One of my favorite teachers told me once that he dressed the way that he did — jackets, ties, and other business attire — because he wanted us to know that, while he was our teacher, he was not our friend.
And I thought that made sense. It was his job to advocate for us. To challenge us. To help us be the best we could be. And so he wasn’t our friend. He was our teacher. To keep those ideas separate, he used his dress. I think that’s worth remembering as we move more and more of our work as teachers into online spaces.
One of our many jobs as teachers is to keep a professional separation between who we are and what we do. When we are doing our best, we are presenting ourselves in ways that help to manage that professional distance in thoughtful and productive ways.
In social networks, this looks like being present, being thoughtful, and being intentional in the ways that we use those spaces to promote what we think is essential — ways that do not confuse our teacherness and our friendness and help our students understand the difference between the two.
I made a choice as I moved forward in working with and building online spaces for teaching and learning that I wouldn’t friend current students on Facebook. My wife, a high school language arts teacher, has adopted a rule that I think is a fine standard. She does not friend students until they graduate from high school.
Facebook is not her primary online space for interacting with students. She has created course spaces where students and she engage in course-related conversation and content. And she maintains a professional presence in her personal Facebook account. That’s a good thing. Graduates who choose to continue the relationship past their time in high school find much the same person that they found in the classroom. And those students talk with her, mostly, about the same things that they would have in their school spaces.
She is never not a teacher, though.
I’d encourage you to do the same. Wherever you are as a person and as a professional, you are still a teacher. It’s a high calling that we’ve gone after. Whenever and wherever you are, seek to model the best of your professional and personal self. Keep a sense of professional distance.
A professional persona
Professional distance doesn’t mean be a heartless, soulless automaton. Certainly, care and love and concern for the young people in our work is paramount. But it does mean be intentional and purposeful about the ways that you present yourself, wherever you may happen to be.
Some teachers don’t like this advice. “But I can’t have a beer?” they respond. That’s not what I’m saying, and such responses usually indicate that folks have missed my point. By all means, be the self you are. But if you’re representing your personal self as someone overly concerned by things that have no place in your classroom, then perhaps that personal self needs to make a change or two.
I’ve written before that if you’re unhappy with the public knowing what you’re up to as a public school educator, then perhaps you should work to be a better you. We are all in the process of becoming the persona we’ve set for ourselves. Learning is a stance. We are always moving in a direction of being better.
But we should also be moving on purpose towards the types of relationships and stances that we think we should be modeling and developing. I don’t like the idea of overly prescriptive social media policies. I think that teachers, like other professionals, should work from broad ideas of ethics and responsibilities and make choices that make sense in their communities, contexts and climates. But that means that it’s up to us to act responsibly and properly. To not wait until we find ourselves in bad situations to act. And to be sure that we’re looking after our students wherever we might happen to find them.
For the same reason that I set boundaries in my face to face interactions with students, I maintain some sense of professional separation in online spaces. I’d encourage you to consider carefully you and your community’s comfort as you intentionally choose the public faces of your online self. And, whatever you decide, please communicate it to the students and families in your care. Make sure your administrators know what — and where and how — you’re doing.
Identity construction and relationships are complicated stuff. Tread carefully and on purpose.