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Reaching out to Dispel the myth of the Wild West Internet

November 8, 2011

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2011 10:28 pm

    This is really a terrific post! You’re so right about what boarding schools often get very right. It’s OK to get close with your students, in fact, it can be centrally positive if you hire great adults. I spent two years living with my students and that closeness ws invaluable.

    I also related to your story about reaching out to that student. Good work there.

    If a cool focuses it’s hiring on talented adults who can be trusted to get close with their student, this can be central to community growth.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. November 9, 2011 12:15 am

    Excellent post. I agree with your viewpoint and find what’s going on with so many districts regarding teachers, students, and social media a further reflection of just how fundamentally emotionally ill this nation is and continues to be. A very wise professor of education, Trevor Gardner of Eastern Michigan University, used to advise student teachers entering their field semester (and, ostensibly, their career) to not fear making (reasonable) physical contact with students. A hand of encouragement on shoulder or back, particularly for those students most taking postures of toughness/aloofness, can make a huge positive difference, he suggested. This was in c. 1993-5 in talks he gave at the University of Michigan. Shortly thereafter, he was no longer invited (the reason I heard was that U of M faculty resented bringing in someone from EMU, which, if true, reflects quite badly on them). The next year, they had a principal from one of the local high schools come in and scare the pants off of the student teachers with a talk on all the things they needed to avoid so as to fend off law suits against their schools, districts, and selves. I wanted to scream. But of course, his view was in perfect keeping with the mind-set that was spreading at the time and by now is nearly universal. And for my part, it’s sickening.

  3. November 9, 2011 8:27 am

    John, I think this is great. Thank you for taking this student seriously and also for advocating for the power of the Internet to help us all connect. We do not need a digital posse to patrol the iGeneration and those who teach them from frontiers of technology and emotional growth; we need persons alert to calls for contact and who are able to respond in a variety of ways – including through social networking. Peter

  4. November 10, 2011 12:19 am

    After reading your blog and then the other comments other people have left, it struck a nerve in me. My name is Amanda and I am from the University of South Alabama. I agree with you with my whole self about the ability to be a “talented adult” as Paul said. I think that we (me as a future teacher and you already there) should have a solid connection with all of our students. I know several years ago in my local high school they completely banned teachers from having facebook pages. The reasoning was because of the relationships between students and teachers were being blurred. I don’t see this as a problem, but many people in that community did. They do now allow facebook pages but with certain “rules” we shall call them. I think in today’s society you must protect yourself from suits but at the same time as Micheal says a hand of encouragement may be what makes the difference with a student.
    As far as your student who posted the depressed message, I would have done the same thing. Sometimes that’s all it takes, to know someone actually cares about you.
    We all have to be careful how we say things and how we act because one wrong move can land a suit against us, I don’t believe this is right but it’s the way it is now. I hope you continue to be a part of your students’ lives on campus and off campus.


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