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Facebooking professors, friendly or intrusive?

Picture this: you’re a well-respected educator at an institution who has always been helpful and friendly to your students. You log onto your Facebook account one day and notice that you have a new ‘Friend Request’ so you click through to see who it’s from. It turns out to be a current student of yours. Do you accept the request?

This is a dilemma growing more and more common lately. What was once a Web site used mainly by high school and college students is now finding new members in adults and in this case, teachers and professors. This inevitably leads to the issue: is it ethical to become a ‘Facebook friend’ with a student that is currently in one or more of your classes?

Some professors, like professor of communication at Castleton State College Robert Wuagneux, use Facebook as “a tool to connect with people in a positive way.”

“I have no policy [on the matter], anyone who wants to can be my friend … [I use it because] I’m interested in my students. I’m not a troll, I don’t do trolling.

“I like to keep it friendly and fun, much like my classes … I might write a little positive blip [to a student] if they’re seeming a little down. Why not?”

Anyone who’s had Wuagneux as a professor knows that he is not one to miss one of his classes unless it’s an emergency. One day, however, an emergency situation came up and he knew he wouldn’t be able to make it to class.

“So I got on Facebook, sent a message to all of my students telling them I couldn’t make it to class the next day, and that was that. That’s why I like Facebook.”

Roy Vestrich, another communication professor at CSC, originally got a Facebook account “to kill some time” last year after a fall on the ice forced him to spend a week at home, recovering in his bed. He found it to be “great for connecting with old friends and colleagues.”

Then came a ‘friend request’ from a student.

“I had to think about it,” he said. “If I’m friends with a student and something came to my attention that I knew was endangering to themselves, [I would have] the professional obligation to address that.”

This was one reason Vestrich initially had a strict policy on not becoming ‘friends’ with current students.

But some students don’t see the big deal.

“I think it’s okay for students and teachers to be friends on Facebook as long as they keep their relationship professional,” said Elsa McLaughlin a senior at CSC. “It’s true that it’s a social networking site, and people should be able to behave socially while using it, but it’s also the Internet which is public domain. So anyone has access to what you say and do on your Facebook page.”

Unlike Vestrich, Nancy Jarchow, a foreign language/theatre teacher at Williamstown Middle-High School in Williamstown, Vt., feels that “being friends with current students [helps me] learn more about what interests them and we connect on a more individual level. This really carries over into the classroom because I feel as if my student-teacher relationship is very much enhanced by this extra contact. I don’t believe there are any cons to it.”

Emma Lamson, a senior at WMHS and daughter of Nancy Jarchow, disagrees with her no and is not friends with any current teachers.

“I think there is a lot of stuff that goes on in a student’s life outside of school that their teacher doesn’t need to see. It could be deemed inappropriate having teachers know everything that you put on Facebook,” she said. “I also personally believe that a [teen’s] social life and a teacher’s social life should be kept separate. Maybe I’m just old school, but I do believe that teachers are in your life to teach, not to be your buddy.