A Facebook teaching moment

An eighth-grade teacher, “friended” by her students on Facebook, now knows about their drinking, drug use and occasional cheating and plagiarism. “Must she report any of this to the school, the police or the parents?” a reader asks the New York Times’ Ethicist, Randy Cohen. He suggests the teacher start by warning their students about the lack of privacy online.

Strictly speaking, when these students gave her access to their Facebook pages, they waived their right to privacy. But that’s not how many kids see it. To them, Facebook and the like occupy some weird twilight zone between public and private information, rather like a diary left on the kitchen table. That a photo of drunken antics might thwart a chance at a job or a scholarship is not something all kids seriously consider. This teacher can get them to think about that.

She might send e-mail messages to transgressing students, noting their misdeeds and reminding them of their vulnerability. Or she could address her entire class, citing (anonymous) examples of student escapades. Or she could encourage her school to include a regular instructional session on the Internet and its pitfalls.

This is not to advocate turning a blind eye to bad behavior. It is to establish priorities. If a kid is in genuine danger, she should intervene swiftly.

Cohen also suggests warning cheaters that the next time they brag about it she’ll take action.

OK, readers, what do you think?

About Joanne

Comments

  1. I think she should unfriend them immediately, inform her principal immediately, and never do that again.

  2. Randy Cohen often misses the forest for the trees. What was the teacher doing “friending” her students in the first place? Isn’t this just tempting fate with the likelihood of inappropriate communication in both directions?

  3. Joanne,

    A timely news story related to the “privacy” issues when using Facebook

    MI6 chief blows his cover as wife’s Facebook account reveals family info…

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1197562/MI6-chief-blows-cover-wifes-Facebook-account-reveals-family-holidays-showbiz-friends-links-David-Irving.html

  4. I agree with Rob whole-heartedly, but let’s chalk the friending up to general naivety. I think that Randy does indeed miss the forest for the trees, but I also think that he’s hit upon an interesting wrinkle—the comparison of something along the lines Facebook to a diary left open on the table (with photos of them imbibing).

    It’s a tough call. You clearly can’t do nothing. On the other hand, the traditional route of turning them in isn’t likely to persuade them to stop drinking and whatnot. What’s your ultimate goal? Protecting yourself (turn them in) or helping them (come up with a creative way to address the issue).

  5. Parent2 says:

    I agree with Lightly Seasoned. I also think her school needs a policy to deal with the internet–as it isn’t going away. Even if these young teens think their pages are private, they aren’t.

    She could make it a teachable moment. “Kids, I’m unfriending you, because as your teacher, I can’t ignore some behavior.”

  6. Diana Senechal says:

    According to Innovative Educator, it just isn’t acceptable anymore for a teacher not to be on Facebook. If you’re not on Facebook, you may appear out of touch, “washed up,” “irrelevant.” Apparently how you seem is more important than how you are, in such a philosophy. “For innovative educators,” Innovative Educator writes, “our clients include our students and not being in touch with how our clients operate is career suicide. Furthermore, Facebook provides educators with an amazing window and communication vehicle into the lives of our kids.”

    Seems like a setup for trouble. Not to mention that it’s deadly to be so worried about how you seem to others. That’s the real career suicide.

  7. Andromeda says:

    I wouldn’t friend my students until after they graduated — that seemed just too awkward. But I did look at some of their pages and run across them in some communities, and I did see some stuff I sorta wish I hadn’t, albeit not on *that* scale.

    And, you know? Teachable moment. Conversations with kids about privacy and self-presentation and who can see what online. Conversations, where necessary, with administrators, when online conduct seemed to be pointing to problems that were happening within school walls. Things improved.

    I think it’s very hard to be an engaged teacher online — you end up with no work/life boundaries, and it’s a job where it’s hard to have boundaries to begin with. And it’s important for schools to have policies that take into account student and teacher needs (though I’m afraid a lot of those policy decisions are going to be driven by ignorance and moral panic — certainly my school seemed to be settings itself up to have issues with the policymakers being of the generation that does *not* generally use social networking software).

    But I also think danah boyd is the go-to expert on matters like this, and she is very clear that adults need to be present and engaged in these sort of spaces. So we’d best figure out a way to do it.

  8. Perhaps a lesson on how to change the “privacy” features of one’s Facebook feed so that one can share different types of information with different groups of FB friends? Though it may not get through to them…

    I’ve had this type of conversation with my 22 yr old brother-in-law several times with no luck.

  9. greifer says:

    you are all missing a different forest for the trees.

    These kids and young adults have no need of privacy to hide their behavior. They don’t care who knows because no one in any authority is going to do anything about it anyway.

    They have no shame because no one has taught them any, and don’t see what it matters. And looking at our society, they are right.

  10. Drugs, drinking, cheating, and plagiarism? The parents and school should be notified of all of them, and there should ALSO be a meeting with the teacher and parents regarding internet use.

    Good heavens, what kind of responsible adult knows that an eighth grader is using drugs or drinking and simply reminds the kid that they don’t have the kind of privacy they think they do online? There’s a moral responsibility to take some action beyond warning the child in a case like that.

  11. There is a difference between being on Facebook and using the new technologies and engaging in them with your students. I use all kinds of online spaces with my students, but the boundaries are very clear and I do not “friend” them in spaces where those boundaries are not present. I am their teacher; I am not part of their social circle.

  12. Bill Leonard says:

    Cheryl wrote,

    “Good heavens, what kind of responsible adult knows that an eighth grader is using drugs or drinking and simply reminds the kid that they don’t have the kind of privacy they think they do online? There’s a moral responsibility to take some action beyond warning the child in a case like that.”

    Indeed.

    If I understand the scenario correctly, this teacher has been told of misdemeanor and felony crimes. In California, I believe, if he/she does not report the information, that is a misdemeanor. He/she can, and perhaps should, lose the teaching job — and the opportunity to teach, ever again, in the state.

    Come on, people. We seem to quibbling about “trust” and some “right to privacy” when dangerously serious behavior is happening, e.g., 12- and 13-year-olds drinking and using drugs. If the teacher is a responsible adult, he/she will report same. If not, he/she, does not deserve to hold a job as a teacher.

    If the teacher subsequently loses the trust of the kids, tough. Is the trust and love of the kids enough to endanger the lives of the kids and the career of the teacher?

    Just my nickel’s worth.

  13. Greifer said, “These kids and young adults have no need of privacy to hide their behavior. They don’t care who knows because no one in any authority is going to do anything about it anyway.They have no shame because no one has taught them any, and don’t see what it matters. And looking at our society, they are right.”

    Nail on the head , Greifer. Moreover, any teacher who has the time and/or inclination to be on Facebook has too much time on her hands and misplaced priorities.

  14. Facebook and it’s ilk have redefined what friendship means in a decidedly downward direction. Friendship, real friendship, implies respect and trust and is earned. It is not given lightly or capriciously or for commercial purpose as Facebook is. Facebook “friending” is to real friendship as “hello, sailor” and fifty bucks is to romantic intimacy.

    So “friending” a complete stranger, much less a student with whom a teacher has a professional relationship, is right out. As to the declared drug use and cheating, my teacher informant (well, wife) says she would notify her principal, who would in turn ignore it. She, however, would keep a laser eye on the little malchik for the rest of the school year.

    On the other hand, I met my wife online in the BBS days. I suppose it works if you take it slower at first, like at 300 baud.

  15. Robert Wright says:

    On Facebook, I don’t friend any students and I don’t post anything personal. It makes for a pretty dull Facebook wall, but I’m used to being dull.

    On MySpace, I friend everybody, but then defriend them when they use obscenities or racial slurs.

    My profile on MySpace details my ninja past and how the Witness Protect Program placed me in my position as a middle school teacher.

    I’m at MySpace as myspace.com/meanoldteacher

  16. Miller Smith says:

    Upon seeing or hearing of any criminal or dangerous activity being committed by a child or inflicted upon a child the teacher-a.k.a. mandantory reporter per state law-shall immediatly inform the authorities without delay.

    Any teacher reading this had better understand that the above is the law in the entirity of the United States. The penalty for failure to take action to protect a child from themselves or others is loss of job, loss of personal wealth, and-I dearly hope with all my heart-3 to 5 years of prison time.

  17. Any time a student comes to me with the “confession” look on their face, I remind them of my requirements under the law BEFORE they talk about whatever it is.

    “Can I tell you something?”
    “Sure, but remember, if you tell me about something illegal or abusive, I am required by law to report it to an appropriate person. I cannot ‘keep a secret’ or stay silent. I can help you through something by getting you to the right people or by talking to them for you.”

    It seems like a real downer but students later appreciate that you didn’t “trap” them or “trick them into saying something” that they weren’t ready to divulge. If they are really upset about a situation, they’ll talk to you anyway and your helping them get to the right people is far better than playing armchair psychiatrist. Also, many of the kids don’t know who to talk to or are unsure if they are allowed to talk to the school counselor/ SRO/ CPS etc.

  18. Margo/Mom says:

    It seems that the issue of setting professional boundaries has far more to do with self-definition that the co-location of spaces, whether real or virtual. I have elected to friend some young people on facebook knowing that I remain an old fuddy-duddy and will continue to be so and there is not much alarming–or even highly personal–that I am going to share there. One young friend has a habit of posting what I would consider to be TMI at times. I can comment, or leave it alone, or notify her mom if need be–which is completely consistent with my behavior in real space. But, as it happens, she was previously friended by my adult daughter, who is far closer in age, who, along with her friends, had already given her the word to seriously clean up her act. Apparently things have gotten much better.

    The entire discussion of professional boundaries is one that I find curious. As a high schooler, my family moved to a small town. My dad, a professional, was wont to run into various people with whom he worked at the grocery store, in restaurants, at church, or at the Eagles or Elks clubs (the closest thing to a risque environment that existed-with bar on Fridays and Saturdays). I might see my teachers in any of the same places. I will allow as to how some of the boundaries at that time were just a bit more flexible than now (my physics teacher was married to a former student who was pregnant before they married).

    Compare this to my children’s teachers who maintain “professional boundaries” by exiting the school building minutes after the bell rings, enforcing contractual clauses that protect them from meetings with parents except on two specified (by teachers) evenings a year, and doing other things that strike me as just plain rude (like making a statement about ending a conversation and then hanging up the phone when conversations do not please them). Professional boundaries should never be an excuse for not wanting to know what is going on with students. Recall all of the bullying cases that have ended badly–only to have students report that they were well aware of it, while teachers report that they had no idea.

  19. Whoa. And here I thought it mainly happened the other way around.

    I also would not friend a student.

    I also would report it in that situation. It’s only one in a hundred thousand cases of student misbehavior online and otherwise, but still.

  20. Great post. It’s definitely an interesting thing that people are now dealing with. A friend of mine is a 5th grade teacher, and she was adamant about not joining Twitter, even though she was curious about it. Because of the open communication that social media allows, it is definitely uncomfortable for some at first to overcome. However, it just depends on how you are using these platforms. Yes, if you post updates about your weekend partying and drug use, someone is going to find out, and probably people you don’t want to. However, if you are using it for information, socializing (that isn’t bragging about how much you drank), and other constructive purposes, I don’t think it’s inappropriate. However, the problem with that is you can’t ensure both parties interacting are using the same platform for the same things.

  21. I read that question/answer this weekend and was moderately horrified – glad I’m not the only one who felt it was a problem.

    However, my new favorite way of dealing with student friending is Robert Wright’s above – “My profile on MySpace details my ninja past and how the Witness Protect Program placed me in my position as a middle school teacher.”

    Love it and love the page itself. Awesome.

  22. Robert — now we know why you teach middle school :).

    Margo: professional boundaries aren’t as complicated as you are making them out to be, and things like ending phone calls rudely aren’t what we are talking about. Because my daughter attends my district, I’ve had siblings of students sleep over my house — and in a few (too few) years, it will be my current students in my house raiding the fridge. But I’m still a mom, not a “friend.” I’d also argue that your relationship with your young person is different than if it were me and a student. I am bound by professional ethics and the law to report certain behaviors — you’re not.

    It is not unusual for me to do a parent conference at 6:15am waiting for my latte at Starbucks or in line at the grocery store. Things haven’t changed that much.

  23. Margo/Mom says:

    LS–I’m a licensed social worker. The rules aren’t different. I don’t know whether anyone has legally defined the grey areas with regard to what a mandated reporter must report about things that they know in an unpaid or otherwise “non-professional” setting. I would suppose that they might mimic the ways in which good samaritan laws apply to docs. But I have always assumed that adults, whether mandated or not, have a responsibility to act when they are aware that young people are in danger.

  24. Miller Smith says:

    Margo, my high school is getting ready to have “class advisory” periods during the week to teach children things the parents are failing to teach them at home. The first item is “home life” where we sit down with each student and a list of bullet points and ask about what is going on in their home.

    We will be asking about violencein their home.
    We will be asking about drug and alcohol use in their home.
    We will be asking if they hve guns (legal or not) in their home.
    and ther is much more.

    We are told that we are to tell the students that their conversations with the teachers are confidential. We are then told to report any illegal or harmeful activity the students tell us.

  25. Ragnarok says:

    Quite horrifying, Miller.

    And these clods then have the cheek to talk to us about integrity!

  26. Two points:

    1) Margo/Mom- I am a teacher (12 year veteran of middle school) and the only reason a teacher would say to a parent that they are ending the conversation and then hanging up the phone is when a parent is being abusive and rude or if class is about to start and the parent won’t get off the phone. That tactic is the standard issue last resort for dealing with parents who are behaving in a completely abnormal way. It is not used for when “conversations do not please them.” Perhaps you should reflect on how you treat others.

    2) I can not for a second imagine “friending” a student. I feel that it is definitely inappropriate.

  27. This story is like the help wanted sign at Dunkin Donuts – you can just keep it up permanently. It can be right next to the “HS teacher faces allegations of having innapropriate relations with student” story. Outside of school don’t hang around, ‘friend’, or be seen speaking twice with students – unless you’re dying to get on the 6 o’clock news.

  28. Bill Leonard says:

    Miller Smith wrote,

    “We will be asking about violence in their home.
    We will be asking about drug and alcohol use in their home.
    We will be asking if they have guns (legal or not) in their home.
    and ther is much more.”

    Whoa.

    It is one thing to respond with a report when a kid acknowledges drinking, drug abuse, physical or other abuse online.

    It is quite another to ask some, perhaps all, of the questions Miller Smith writes of. Seems to me such questions are far beyond intrusive.

    For instance, as an adult who is neither mentally ill nor a felon, I have a Constitutional right to own firearms, and it is no business of the school or anyone else to know that I may own firearms, their nature, or the number of same.

    By the same token, asking whether there are illegal arms in the house presumes a.) that the kid knows which arms may or may not be legal under law — and is familiar with the firearms laws in his/her state — and, b.) also assumes that the teacher is similarly familiar with the law, and knows what constitutes an illegal firearm. (I wonder how many teachers responding on this forum can actually tell me, with examples, what constitutes and illegal firearm.)

    Similarly, drug and alcohol use in the home. Again, as an adult, I am legally entitled to purchase and use alcohol. And why would the fact that we enjoy and are knowledgable about wine, and that I have converted a closet to a wine storage area be any business of the school or its administration?

    I think in this case I would tell my kids not to participate in this exercise, and I would be glad to tell the administration why.

  29. Jennifer Harrison says:

    Wow, lots of conversation. I’ve held an Internet presence for more than a decade now. I have my resume online for my students to see. I have a MySpace and a FaceBook site. I almost never visit MySpace and use it to find family photos for a family calendar. I use FaceBook all the time and love being in contact with FORMER students. It is great to see what they are achieving as adults.
    Before my students learn of my Internet use, they learn from me that any inappropriate behavior they reveal to me will be shared with school administration or the police as is my duty as a teacher. My students are fairly good about not sharing offensive material with me. I have had a couple FORMER students, in college now, post some things that I have commented on. Until recently I had not even questioned friending a student, but lately, I am thankful that I have not.
    And, for the person who thinks that any teacher who uses FaceBook definitely has too much time on his/her hands: a group of us teachers use FaceBook to share resources, to keep one another up to date on courses taken, and ideas. FaceBook can be a great tool for teachers. You just need to be creative and find ways to make educational use of free tools.

  30. Miller said, “We will be asking about violencein their home.
    We will be asking about drug and alcohol use in their home.
    We will be asking if they hve guns (legal or not) in their home.
    and ther is much more.”

    Exactly why my kids go to a non-government school and another reason why government schools have failed. These things are NONE of the school’s business.

  31. Margo/Mom says:

    Miller Smith says: “my high school is getting ready to have “class advisory” periods during the week to teach children things the parents are failing to teach them at home,” and continues: “we are told that we are to tell the students that their conversations with the teachers are confidential. We are then told to report any illegal or harmeful activity the students tell us.”

    One has to wonder what the lessons are that are missing at home.

  32. “One has to wonder what the lessons are that are missing at home.”

    One may care which lessons they are missing at home. But, school personnel should not be permitted to inquire about these things unless they have clear evidence of abuse. Otherwise, it’s none of the school’s business. The primary business of the school is teaching content and skills–nothing more.

    Perhaps if schools focused on their primary job, they would not have the time to focus on things that are none of their business and the schools would improve. Maybe.

  33. Rusha Sams says:

    I agree that the teacher should wait until students graduate from high school before “friending” them on Facebook. But even if this doesn’t happen, what have any of us done when we have read journal entries, essays, notes left in desks, etc. that contain more information than we really want to know or need to know? How you handle “private” information contained in a journal is always a tough call.

  34. Miller Smith says:

    Margo, we are now assuming that the students have little or no “home training”-as the term we use-and the students need an adult with good sense to sow the children how to behave in very common ways.

    Our children fight all the time about anything and everything. The don’t say ‘thank you’ at the appropriate times and respect for adults is non-existant. Cheating is rampant and supported by the students’ parents.

    We have some serious problems.

  35. Margo/Mom says:

    Miller:

    You missed my point. Children may or may not be missing out on critical lessons at home. What your school is teaching, apparently, if what you describe is accurate, is that the adults in your school do not trust, nor have relationships with the adults in students’ homes, and that further, the adults in the school are not to be trusted, as they say one thing and do another.

    Personally I have a great deal of respect for the concept of class advisory periods if well used. They are among strategies that can ensure that all kids have a relationship with at least one adult at school. What you describe, however, bears little to no resemblance to relationship building. I don’t know if some idiot has actually written a curriculum based on mining students for spicy details about their homelife, or if this is just the understanding that has been layered on and filtered down. Easy to happen in a cynical environment.

  36. Margo/Mom says:

    BTW–“respect for adults is non-existant. Cheating is rampant and supported by the students’ parents.”

    Certainly the actions describe above show little respect for the adults in students homes–but my understanding from some teachers is that cheating is supported by school staff and administration when it comes to standardized testing.

  37. Rusha: I discuss the content privately with the child. I also let the child know that I am going to talk to the social worker and that she may call the child down. In my greener years, I used to agonize over the trust issue — the kid is truuuuusting me and I’m going to break it! Much angst. Now I am older and wiser and I have learned that when these things are written where I am to read them, the child is asking me for help, not secrecy.
    .

  38. Elizabeth says:

    Good grief! We have problems with our kids because we are afraid to be responsible adults..just want to be “liked” by kids. I see this as a problem with many of my daughter’s classmates – mom/dad can’t say no to their kids. Step up and exercise authority.

  39. SuperSub says:

    The only way to make this a “teachable moment” is to publicly hammer these students with whatever consequences are available.

    Why? Telling these kids that their behavior is bad doesn’t work- they’ve already heard it. Educating them about online privacy just makes them better able to hide their activities. Hitting them with consequences like parental notification or bringing in the police or CPS if necessary might actually get them to think twice before drinking, doing drugs, or having sex.

    We are not their friends or older siblings. I don’t give a darn about what my students think of me as long as they respect me as their teacher. As teachers we are in loco parentis and are responsible for upholding some sort of ethics or morals, even if the parents do not.