Should Teachers Connect with Students on Social Media?

By Author Profile Photo Jeff Gerlach

Man sitting alone on some bleachersHeader image by Official GDC

Being thoughtful about the barrier between our personal and professional lives. By Jeff Gerlach.

I had a moment of serendipity last week that changed a long standing social media policy of mine: Avoid connecting with students through social media channels that I deem strictly personal. For the most part, this meant not accepting friend requests from students on Facebook, but totally engaging with them through tweets, blog comments and other platforms that I have cultivated as teaching and learning spaces.

It felt cold to leave friend requests from students stewing in my notifications, but I always felt it inappropriate to accept. I felt uncomfortable having access to student generated content of a personal nature. Even though they initiated the contact, I felt responsible as an adult to stay out of their business. Avoiding situations that could draw questions about my professionalism was a strong consideration of mine as well. I thought it best to have a strict teaching and learning relationship with my students and that it was important for me to model how do use social media within that context.

Fast forward to last week. I’ve been out of the classroom for almost 11 months now. I discovered the EdTech Baton project on Instagram, a collaborative account that gets passed from one educator to another to showcase student learning, while Ben Rimes (@techsavvyed) was contributing to the project. I find the project to be a really interesting way to celebrate EdTech integration work with visual artifacts to show teachers and students engaging in the activities.

Screenshot of Instagram asking for permissionsTo follow this program, I created an Instagram account. As with all social media, I was prompted to search my phone contacts for people I know who are using Instagram. In the past I’ve always declined to do this, opting to carefully curate contacts to match my intended use of the new medium I’m exploring. But for whatever reason, I decided to throw caution to the wind and allow Instagram to send massive follow requests to every contact.

What followed was a parade of follows from past students of mine. The interesting thing is that only about 20 of them were in contacts. Enough of those students connected with me that it must have alerted other past students, so there was sort of a chain reaction that let me connect with close to 40 students spread across my follows and followers.

Then, I received a comment from one of my students. I was excited, yet also terrified. The policy I once practiced can probably be relaxed now that I no longer teach in the district where these kids go to school. Yet, I still feel like I’m their teacher. Being that our relationships were forged within that context, I probably will always feel that way. So I responded.

Openly sharing ourselves with students lets them understand us as people and helps to strengthen the connections we have with them. If students and teachers are deeply invested in one another’s interests and general well-being, it supports a strong teaching and learning relationship as well. Most importantly, opening up our personal channels provides an amazing opportunity for informal learning. It’s hard to predict when informal learning could take place, but sharing openly is the only way to encourage it.

So through the lens of informal learning spaces, I looked at my use of Facebook during my teaching tenure to imagine what could have been if students had the chance to interact with me.

Screenshot of Facebook Video

Imagine my students comments about my trips to Chicago, Sedona and Colorado Springs. A natural segue into a geography conversation.

Screenshot of Facebook Video

I’ve got quite a few random links in my feed that happen to be related to the content that I taught. Go figure, profession and interest overlap sometimes. But my students never got to interact with them. We might have missed out on good conversations.

Screenshot of Facebook Video

Students could congratulate me on getting married or earning my master’s degree, express their sympathies on the passing of my grandfather, potentially even engage with my family and friends and my opportunity to engage similarly with them. All these things may or may not be content based interactions but they are chances to practice their social skills within the context of real human experience. This stuff has really great tie-ins to my social studies content, but if all we’re doing is building rapport that’s great too.

I must admit, this experience made me regret not sharing my whole self with my students. If I could go back and tell past me to avoid getting too worried about getting fired over a misunderstanding or finding out something about a student that I’d rather not, I totally would. I would reference the powerful informal learning opportunities that could be shared to justify my position. So because I’m no longer able to, I want to encourage you to consider it yourselves. Really weigh the pros with the cons and be thoughtful about your decision.

As far as my interactions moving forward. I’m interested to see if I can build a PLN comprised of former students through Instagram. It’s crazy to me that Instagram, of all mediums, could be a pathway for this. We’ll see.

Do you use social media to connect with your students for personal or informal learning interactions? Do you try to create a barrier between your personal and professional social media spaces? Why did you come to that decision? Connect with me and let me know!

About the Author

Jeff Gerlach is passionate about helping teachers enhance learning for students by way of strategic technology integration. This fuels his work as an instructional design coach. Prior to his time at Michigan Virtual, Jeff was a social studies teacher for six school years and he earned a master’s degree from Michigan State University in educational technology. Away from the education world he enjoys spending time at the ice rink, at home with his young family and head nodding to hip-hop music.

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