Posted by: Alastair Grant | October 21, 2011

Teachers and students sharing lives

Facebook is not your friend.

Really?! It is my friend.

On October 5, I posted a poll asking everyone on my Facebook account (I even made the poll public) asking the question “should teachers be friends with their students on Facebook?”

I’ve so far had 38 replies, with people even writing their own choices to vote for.

One of these says “you can really get advantage of it and use it as another tool for your teaching” – this one is the clear leader with 20 votes so far.

Why? If Facebook is often portrayed as an invasive waste of time, where people you don’t know can find out all kinds of personal information, why would this seem like a good idea, especially for a teacher who presumably wants some disconnect between work and social life?

Well, I for one agree with the majority voters. Teaching seems to be moving ever further away from the “banking method” of education, whereby students are merely receptacles for information and where the knowledge is locked away in the magic coursebook.

These days, teachers seem to be more like counselors for their learners, being interested and involved in what Scott Thornbury calls the “inner life of the student”. So why not use Facebook to develop this connection?

There are currently over 800 million active users of Facebook in over 200 countries. Apart from the local students that I have on Facebook, there are hundreds worldwide who have “friended” me and have asked me questions related to ELT.

I love this. I love the feeling that I can interact with all these people and further what I do on a larger scale.

Self-congratulatory? Maybe, but the point is made: students are people – people have lives – Facebook facilitates new global connections like nothing else has ever done. So let’s take advantage of this, right?

Yes, there are privacy issues, but making sure my students can’t see photos of me on holiday in Thailand ten years ago (really, you DON’T want to see) is very easy to do.

One-to-one interaction with my students will always be paramount, but using social media as a means to answer questions, help them with homework, remind them of deadlines, is immediate in a way that even email can’t match. This is because it’s a place where we all socialise and further our professional lives – it’s not a gimmick, it’s part of life now. Let’s use it.

Or should we? Are we dissolving the boundaries that should arguably exist between students and their teachers?

What do you think?


  1. I think you are right, Alastair, the boundaries have indeed shifted, or they had shifted long ago and it was just not so easy for the rest of the world to see the time teachers used to spend on and with their students OUTSIDE class hours. Now, it’s so much easier to connect and protecting your privacy is an issue but it can be resolved, especially if you create a separate ‘Teacher Account’ for students and colleagues.

    The roles have shifted, too. If some teachers don’t want to acknowledge the fact the students are people and that personal contact and caring about them makes the teaching more meaningful and effective, well, then, I guess they see themselves as ‘teaching machines’ that you can turn on in the classroom and when they step out of it, they switch off.

    True educators are more caring than this, I think


    • “True educators are more caring than this, I think”

      I like this comment Marisa, largely because it’s controversial! I know plenty of teachers who would not be happy to have their students on Facebook and I understand the privacy concern.

      However, I also think it’s that many people simply want a to keep the professional and private life separate, just like you are suggesting with the “Teacher Account”.

      So going back to your comment, I agree because seeing students as people who we share our lives with (and vice versa) is now all part of the collaborative working relationship. i know many wouldn’t agree, but this is my philosophy.

      I suppose I see it a bit like building a relationship where everyone helps and learns from each other.

      But do many teachers “need” to keep the expert-learner boundary as it is?

      • Hi Alastair. I’ve read your post and comments with great interest and would like to add my voice, too.

        From some of the comments here, as well as from a lot of the interaction on Twitter, it would seem that the most popular opinion on what constitutes a good teacher-educator is that it should be someone who is constantly ready to interact with their learners by any modern means – ready to provide a sort of 24/7 care, blurring the boundaries between the classroom and the life outside of the classroom and between the professional and private time of the learners and the teachers themselves, losing the distinction between the two. This, I feel, seems to be the popular opinion and there are very few voices raising any concerns, mostly for fear of being thought of as old-fashioned and behind-times – even “bad” teachers, I’m afraid.

        No one doubts that we ought to spend a LOT of time working outside of the classroom – not only preparing, marking assignments or providing feedback, but also developing professionally and networking, among other things. All of these make us better teachers.

        However, actively seeking to blur the distinction between professional and private life is a completely different matter. As an analogy, no one expects a psychologist to interact with their clients on facebook *outside* the time of a regular session. What’s more, it could be deemed unprofessional and, to some extent, even dangerous.

        Having great relationships with learners is important and wonderful, but there are other, equally good ways of doing so, rather than invading all possible spaces of interaction in life and on-line.

        I do think social media are a great tool for educators – I’ve been using them in my teaching as well – but there are teachers and learners who simply do not wish to engage in them, as a matter of personal choice.

        As teachers and educators it isn’t our role to be evangelists of latest technological and social trends. We should be allowed a certain level of control over how we teach. Life is about variety, isn’t it?

        Thanks for a great post and the debate 😉

        Best wishes,

  2. Well, I totally agree with you Alastair…I do have my students in my fcb list, and we interact (in English obviously), I just see it as a natural way of communication…just as simple as that. They sometimes ask questions about their homework, or share personal stuff …I believe teaching is one great opportunity we have to touch people’s lives…so it is a must to be in touch …so there it is fcb to help us all !!
    (Love your articles!!!!Couldn’t agree more!!!!)

    • Mariana – yes a “natural way of communication” seems exactly right! Thank you!

  3. DEFINITELY,students and teachers can be friends in f/b ! teachers are not the classroom robots!

    • Welcome, Calliope and thank you for the comment!

      I agree although I think many teachers would rather keep the “robot” role in place…!

      I know that many see teachers as being instruments of teaching and nothing more… I understand this in a way, as this is the paradigm as it’s been for many years… but I think it’s changing now and it’s much more productive for students to have a relationship with their teacher that sees them as people like themselves, rather than as robots!

      Looking at the comments of your students on your website, it looks as though you teach in a similar way:

      “I could begin to understand conversational and interactive ideals leading me to freedom to expressing myself” – what a great recommendation – if your students feel free to express themselves, this shows the relationship is really working!

  4. Hi Mariana and thank you for your comment!

    Yes, this is my feeling too. I know that many want a clear distinction between the private and professional lives but I just don’t see it that way.

    I think that having students as contacts on Facebook is useful for them and myself – I can help them when they need something and they can see that I’m a real person not just a teacher (I swear I thought my teachers lived at the school when I was younger…!).

    We all talk about our personal lives in class – even if it’s just a comment like “I had a great weekend”, so yes, why not extend that connection outside of the classroom?

    Thanks again for your kind comments Mariana!

  5. Hi Al
    I must admit I’m a bit ambivalent on this question, not so much because I want to keep my private life hidden from my students as because they, especially teens, are sometimes over-ready to “friend” without much thought and this has led me to seeing things in my feed which I think weren’t really posted with me in mind – me being one of several hundreds of their friends but probably the only one over the age of 20. I’m a little uncomfortable with this. But that’s just me, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. I suppose I could twiddle about with FB settings to minimise this (?)

  6. Hi Tim! Thanks for the comment!

    I think you could by their hiding posts from your wall…

    But I also have some teenage students on FB that I’d trust not to do that! I think it’s a question of being prudent and it can be managed to make it a useful learning tool.

  7. Setting up a ‘teacher account’ has answered my own dilemma..should I let them or should I not ..befriend me..excellent idea! Now , my SS and I will be happy and communicate with each other. Thanks for highlighting this topic!

  8. Have to say I agree with Tim on this. Granted, the boundaries have shifted, but I feel they absolutely should still exist with young learners. I’ve had friend requests from children as young as 10 in the past. If I were a parent, I don’t think I’d like the idea of my kids being friends with their teachers on facebook.

    I used to decline all friendship requests from students, which occasionally caused some awkwardness when the odd student took offence. The trouble is, once you accept one member of the class, that appears in the news feeds of all of the other students and you end up having to accept them all to avoid questions of favouritism.

    I recently set up a ‘teacher account’, which, like others have said in this feed, addresses some of these issues, I still, however, decline all requests from kids and teenagers, and as part of academic management, encourage other members of staff to do so too.

  9. Hi Jonny and thanks for the comment.

    I too have declined friending requests, usually from my younger students, as I feel that this may be inappropriate. However, this has jarred with my philosophy of allowing the students to be part of my life.

    But, as Tim has suggested, there’s an element of “scattergun friending” with FB, especially with younger students, whereby they tend to add you simply because you happen to be someone they know – I have students with up to 2,000 “friends” on FB, at least 1,950 of those I’m sure they don’t know at all!

    However, this is the way life on FB seems to be and, as long as we police out privacy settings, can we not share our social netwoerk with them if we want to? We can also take our “friending” notices off our newsfeeds, I think – but this might just be too much like hard work!

    Having reviewed all the posts so far, I think the idea of setting up a “teacher account” is possibly the best way of handling this so as to avoid any privacy issues.

    Hmmm… I’m going to try and bring our Online Services Manager Emma in on this one!

  10. Thanks Al, I was planning to comment, but you’ve just set it up nicely for me!

    I was always reluctant at first to accept friend requests from students (I remember talking to Jonny about it back when I started teaching at San Isidro – Hi Jonny!) however, I began by accepting adults. I figured as I saw some of these people outside of the classroom and eventually they became friends, it made sense. Younger students I’ve always been wary of, and a lot of it depends on my relationship with said student.

    I toyed with the idea of opening a “teacher account” but as I already have 3 emails linked to FB it was just too much. What I did instead was create “lists” so I could control who saw what. If I wanted to post photos that I thought were inappropriate for my students to see I made sure that they were blocked to people on my “student” list.

    One thing we have done as an institute is open our own IH San Isidro account, which as Online Services Manager I control. This we use to keep in touch with our students, send out updates and anything that I (or other teachers) think is useful/relevant/funny for our students. It also has pictures of what we get up to, for example Teacher’s Day celebrations, conferences Al & I have been to… I find this account a way of keeping up with the students, they get a chance to see what we get up to, and it’s also a useful to answer their questions.

    In terms of personal accounts I think a lot of it depends on how you use your facebook and the relationship you have with the students. In the past few years I’ve friended some of my old secondary school teachers, and I have to confess I did have fun looking at all their photos, but it helped to remind me that they are real people. Even if 10 years later I still can only think of them as Mrs Cash and Mrs Braham, and still refer to them as such when we talk…

    • Hi Emma!

      Thanks for stepping in here – and yes I too have old teachers on my FB whose photos I have looked at!

      Last year, at the secondary school we teach at, I did an excercise using FB and the first thing all the kids did was to try and look at all my photos… I wasn’t surprised, which is why I had already upped my privacy setting so that they couldn’t do this!

      I see that it was just way too tempting for them not to look and I understand why… I wasn’t comfortable with this but I didn’t mind having them as FB contacts if it meant that I would be in touch with them outside of class if they (or I) needed.

      But certainly having them in hysterics over photos of me at one of your parties wasn’t what I wanted…!

      You’ve also brought something very important into the mix here – why not have a school account which teachers have access to, thus being able to be in touch with their students being at risk of showing any personal information?

      I wonder if any other schools / teachers have tried this?

  11. Hi Marián!

    “blurring the boundaries between the classroom and the life outside of the classroom”

    Yes Marian I agree with you and I think this is key. Thank you very much for your comment – you’ve raised a very interesting point!

    I agree that we shouldn’t be evangelists about technology (this would go very much against my Dogme principles…) and if that technology is used and comes from the students, then we should embrace it.

    I think it’s all about whether that contact is going to be useful for the students, so I think that if it comes from them, then we should follow it and make it a useful resource for them.

    I also agree that teachers shouldn’t be forced to use FB with their students – it is, after all, a social network and it is therefore down to personal choice.

    However, my feeling is that if we are comfortable with this then it certainly shouldn’t be prohibited – it’s all about furthering the relationship to help students outside the class. Learning does not stop when they leave the classroom and, even when they do their homework, we can still add something to this by being in contact with them.

    I wonder if there is anyone who would think this is still a definite “no go area” though?

  12. Hi Alastair,

    I recently defriended most of my YL students on facebook. It was getting a little crazy and some of the things my friends were posting (and me actually) weren’t really what I wanted them to see. The boundries were getting way too blurred. It hadn’t occured to me that they might be reading my page in detail until one of my teens quoted a phrasal verb he saw on my facebook page during a lesson. Good? or a little scary? Both maybe. I do, however, have facebook groups that I run from a work account that I encourage my YLs to join e.g. a Summer Camp group. That way they can contact me if they want to but I don’t have to worry about messing around with all my acount settings to work out who sees what. Thanks for this great discussion and post 🙂


    • Wow Kylie what an interesting point – what do we do when students see what our friends (or we) have put on our Facebook walls… ?

      I’ve also had students post stuff that I’d really rather they hadn’t as well…

      Despite the “in favour” nature of my post, I have to admit that I have five younger learners that I’ve not accepted as friends for this reason too… I’ve been afraid that they are not responsible enough not to post things or make comments that’s I’d find inappropriate.

      Here’s the thing… I think it’s also about the “kudos” of having your teacher on Facebook. Recently I had to put three kids in the teachers room to finish exams and then dicovered that they had all taken my cell phone number from the notice board! This was just because I was their teacher and, although I can’t think of a reason they’d ever phone me (we deal with the parents), they wanted my number because… I was their teacher.

      So again, we’re down to privacy and what WE feel comfortable with. I think that, as the teacher (who has the ultimate say in these matters, inside and outside of class – hmmm… another discussion topic?), we should do what we feel comfortable with and what works for us.

      Kylie – how did they react to the “unfriending”? Did they say anything?

  13. Thanks, this is a great topic for discussion!
    I have to say I agree with a lot of what Marian already said.
    I dont think it shows a lack of caring for students to not friend them on facebook to a personal, non-teacher account. Should teachers also give their home phone numbers or have an open door policy to students dropping by to visit their home lives ?
    If someone decides to I am not against it, but personally it is not my wish to open my private life so much, especially as I teach children and teens.
    It may be a good topic for discussion in the classroom actually to bring up the idea of personal privacy, as especially younger students as tech natives often do not give much thought to things about the private lives they make public through lack of a critical approach to social media, and the potential for repercussions that has. ( I have some younger extended family members in facebook and I sometimes think they believe it to be more private than it is…)
    Personally I dont have anything controversial on my account but an inquisitive student could then look at all your friends pages and have access to that if they dont have privacy settings up. You may not be aware of how much you are indireclty sharing and what position that puts you in.

    Especially as a foreign teacher I think you have a way out by saying you only use it to communicate with family and friends at home and that is it…

    • Hi Jane!

      Thanks very much for the thought-provoking comment and for sharing the personal experience. Very interesting point about the YLs being tech natives, who essentially “live” this way see a very blurred (if any) line between “real life” and Facebook.

      And FB has made it all so much easier to access personal information, making our personal privacy much more of an issue.

      I remember watching the film “The Social Network”, about the setting up of Facebook – where Mark Zuckerberg says that people want to check their friends online and see their pictures and find out what they are doing.

      This is what it’s all about “taking the entire social experience… and putting it online”, as Zuckerberg’s character says in the film: (min: 1.04 – 1.13)

      So where does this leave us? We have tech native students who see this as just an extension of their lives and X amount of stuff that we’d rather they just didn’t see…

      And that’s just it… we do let them into our homes, as you say, by accepting students on Facebook.

      But the teacher’s role has changed. We are no longer the faceless expert standing at the front of class telling the students what to think – the paradigm has shifted and we have shifted with it.

      Here’s something to think about… does opening a “teacher”-style FB account therefore drastically reduce the appeal for students adding us?

      And should we not just make sure our privacy is tightened up, so we are letting the students into our lives (just like we do every class) without letting them “intrude” on them?

  14. Hi, Al!
    A very interesting and hot topic indeed!

    I do accept students’ requests to befriend them in FB, especially 15-year-olds and older. I do, however, organise my contacts by lists and restrict what my students can see.

    I have never had any awkward moments. Quite on the contrary, I have bonded with students over the sharing of music videos and other similar interests. As said before, a natural way of communicating with them!


    • Hi Vicky! I feel the same way – I wonder… would you not accept any students younger than this age and if so why?

  15. Hey you all, I leave this quote to think on…

    ‘We need to cultivate…an atmosphere of reciprocal help and socialization. Implicit in this is a decisive response to a child’s need to feel whole. Feeling whole is a biological and cultural necessity for the child (and also for the adult). It is a vital state of well-being’

    Loris Malaguzzi

    I mean, if FCB is a tool to “cultivate an atmosphere of reciprocal help and socalization”, come on….let’s use it!!!!

    And Marián: I do concern much on my professional career but I do not think that the comparison with the psychologist works for me ‘cos I do not feel my students are my patients..and I am not curing or treating them in any possible way, I just say that I interact with them in te language that I am teaching… I don’t consider it as an extra effort I gotta make…It’s just a FUN-TASTIC way of interaction…

    • Hi Marian – welcome!

      What a great quote! And yes, I agree with this – I suppose this is the key – making a student feel they are part of a supportive network both in class and at home.

      Although… I must say I take the point about the psychology comparison. Looking at CLL for example, the teacher is seen in a similar role as a psychologist – certainly the students aren’t patients but at the same time, they start off in a position of dependence and can then be empowered to be less so and more autonomous through the teacher having created a supportive working environment in which the teacher is a facilitator and the students are the ones who do the learning and the teaching.

      What do you think?

      • I think we ARE facilitators ( at least we should be jaaj) but i do not agree we can work in any point as pshycologists just because we are not properly trained to do so…( and i really do not want to be one). Anyway, if a teacher, as you say, is seen in a similar role as a psychologist, honeslty, I do not want a psychologist to be seen as an English teacher !!! ..(just kidding).
        Now seriously, I really believe with all my heart that it is our moral obligation to help our studentas in any possible way, but I surely cannot help anybody, not even myself, in any psychological matter or issue..the only thing I can give is a simple and humble point of view, and really very limited to my personal and professional experience.
        And of course “the students are the ones who do the learning and the teaching.”!!!!and THIS IS REALLY FUN-TASTIC…I INSIST!!!

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