Reaching out to Dispel the myth of the Wild West Internet
A little while ago, a student who I know posted a somewhat troubling message on a social network about feeling alone and depressed. Instantly, my mind began to wonder what to do. I know this student, but not particularly well. It was the end of the day, and I was unlikely to see this student again. Was this just a simple bit of venting (probably so) or was it a larger cry for help? How would this student react to me writing to inquire what was up? Would I be perceived as a stalker? Am I violating some sort of school policy simply by be able to see this status update(Answer: No)? On another day, I would have missed this altogether, or simply ignored it, but this time I decided to write a short message, simply stating I noticed this message, I was concerned, and I hope you know that I and many other people at the school value you, and hope that if you’re in trouble, you’ll find a trusted adult to talk to.
That student wrote me back shortly thereafter to say that everything was fine and they really appreciated my concern.
And in this moment, I think I see what we’re at risk of losing if we follow the road that so many schools are following and develop locked-down social media policies that forbid interaction between students and teachers in non-school sanctioned spaces. We miss the humanity of connection.
As a former boarding school teacher, I still think that one of the most powerful things students learn from going to boarding school is that their teachers are people too. People who have good days and bad, make mistakes often, think about things beyond the subject they are teaching and who really crave engagement from their students beyond simply asking about grades or homework. And I think one of the most valuable lessons students can learn in school is how to interact with adults—if students can master this single skill, much of the world’s expertise will be open to them. One way to teach this in Independent Day schools is to encourage reaching out through social media.
I get sad when I read about how the internet is some new “Wild West” and what we need is a sheriff to set up rigorous policies to minimize liability, protect schools from lawsuits, and make sure students and teachers never meet in social media spaces. I’m not the world’s greatest scholar of American History during Westward Expansion, but it occurs to me Little House on the Prarie is also a story of life in the “Wild West”, yet is is one where children grow up supported by all of the adults in the community. Since life on the frontier was so hard, everyone in the community had to band together in order to survive—”it takes a village,” and all that mush. My thought is that in many ways, social media feels a lot more like Little House on the Prairie to me; learners banding together to corral and digest all the incredible information that’s out there on the digital frontier.
For me, the best policy is one of trust—trust between faculty, students and administration. A policy encourages reaching out to strengthen connections between faculty, students, staff and administrators. This is the key overcoming every threat, real or imagined.