Editorial: Teachers and Facebook

Social media continue to confront society with unforeseen challenges, even as their use becomes nearly universal — or perhaps because of it.

Witness the case of Carol Thebarge, a revered substitute teacher at Stevens High School in Claremont, who was fired for refusing to comply with a policy prohibiting school employees from being Facebook “friends” with students.

As staff writer Maggie Cassidy reported Saturday, Thebarge made the decision public Thursday night on — where else? — her Facebook page, which includes hundreds of photos and inspirational quotations. “It has been a sad day for me,” she wrote. “Not the way I planned to end a career of 35 years, 32 schools K-12.” She went on to write that students loved her site, on which she had shared “the wisdom I have gained throughout my journey.” She added that she had always considered her site and the messages on it to be character-building in nature, and that nothing on it had ever been deemed inappropriate.

It was a sad day not only for her. Her post elicited hundreds of messages of support, not surprising given that, as SAU 6 Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin told Cassidy, Thebarge “is loved in this community” and “many generations of students know her.”

Nonetheless, we think there is wisdom in the school’s social-networking policy, which requires staff members to interact with students only “as professionals within their educational responsibilities and roles — not as ‘friends.’ ” It warns that social networking sites, applications and devices “can quickly lead to issues with appropriate staff-student boundaries. . . .” Indeed, things can get weird in a hurry in cyberspace, no matter how innocuously they begin.

The truth is that teachers and coaches can never be friends with current students, because true friendship presupposes a certain equality of footing to begin with. The inherent power relationship between teachers and students makes this impossible. Certainly educators can, and do, serve as mentors and role models, but that is quite different from being a friend, or a “friend.” In fact, we’d argue that being an effective teacher or coach requires keeping a certain sense of distance from students, who are, after all, not mature intellectually or emotionally.

And this certainly must be on the minds of school officials at Stevens given that a math teacher there was arrested last month and charged with sexual assault stemming from what police called “an inappropriate relationship” with a 14-year-old student.

In any event, we confess to being mildly surprised that Thebarge made the decision she did, given that she pretty clearly loves teaching and the opportunity it brings to shape young lives. That’s strictly her business, of course, but school officials made the right decision to terminate her in the circumstances. Generally we rebel at the notion of employers trying to dictate to employees about their conduct when they are not at work. But social media have blurred the distinction between work and leisure to such an extent that it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two.

In this case, the policy is well-founded, the dangers of ignoring it are real and making an exception would undermine its efficacy.