Missouri Facebook Fail: Social Media & Educators

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The blogosphere has been abuzz a bit about the recent Missouri law banning public school teachers from having social media contact with their students. The Yahoo news article stated

In Missouri, a new bill effective on August 28 will formally ban teachers from befriending students on social networking websites like Facebook. The law is an aggressive step toward dictating the interactions educators are allowed in online social spaces — a relatively uncharted legislative territory.

Missouri Senate Bill 54 is also known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, named for a Missouri student who allegedly had a sexual relationship with an abusive teacher beginning when she was 12. The case, which happened decades ago, exceeded Missouri’s statute of limitations and never came to trial.

If you think the law might go a bit far, you aren’t alone. Forbes magazine ran a column online suggesting that the new law targets the wrong “problem.”

As a teacher who finds Facebook an invaluable tool … and as a believer in relational teaching …. I think the law rests on a number of faulty assumptions about teachers, education, and social media.

Let me enumerate:

Myth #1: Teachers are dangerous, sexually-charged individuals lurking in the darkness to abuse kids. 
Let’s be honest, folks. We’re all aware of the highly-publicized cases of child abuse within schools. I think it’s horrific. I hope abusers and molesters are caught, prosecuted, and buried UNDER the jail. But to write a law that assumes all teachers are potential pedophiles is like treating all post office employees as potential psychopaths.  Most kids see their mail carrier on a daily basis, often when no other adults are around. Why aren’t those relationships prohibited on Facebook? I’m personally offended that Missouri couldn’t find a better way to screen the teachers in their public schools.

Myth #2: Students are safer online when they don’t befriend adults.
It stuns me to hear adults argue that teachers shouldn’t befriend students on Facebook.
Let me get this straight:  You would rather see a bunch of 14 year old girls rip each other apart in an online gossip fest than let them be in the presence of adults who can lend a voice of wisdom (not condemnation) to the situation?  When a teen is feeling depressed and suicidal, you hope he’ll turn to one of his high school friends for sound advice?  When a kid finds out that a friend is in danger or being abused, you want them to just solve this on their own?

Most kids know at least one teacher whom they trust and respect. When in danger, they would rather reach out to a trusted adult…. IF that adult is “around.”  Nowadays, life happens within social media: Facebook, Twitter, text messaging.   Why should Missouri (and many school districts) ban some of the best mentors from these places?

Myth #3: Social media provides more opportunities for abusers. 
I’m sure the rate of porn consumption went up when Sir What’s His Name invented the Internet 20 years ago, but that certainly didn’t change human nature. Sick, twisted people adapt to prey on the weak in *any* venue. The Internet simply takes the conversation into a new kind of back alley; I don’t believe that it creates *more* back alleys to work in.
Any teacher who wants to sleep with an underage kid needs help and criminal prosecution. It’s not like the district can reliably police all of their employees’ Facebook friend lists….which means banning teachers (and good mentoring adults in general) from befriending teens on social media  leaves no one behind except fools and predators. *shudders*

Myth #4: Education happens best when students and teachers maintain their distance.
I’m not sure who sold this  idea to the general public, but it counteracts everything I believe about humanity, community, and education.
No human is an island. Education IS discipleship, and it’s more than the mere transfer of information between a “teacher” and a receiver. (If education were merely about transferring knowledge, school districts would save millions of dollars by replacing educators with computer programs.)
Teaching is relational. Discipline is relational. No one accepts as fact anything coming from the mouth of someone they don’t trust.  The myth of the disconnected teacher and the distant non-relational classroom arose in the hyper-rational 20th century along with other stupid ideas like behavioral conditioning in education and treating kids like little computers who merely sit and process information.
Let’s put this conversation back where it belongs:  Teachers directly affect the moral, social, and intellectual (yes, even spiritual) upbringing of a student. If you can’t trust the teachers in your school to “do right” by your kids, why on earth are you sending your kids there?!

Myth #5: The social Web exists merely for entertainment, and offers little educational value.
This is the most dangerous myth, if not the most offensive. Teachers around the nation are proving again and again how powerful tools like FB and Twitter can be for engaging students, teaching online discernment, connecting kids around the world, promoting curiosity and creativity, and delivering content never available before the Internet became commonplace.
Again, I’m stunned that intelligent adults think the best way to protect kids from harm is to refuse to teach them anything about social media and to pretend it doesn’t exist and that it isn’t important. (Wait… that sounds a lot like the way we treat sex ed…. but that’s another post…..) You can ban cell phones in school, but how does that help kids learn to build healthy boundaries within texting relationships?  You can ban Facebook and Twitter between 8am and 3pm because kids “waste time,” but that doesn’t help a dull teacher engage her classroom.
You want kids to be interested and engaged in classroom content?  Hire excellent teachers and give them the tools to teach passionately.   What you ban (or don’t ban) will never substitute for a well-trained, qualified, creative educator.

I’ve got some ideas for a better social media policy for teachers & mentoring adults. Will post it tomorrow.

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