Social Media and Former Students

In the Classroom Communities post on Thursday, I wrote about a message I received from a former student about a moment we had shared in the classroom nearly 10 years earlier.

I greatly appreciated him reaching out and sharing that story with me, as it was not one I could quickly recall.

There’s another piece to that story, though. One that underlies the entire thing:

Charles was able to contact me, and felt comfortable doing so.

This is because we are connected on social media. In particular, on Twitter.

Social Media
Social Media, from Wikipedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Socialmedia-pm.png

I have found social media an immense help to my professional life and my personal life. Twitter has not only connected me to educational thought leaders (such as my fellow Classroom Communities contributors), but also has provided me with new things to try in my classroom, or now in my role as ed tech specialist. I would not be the educator I am today without Twitter.

Facebook and Instagram have also helped me grow in these ways, and I’m dipping my toes into Snapchat. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I met my wife and many of my closest friends through social media.

I have also found it incredibly useful in connecting with former students.

This allows for stories like the one Charles shared with me. Another former student, on Wednesday night, tweeted to me that she was participating in a hashtag edchat. Another former student recently contacted me to discuss a webcomic we both love which has taken yet another surprising turn. I’ve had former students share some of their poetry with me. On one occasion, a former student from my first ever job (teaching summer school credit recovery geometry) contacted me to apologize for his behavior during our 6-week session.

These connections blow me away, and I am glad they can happen.

However, the world of social media is not all rainbows and unicorns, and there are some things to keep in mind:

Connect with FORMER Students
Notice that every time I talked of a connection in the preceding paragraphs, it is always a “former” student. I do not follow my current students on social media or communicate with them using anything but official school channels. That said:

Remember that, on the Internet, Private means Public, and Public means Everyone
If you have a public profile, your students, both current and former, might follow you — either officially or discreetly. If you have a private profile, you still don’t know who might share things out or who might gain access to your posts. Treat everything as if it’s public.
That means that you should act as if all your students, their parents, friends, coworkers, your principal, superintendent, EVERYONE follows you and sees what you post. If you aren’t okay with them seeing pictures and thoughts of yours after you’ve had a couple rounds at the bar with some friends, then don’t post those pictures and thoughts.

Keep It Public
While I have some direct messages with former students, I prefer and try to keep communication public, or keep their parents in the loop. This is essentially a requirement if the former student is still under the age of 18. While former students can sometimes grow into friends as they move into their adult lives, keep in mind the teacher-student relationship which serves as the underpinning for those connections. This is why I have for the most part stayed away from things such as Snapchat, Whisper, and Marco Polo.

Model Appropriate Behavior
For better or worse, being a teacher is a 24/7 hat we wear. Even if we take it off, our students and former students are going to treat us as if we have it on. We should be demonstrating the manners and positive approach to the world we’d hope our students have themselves. In the days before social media, this might have been a student seeing their teacher being rude to the cashier at the grocery store. In today’s world, it might be a former student (or current student) coming across your Twitter feed, and seeing a video mocking their generation for stereotypes they likely don’t actually exhibit, with your comment of “it’s so true!” [I’m not going to link to the video here, but this is an actual example that I have seen in 2018] If they’re a current student, do you think they’ll ever connect with you? If they’re a former student, do you think they’ll ever re-connect with you?
When it comes to political issues, I don’t shy away on my social media accounts. Donalyn Miller’s Nerd Talk last year really empowered me in this. However, being political doesn’t have to mean being rude. Being angry doesn’t have to mean being insulting. We are a built-in role model for our students. We can demonstrate how to be politically involved without slinging mud. How to be mad about various things without degrading everyone who disagrees with us. As always, consider your words before you post them.

This Is Us
Okay, maybe I just wanted to use that show’s name in this post (no spoilers, please!). But we are teachers. This is who we are. Again, we wear that hat 24/7. We signed up for this. If you’re a teacher and are reading this blog, presumably it’s because you care about the community you build in your classroom. That community necessarily extends beyond the walls of the room, or it’s not a real community at all. Walls don’t define the group; the people do. If your students think you’re putting on a teacher mask every day when you come to school, then they will put on their student masks and you’ll never help each other with who you all really are. In other words:

Be Who You Are
Be the same person in the classroom and on Twitter. Pretending, in the classroom, that you don’t have a life and interests outside of school is as disingenuous as pretending, outside the classroom, that you’re not a teacher who cares about your students. And if the person you are outside of the classroom isn’t one you’d bring into your classroom, then do the work on yourself that you need. Our students need us to be 100% with them. That doesn’t mean that we have to work 24/7 and use social media to continue the work we do with our students 8 hours a day. We would all burn out way too fast if we did that. But it does mean we have to be ourselves 24/7, because they will know if we’re not.

That’s really what it all boils down to. If you’re the real deal, a genuine article, your students will know. And they will know that you care for them in the classroom, but you also care about who they are outside the classroom. And they’ll respond to that. You’ll see wedding pictures and birth notices. You might grab a cup of coffee with a former student if you’ve both moved to the same town (in my case, it was a bacon cheeseburger). You might get messages like the one Charles shared with me.

And you will be assured that, despite the work, despite the 24/7 teacher hat, it has all been worth it.

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