I read with interest the recent Herald Sun article by Stephen Drill titled, Facebook twist for teachers. This had all the ingredients to make me sit up and take notice. It combined my two most dominant activities, social media and education. So the scene was set for an opinion piece.

The article’s point was, ‘should teachers become facebook friends with their students?’

Surprisingly a senior Department of Education official, Darrell Fraser said he had no problems with teachers becoming ‘friends’ online as reported by Stephen Drill . Opposing views came from two prominent organisations in Parents Victoria and the Victorian Association of Secondary School Principals; breaches of the Victorian Teaching Profession Code of Conduct was cited as a major reason why facebook friending was inappropriate.

So what should teachers do?

As with all things in life, it’s naive to lump everyone in a category as having a like mind. The motivations and circumstances for teachers to want to become ‘friends’ would vary significantly.

One thing to note is that the article did not specify if the students in question were primary or secondary. Let’s assume they are secondary because you need to be 13 and older to have a facebook account (and myspace); although there are workarounds. Just ask a 12 year old.

Here are few scenarios.

A student requests a teacher who does not have a facebook account to become their friend

Now I got caught in this scenario with a student – one of my Uni students. A few years ago in the early days of social media, a student of mine invited me to become their facebook friend, so as not to offend, I accepted. Low and behold, all of a sudden I had requests from everywhere. It appeared that I became very visible on the net all of a sudden. Facebook had automatically (I’m sure I did tick the box ‘accept the terms and conditions’) created my account.

In this scenario we have a person that is really unaware of what facebook is all about so they would have no idea about security settings, ‘writing on people’s wall’ and the way information can proliferate.

A student requests a teacher who does have a facebook account to become their friend

You’ve got to ask why would you accept? Is it because you want to be seen as cool with the students? Is it because you are so fixated by facebook that any request gets scooped up?

Now maybe the seasoned facebooker can somehow manage to separate their student friends from the others; but again why would you?  I remember reading an article recently from a Melbourne designer who said he had now removed himself from facebook. He found that he had real friends and then there were those that he felt a polite obligation to befriend. He cited a situation where he was found out to have lied to one of his peripheral friends when he posted photos of a night-out with his real friends, when, you guessed it, he had told his not-so friend that he was staying in. From that incident on, he found that he was forced to manage his facebook account like a corporate pr agent – scrutinising every word before release. In the end he just found that it all became too difficult so he bailed.

A teacher asks a student to become their facebook friend

This is just plain creepy. As a parent I would be very concerned about the motivations here. Even if they were virtuous, it compromises the teacher’s position significantly. An unstable student could permanently damage a teacher’s career. This could be the case in any of the above situations.

What of a situation with a male teacher and a female student? Would it make a difference if it were a male teacher and male student? It’s just too contentious.

As much as I am an advocate of our new digital world, I do believe it is merely an enabler not an agent for changing sensibilities or moralities. The relationship between teacher and student is one of the most powerful outside of family. Teachers are masters at managing environments where the strong, the funny, the vulnerable, the slow learners are all dealt with respectfully. And they are able to achieve all this by keeping a layer between them and a student. It’s what good corporate managers do and it’s what good parents do. If we become everyone’s friend our positions as leaders and teachers collapse.

And by the way, have you seen the spelling on facebook – it would drive a teacher balmy.

So it’s a big no for me.