Friending faculty


By Daniel Rothberg

Last year, science teacher Stephanie Quan was pestered by several girls in her chemistry class to friend them on her personal Facebook account. Though Quan told the girls that she was not going to add students to her Facebook network, their nagging did not subside.

“We wanted to be friends with her on Facebook because we always talked to her about her life,” said Ali Nadel ’11, one of Quan’s students.

“I finally caved and at the end of the year I made a Facebook,” Quan said.

Quan put a stop to their begging by creating a separate Facebook profile for just Harvard-Westlake students. After doing this, Quan made her personal Facebook profile unsearchable. Quan uses her student-accessible Facebook primarily to post links to interesting science-related videos. She also uses her profile to upload albums of school-related events, such as the geology class trip to Death Valley last year.

“It’s kind of nice to see what [students] lives are like,” Quan said.

With the Internet becoming a more prevalent form of communication, teachers have been recently faced with the question of whether or not it is appropriate to accept friend requests from students on Facebook. The school has no official policy stating whether or not it is acceptable for teachers to add students to their Facebook network, Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts said. However, the school advises teachers to abide by the guidelines outlined in the Faculty Handbook regarding ethical conduct between students and faculty.

“We’ve intentionally made broad guidelines that are described in our Faculty Handbook that relate to interactions between students and adults,” Huybrechts said. “The reason that they’re broad is because you never know what new mode of communication is going to come along.”

After having Quan as a teacher, Riley Guerin ’11 added her to his Facebook network. However, he feels that adding a teacher to Facebook can have some harmful side effects for students.

“If she ever saw something on there that was not H-W appropriate she would be well within her rights as a teacher to report us for it, and that’s kind of nerve-racking,” Guerin said.

While many teachers wait until their students graduate before adding them on their personal Facebook pages, some teachers add students while they are still enrolled in the school.

Math teacher and Educational Technology Committee chairman Jeff Snapp is one teacher who will accept invitations from current students on his personal Facebook account. Although Snapp is willing to add students to his Facebook network, his policy is never to communicate with them via Facebook.

“I think that faculty should very cautiously friend students via Facebook pages that are personal,” Huybrechts said. Snapp does not believe that students are making very many incriminating posts on Facebook.

“Students are more aware that what’s on there isn’t confidential and so it kind of has minimized the threat of any kind of problem arising,” Snapp said.

However, Snapp does recognize that students present themselves differently on Facebook than they do in class.

“The child who I see in class is very refined, for the most part,” Snapp said. “When I see things on Facebook, I am reminded that you guys are 16, 17 and 18 years old.”

“The potential danger is that once you’re connected via a Facebook page, you never know what else is going to be added to that Facebook page,” Huybrechts said. “I would be very cautious about being connected with something that is always changing and is there for the whole world to see.”

Unlike Snapp, math teacher Kevin Weis only accepts friend requests from students who are no longer enrolled in Harvard-Westlake.

“I prefer to remain ignorant of any of my current students’ bad behavior. I would, for example, rather not hear them using foul language or read foul language written by them,” Weis said.

Moreover, Weis believes that friending students on Facebook might jeopardize the student-teacher relationship.

“Also, I would rather keep my own personal life private,” Weis said. “I see no reasons why my students would benefit from seeing my status updates.”

For this reason, Weis keeps his profile private from anyone that he has not accepted to be his friend on Facebook.

On the other hand, Weis sees Facebook as an excellent medium for keeping in touch with graduates.

“I see this as Facebook’s major purpose: staying in contact with people and reconnecting with people you have somehow lost contact with. I would love to know what all of my students end up doing with their lives,” Weis said. “I hope Facebook or whatever the next thing like Facebook is will allow me to see them grow into adults.”

The Educational Technology Committee explored the issues surrounding Facebook earlier this year, in response to an inquiry made by foreign language teacher Nancy Holme-Elledge, Snapp said. Holme-Elledge was curious as to whether the school had developed an official policy about teachers accepting student friend requests on Facebook.

Holme-Elledge has had a personal Facebook page for about a year and a half and chooses not to friend her students on Facebook.

“The relationships that I have with my students are certainly friendly. I care very much about their well-being as human beings and certainly about their learning experience,” Holme-Elledge said. “But I think it’s also perhaps prudent for me as a professional educator to perhaps maintain some distance from my students. I am not their best friend. I am their teacher. And for me that’s the kind of relationship that I choose to develop and nurture.”

But, Holme-Elledge, like many other teachers, does friend students after they graduate from Harvard-Westlake.

Like Holme-Elledge, Joe Girton ‘10, who is Facebook friends with science teacher Chris Dartt, believes that friending a teacher on Facebook can blur the teacher-student relationship.

“Even though most of us are pretty smart with our Facebook, sometimes things get through on our Facebook that teachers shouldn’t be seeing,” Girton said. “I think it should be two separate worlds. At the end of the day, I’m not going to un-friend Dr. Dartt because he is not really on Facebook much. But if I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t have friended him until I graduated.”

Girton feels that it is more appropriate for students to friend teachers on Facebook after they graduate high school.

“I feel like he knows too much about me for a teacher,” Girton said. “Until I graduate and move on to a different school, he is still sort of my teacher. But when we are at the [same] school it’s weird to mix those two dynamics. So I would avoid it.”

When it comes to Facebook, one gray area is whose responsibility it is to report illegal activity.

“The courts have looked at that. Sometimes they will say it is the adult’s responsibility. Sometimes they will say it’s Facebook’s responsibility. So there is no clear-cut answer to that,” Snapp said. “So our answer to it was [for faculty to] proceed with caution. That’s all we could say. That’s the official policy on that for the committee.”

The Educational Technology Committee is composed of 12 faculty members including Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra and Head of Middle School Ronnie Cazaeu. The committee helps develop school policy regarding technology use in classrooms and around campus.

In addition to communicating via Facebook, some teachers have set up instant message screen names for the purpose of answering questions that students may have before a test. Quan is one such teacher that has set up a screen name for her students.

“I created this screen name and I went on for an hour or two the night before a test just to answer some questions,” Quan said. “Initially you will get a ton of different students trying to reach you on that. Some of them will ask you maybe two or three questions. Some of them get too dependent and they start asking more and more.”

While there are obvious drawbacks to teachers and students communicating via a social networking site, many teachers do recognize that could have positive benefits.

“I absolutely support the responsible use of technology when it is helpful to students and when it advances learning,” Holme-Elledge said. “I am very interested in embracing those tools as long as they are reliable and safe and advance learning and help students.”

“A professional Facebook page is the same thing as Moodle in a lot of ways. It’s a very very useful tool,” Huybrechts said. “The Internet is an extremely useful tool for communication, and it’s here to stay for sure.”