Setting Facebook Boundaries
By: Alex Scofield
By almost any metric, Bourne High School English teacher Mary Clare Casey is an “average” user on Facebook, the popular social networking website.
She uses it to stay in touch with friends and family, share pictures, and reconnect with lost acquaintances.
She also neatly fits most of the demographic data of a typical Facebook user.
For example, folks between 35 and 54 make up the largest demographic on Facebook; Ms. Casey is 52.
She does have more than the average number of friends, though, she’s got 209 (and counting) to the typical user’s 130.
But given that Ms. Casey is a schoolteacher, she has a few more guidelines than most people for her own use of the site, which is also popular among her students.
First, Ms. Casey never sends friend requests to students on the site, nor does she accept them if they are sent to her.
By becoming someone’s “friend” on Facebook, a user is given more access to the information that person shares on their profile. They can see messages written on the person’s main page (called their “wall”), see more pictures, and more closely track the messages the person writes on other users’ pages.
That is information Ms. Casey said she is just not comfortable sharing with her students.
“I have received friend requests by students who currently attend BHS. My response? I am sorry, but I do not friend any students who currently attend the school where I work,” she said. “I have never had a problem with that.”
Facebook can offer a dangerous window into the private lives of professionals who are not judicious enough in choosing what to share about themselves on their pages.
Facebook was initially started as a social utility for college students, and many users found themselves being judged harshly by potential employers who had seen their sometimes vulgar status updates or racy photos.
Considering how she maintains her page, Ms. Casey said she would not be concerned that her students would learn anything embarrassing about her if they became Facebook friends.
She pointed out that she is friends with her sons on the site, after all, and “would never post anything inappropriate” anyway.
“I like my privacy,” Ms. Casey said, simply.
There is another reason that teachers need to be careful when using Facebook, said Jennifer R. McDonald, a fellow English teacher at Bourne High School, and it is not what students might learn about their teachers, but what the teachers might learn about the students.
Ms. McDonald is the yearbook coordinator at the high school, and she opened an account as a way to gain access to candid photos.
She found them, she said, but many were not appropriate for the yearbook.
“Last year, when I first signed on for the purpose of yearbook needs, I saw pictures of kids partying, smoking, and things like that,” she said. “It put me in an awkward position. The kids weren’t thinking, ‘Gee, maybe someone might see this who might rat me out!’ It was very awkward.”
Like Ms. Casey, Ms. McDonald is an average Facebook user, though slightly more active. She has nearly 250 friends. Also like Ms. Casey, she refuses to accept friend requests from her students.
“I’m afraid of what I might see,” she said. “From what I hear and see, kids vent all kinds of dirty laundry on there, and I wouldn’t want to be brought into that mix. I don’t want to read or see pictures about the parties they go to or about the drama in their lives. It’s not my business, and I might read or see something that I’d have to report as a mandatory reporter for the schools.”
It is also about putting up a barrier between her professional and private lives that students cannot scale, Ms. McDonald said.
“As adults, we must draw the line somewhere,” she said. “Students aren’t our friends, in the real world or cyberworld.”
But despite the efforts by teachers to insulate their private lives, the wall between schools and homes is porous in the age of Internet socializing, explained Bourne High School Principal Ronald H. McCarthy.
With so much student interaction taking place on Facebook, it is inevitable that the dialogue can become contentious, he said.
When what would typically be a private argument on a playground or over the telephone go public via Facebook, it is the school’s job to get to the bottom of the problem, Mr. McCarthy said.
As all conversations are saved in cyberspace, they can be forwarded or printed out for review by a school resource officer, whose job it is to ensure that sparks ignited on the Internet do not blaze though the halls of the high school.
Mr. McCarthy is not a Facebook user, himself.
“I never had one and never will,” he said. “I just don’t get it.”
However, he said he understands how the style of communication that the Internet encourages may emboldened students to say things they otherwise would not in person.
“You have a kid in his room, maybe he’s a had few Red Bulls, and all of a sudden he’s ready to call somebody ‘a jerk’ on their Facebook page,” he said.
While some of the Facebook exchanges that the high school investigates turn out to be trivial, Mr. McCarthy said it is critical to take seriously what happens between students on the Internet, because the students themselves certainly do.
Bourne Middle School Headmaster Mary C. Childress said that Facebook presents both a challenge and an opportunity for growth for schools.
Unlike her high school counterpart, Ms. Childress does use Facebook.
Though she does not accept friend requests from students, she does see how the social utility can be used to increase communication from teacher to teacher and teacher to parent.
The school district does not have a written policy outlawing friendships between students and teachers, though both Ms. Childress and Mr. McCarthy said they strongly discourage such relationships.
Ms. Childress said she plans to start using Twitter, another social networking site, where users can share messages of 140 text characters or less. It could be used to share information about homework assignments, school events, or even snow days, Ms. Childress said.
First, though, the schools have a responsibility to teach students the appropriate use of social media.
“We have to teach students how to have a conversation,” she said.
Ms. Childress said many of her health teachers already discuss the appropriate use of Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace during their classes, and she could envision its becoming an even larger part of the curriculum.
Mr. McCarthy agreed. He said regardless of how he personally feels about social networking sites, administrators have a responsibility to understand them and how they are used by students.
“I think if you were to ask me what the biggest challenge these sites pose for us five years from now, the answer would be very different from the one I give you today,” he said. “The students are always going to be one step ahead of us, and we need to be aware of that.”
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