When Teachers Talk About Their Students on Facebook

The pitfalls of the overshare
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If you’re a teacher at any level, or have friends who teach, your Facebook feed is likely peppered with inadvertently amusing quotes from students’ assignments. A kid may have, for example, confused Abraham Lincoln for Mussolini, or identified Marie Curie as a fashion magazine. Maybe another wants an extension because of a crucial upcoming vacation to St. Tropez, or would like to meet with your teacher-friend to ask why an exam only got an A-minus… and to hold that meeting on a Sunday. One college-admissions officer was fired for this sort of sharing. But these posts, at least when coming from instructors, tend to just fly under the radar. The Shit My Students Write Tumblr collects such quotes anonymously, but is, as one BuzzFeed writer notes, enough to make students “paranoid.” It’s that much more unsettling when mistakes or missteps are shared on Facebook—the students may not be named, but the professors and institutions typically will be. Thanks to social media, we’ve moved from a vague sense that teachers sometimes talk about their students in an unflattering light to a having very concrete idea of what they’re saying.

As someone who taught for much of grad school and discussed teaching (off-line) as much as the next T.A., I’m sympathetic to the sharers, if not the sharing. Teaching is fun but hard work and rarely well-paid. Grading—broadly defined to include dealing with students unhappy with the grades they’ve earned—is one of the least delightful parts of the job. Unintentionally comedic moments buried in a stack of papers do help keep things interesting, and may even prevent an instructor from falling asleep on the train. And yes, where applicable, teachers discuss student entitlement—both to commiserate and, more constructively, to compare notes on how to respond.

Meanwhile, college instructors are increasingly in precarious employment situations. This may help explain the degree of Facebook venting. Some of the instructors whom undergraduates call “professor” are actually graduate students whose future in the profession is uncertain. Many others are adjuncts earning far less than schoolteachers, and without benefits or job security. Instructors can feel powerless, and at the beck and call of students who imagine anyone teaching at a college has endless time and energy for their concerns. The system can put instructors on edge, and in an antagonistic relationship with their students. Demands that might be reasonable of a tenured professor with his or her own office may come across as entitled.

But as hilarious as student-anecdotes can be, and as justified (if misdirected) the grievances, instructors should, resist the urge to share these tales online. Students will find them. Privacy settings—assuming an instructor has thought to use them – are not ironclad. Errors that make for funny quotes  – especially those involving inadvertent innuendo—are that much more likely to be shared. Even when no name is given, students who come across these posts will know who they are. This may not only impact their experience of this one class, but also sour them on school more generally. What student wants to think that every time they make a mistake on an exam, the result is a lower grade plus your teacher having a good laugh about it? A mistake “liked” by dozens of your teacher’s friends? How many students would be thick-skinned enough to laugh along as an instructor and colleagues used his or her mistakes as a pretext to lament the state of Western civilization?

And there may be an unpleasant class component as well, especially at the college level. The very students likely to feel least culturally prepared for university life are the ones whose missteps—in terms of glaring errors in so-called common knowledge, but also in how to interact with professors—are likely to provide the most entertaining material for a Facebook post. Instructors may not consider this, and may think what they’re mocking is just the ignorance of today’s youth.

The responsibility here should not fall entirely on teachers themselves. Administrators should set clear guidelines about this kind of sharing, given how many otherwise stellar instructors (many of whom are relatively new to social media) regularly mock their students online. Departments can and sometimes do set guidelines,  but more need to follow suit. A lack of explicit boundaries in this area will only lead to more unnecessary shaming of ordinary student behavior, and, conversely, more punishments of instructors for posts they might never have guessed would be a problem. Teachers are often over-policed as it is, wary of being photographed drinking wine or having racy private photos on their own phones for fear of losing their jobs. The focus should shift away from condemning teachers for existing as adults in their spare time, and onto addressing directly school-related social-media insensitivity.

Guidelines need to go beyond the obvious: Don’t name students, don’t share their grades online or off-, and don’t outright insult them. Instructors also need to understand that a story about a student’s adorable malapropism or use of emoticons may still come across as demeaning. That remarks online about teaching should never so much as allude to a particular student. Instructors should refrain from being the “friends” of current students, but should post with the same amount of discretion they’d use if they were.

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Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer based in Princeton, New Jersey. She holds a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University.

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