. Perhaps it’s because I don’t work in a school, but it’s hard for me to understand the teachers’ objections.

With the exception of abuse in the home, I can’t think of many topics students and teachers need to discuss privately. If, as the teachers contend, the majority of the Facebook/texting/emailing is employed in an educational capacity, privacy doesn’t seem essential. When I was teaching college, I’d occassionally send an email to a student regarding an assignment or a test. But I wouldn’t have objected to that email being seen by more than one person. Why would I?

So far it doesn’t seem like the students—who should be the priority—are particularly upset by the new restrictions. quoted a student who said no one she knew was bothered by the limits. They understood, she said, the reasons for the decision.

As a person who edits a website about technology, I am sensitized to Internet-related First Amendment issues. If this case is actually about larger issues surrounding freedom of speech and the Internet, that’s one thing. But if it’s purely about whether teachers and students should be able to be friends on Facebook, I think the burden of proof is on the teachers to explain why that’s an essential part of the educational mission.