Teacher Triage

In November I left a high school where I had taught nearly a decade. All that time, I had one rule governing my interaction with students over Facebook: I will not accept your friend request until you graduate.

I had my reasons for this. Various school board policies, the desire for personal and professional boundaries, avoidance of seeing something I would have to report.

Those are all good reasons, but I’m over it.

30 minutes ago I sent this message to about 20 high school seniorst:

“I’m done with some dumb rule about not friending you until you graduate. You’re my humans. So what, I used to grade you. That’s just circumstantial. We lost an alum this week, the kind of kid that had Signature existed in 2009, he probably would have been one of us. He was one of us, and he’s gone now. We are each other’s safety net. If you’re sad call me. If you think someone is sad, call them…THEN call me. I’m not losing any of you people to some ‘nobody loves me, I’m all alone’ bullshit. We all love you. No one’s alone. I’m keeping all of you until I die, and that won’t be until 2079 and you all are going to gather around my bed and talk about how fabulous I am. I’ll squeeze your hand in my frail one and make meaningful eye contact and you’ll know that means I love you, but I won’t speak because I probably won’t have any teeth. So, accept my damn friend request already. And if you have people who I obviously want to be friends with but who aren’t in this message: 1) If they aren’t on Facebook, tell them that’s unacceptable and they better join, 2) If they are on Facebook, forward this to them. I probably couldn’t find them when I creeped on your list of friends. Oh, and if you’ve been reading my blog for Lent, congratulations, you just became day 10. I love you. Be my friend. Barb”

If this isn’t defense enough, two years ago I wrote the following op-ed which I never attempted to publish. (I do this a lot. See my first Imperflection for reasons why). I wrote it over frustrations that we don’t allow/support/train teachers to be first responders in those virtual spaces where our teenagers live these days:

As a teacher, you are constantly treading a tenuous path between your officially sanctioned profession and your ethically imperative vocation.  The precarious journey from childhood to adulthood is peppered with pitfalls, hard choices, and messy missteps.  Teachers, particularly high school teachers, are spotters and first responders.  We have the proximity and objectivity to watch young people as they flounder and fall and scrabble and soar.  It is not for the faint of heart and it does not fit neatly into a teacher’s code of conduct booklet.

All parents want to believe that their children are safe, even when they are not looking.  Most of the time they are, but sometimes when they are in peril, it is we teachers who are first to know.  In that moment we have choice.  Do we stick with the safe and sanctioned role we have been hired to play, or do we plunge into a murkier territory of questions like, “What do you really think about weed?” and issues like “My parents won’t let me go to therapist because it’s against our religion.”   Officially, perhaps we should not answer, but inevitably, we do. We must. And it is in these moments that we are willing to risk the ire of parents or board members because, ultimately, our obligation is not them but to their children.

Given this reality, teacher training should NOT just be about young people’s intellectual development but their moral development as well.  Rather than parents being frightened of this, concerned it blurs the line between church and state, morality and religion are not synonymous and human rights don’t belong to a particular faith or culture.  Teachers shape character whether we train them to or not.  If we are not prepared to answer these hard questions, as trustworthy adults, their peers will have no qualms about giving them a likely less than adequate answer.

In Anne Arundel County (as well as many other counties, I’m sure, around the country) teachers are officially forbidden from:

1. Using Facebook to communicate with students*

2. Setting up Classroom Facebook pages, or most other social media sites.

3. Using twitter to communicate with students*

4. Using twitter to post homework assignments

5. Using blackboard or wikis without taking a multi-week course with the county

6. Encouraging students to set up personal emails for educational purposes

7. Communicating with students via email

Any adult perusing this list will be able to see the possible hazards some of these rules seek to prevent, but further down the list we have rules that are absurdly out of touch with how communication has changed in the last decade.  The reality, of course, is that the more ridiculous the rule, the more likely that it’s broken.  It’s difficult to go a week without communicating with some student by email about a grade, a makeup test, or an extracurricular activity.

When you forbid these forms of communication to teachers (presumably for issues of liability) it means you can’t have open conversations or trainings about how to utilize them in ways both innovative and safe.

When adults understand the landscape of virtual spaces like twitter, we can monitor them, utilize them for good, and help young people understand the potentials and perils of these new frontiers.  Otherwise we must instead triage from the sidelines one crisis after another and trust our children to tell us what happens beyond the bend.

I wrote it then, but wasn’t brave enough to say it until now. Well I’m done hanging back. You’re all my humans. I’m not staying on the sidelines. If you’re in the deep end, I’m coming after you.

(NOTE: AACPS Policy Update Via Brad Wray, IT Teacher Specialist, Friend and Colleague: “Hey there! Nice article on friending students. People gave me all sorts of grief when I started doing it. I think I had the same reasons as you have but I wasn’t able to express them as beautifully as you have. But also in your rules that AACPS has rules 1 and 3 are the only ones that are official and currently true. The rest used to be official and changed around 2012. Now we teach teachers to use twitter for their classroom. The bb course isn’t needed anymore. Etc.”)



2 thoughts on “Teacher Triage”

  1. That’s why they love you so much. That’s why you are a great teacher! That’s why I am honored to have you in my life!

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