My older brother is a religious educator to a teenage audience from what is popularly known as a "Modern Orthodox" background. As a good educator, he walks a fine line between being his student's friend and being a role model/religious leader. He not only teaches his students in the classroom, but has them over his house on a very regular basis. This is a pretty regular practice in this style of yeshiva-school system. In the educator's view, they aren't just teaching their students how to practice judaism but how to live like a Jew (living a proper, moral lifestyle with a strong emphasis on family and religious devotion).
Where does Facebook fit into this relationship? Should he be Facebook friends with his students? With his alumni? Would it appropriate for him (as religious figure) to be on Facebook altogether?
The crux of this question centers around the nature of the educator/student relationship, as well as the inherent informality of digital social communications. With this in mind, I would like to suggest the following list of considerations, as well as my personal perspective.
- Pretty much everyone is already on Facebook. Communicating with his students past and present on this platform likely wouldn't introduce a new behavior.
- Maintaining a relationship with students once they have moved on should include leveraging the social platforms they already use. When I was a recent graduate, my rabbinic mentors used email to stay in touch. Before my time it was phone calls, and even earlier it was letter writing. Facebook is the natural and potentially highly effective progression of this dynamic. (note: I'm not suggesting that Facebook should take the place of email or phone calls, but it's a great additional tool to consider)
- Facebook makes it incredibly easy to stay in touch many, many people over time. This is arguably the ideal platform for maintaining multiple relationships over time, far more so than email.
- For teachers like my brother, teaching someone them how to be a man of substance (a.k.a. living like a Jew) already includes inviting students into ones home. The same principles that students observe sitting around his Shabbat (sabbath) table can be demonstrated in how he interacts with his own social circles on Facebook.
- Facebook can create a sense of camaraderie and community across his students. Facebook allows them to directly interact with one another, leveraging their teacher as a social focal point or catalyst.
- One of the fundamentals that my Rabbis taught was how to be a Jew on the street. This used to mean teaching students the importance of proper decorum, presentation, morality and social interaction, as each of is supposed to be a proper a representative of the Jewish people. This education should be expanded to include digital etiquette in blog commenting, over-sharing, respecting intellectual property rights, proper social etiquette when it comes to post pictures and media of and about others without their expressed permission and so much more. Participating in these platforms is not only key to understanding and educating students on how to properly behave in these environments, but it will also serve as an example to students for how one should conduct oneself on these platforms.
- There are times when educators knowingly turn a blind eye towards their student's behavior in or outside of the classroom. Facebook changes this dynamic by giving the educator incredible and even unhealthy access to their student's personal lives.
- There is a level of safety and professionalism that is found in counseling someone while maintaining a level of personal detachment. Pervasive student access to their mentor's personal social lives isn't always healthy to the relationship.
- Even after a student has grown into a mature adult, there is a level of respect towards the religious mentor that in-part defines their relationship. Most Facebook communications are more casual than in-person communications. More informal social communications can erode the respect that more traditional communications help to maintain.
- Many members of the committed religious community eye new digital platforms with an air of suspicion. Stripping away the preconceived notions regarding digital social media will require patience and clear communications. And even with these communications, many leading figures with severely limited first hand knowledge of the platforms may believe some of the prevailing rumors in the community regarding what takes place on Facebook.
Not every teacher needs to be active on digital social platforms personally, nor should they all connect with their students as friends. Many of the most inspiring rabbinic mentors I studied under were clueless when it came to technology, but incredibly insightful when it comes to humanity, morality and living an honest and meaningful life. The lessons that they imparted continue to influence every aspect of my life, even my online social communications. The principles of morality and respect are ever-present, regardless of the platform.
However, there are also those educators that take a more friend-like approach towards education. These are the educators that schooled us on basketball court and had us over for more informal barbecues. I would strongly encourage these types of educators to leverage channels such as Facebook to maintain relationships with alumni, students and parents of present students. That said, it's also perfectly acceptable for these educators to choose not to accept friend requests from students, alumni or parents. Finally, before entering into this conversation, I strongly recommend that any educators that wish to remain employed with their present employer, consider checking with their institutional leadership before beginning to participate.
An Educator's Guide to Facebook Interaction
It is incumbent on all participating educators to set expectations with their students and define their social dynamic. I have included my suggestions for doing this below.
- Set your Facebook privacy settings to be fairly rigid. Do now allow people who are not friends to view or comment on any of your posts.
- Make sure that you are properly trained on the all of the core functionality before using it. It is imperative that all information shared in private channels and with confidence remains private.
- Setup proper lists that will define what content and actions will be viewable to your many different groups of friends. If your friends are using Facebook, separate them into a different list. When posting, be sure to carefully select which lists will have access to this content. And remember, just because you didn't share something with your students, doesn't mean that they won't see it as coming from you through a mutual friend or connection. Be careful what you post.
- Set the tone for your interactions through your own engagements. If you want to maintain a more formal relationship, write and comment in a more formal manner. If your followers aren't picking up on this cue and are participating in a less-formal manner, write them a private message thanking them for their input into the conversation, explaining your rationale for why you are being more formal, politely request that they help you build the community in the right way, and end by stating that you look forward to their continued input and participation. This should help get the message across without damaging the relationship.
- If you already have a Facebook account, consider letting your friends know that you will be using this channel for student interactions. This means that their posts that appear on your wall should be appropriate for this audience.
- Be proud of who you are and what you stand for. While most of your students may use Facebook for the more day-to-day interactions, there is nothing wrong with sharing bursts of inspiration or more meaningful content as well.
- Use Facebook for what it's good for. This isn't the environment for a lengthy and deep lecture. However, this is a great place to share short content that will deliver meaning. Ask questions and reply to their comments. Network and introduce alumni to one another. Help them build a community around their shared connections and interests. Link to great articles. Post on their walls and wish them a Happy Birthday or a congratulatory message on their life milestones. Make the most of it!
- Be present. This will take some time and will require attention. A relationship is only worth the investment you both put into it.
- Don't forget to be human! Facebook is an interpersonal channel. Show your humor and relatability. Don't be afraid share. If you're not having a good time, they aren't having a good time.
- Use all your other channels. Facebook will not take the place of a heart to heart phone call or an email newsletter. It's additive.
- Learn and share with your peers as you go.
Please note that in this post I assume that the student body in question is of age (later teens) and is of proper maturity to appreciate basic social conduct. While Facebook allows 13 and 14 year-olds onto the platform, engaging with this socially-immature audience is a very different dynamic and not one that is addressed by the above considerations or recommendations.
About this post
Thanks to my older brother, Rabbi M. Burg for the many conversations regarding his pedagogical approach over the past few years. While I cannot speak to his personal perspective on this particular issue, many of my perspectives were influenced by his overall approach. Additionally, special thanks goes out to my good friend Rabbi Gil Student for inviting me to share this post over his blog.