Friday, February 4, 2011

Should a middle schooler email a teacher?

Following a recent eye exam, the pediatric ophthalmologist told us Tim did not need glasses but should ask his teachers to be seated in the front half of the classroom if possible. I emailed this request to the sixth grade team leader, who responded with assurances that this could be easily accommodated. A few days later, Tim was frustrated over his social studies homework. His teacher had told the kids to answer some questions about current events in Egypt as listed on a website associated with her class assignments, but Tim couldn’t find the link she had referred to. “Mom, can you email Ms. Rooney and ask her where it is?” he asked. I dashed off a quick query to Ms. Rooney, and she wrote back almost immediately verifying that she had in fact given the kids the wrong link. She gave me the corrected version and Tim went on to do his homework.

Both of these experiences gave me pause. Normally I consider the relationship between student and teacher to be sacred. Except for the few assignments that the elementary schoolers take home which are labeled “family homework,” I believe the kids should be responsible for communicating with their teachers about anything related to school absent the benefit of parental intervention.

At the same time, I wasn’t comfortable telling Tim to email his teachers. Every teacher at our school has a published email address and encourages parents to use this as a form of communication, but it seemed inappropriate for me to tell Tim to email his teacher. Not off-the-charts inappropriate, just mildly inappropriate. It just seems strange to me for a kid to email a teacher, as strange as it would have been when I was a student for a student to call a teacher on the phone. Yet I don’t necessarily know that the teachers feel this way; nor would I perhaps feel this way if my son was in high school rather than middle school.

Most likely, education is just another of the many arenas in which our (or at least my) general grasp of common etiquette has yet to catch up to social media, particularly regarding the sometimes awkward triumvariate of student, parent and teacher. Last summer, after I joined Facebook, one of the names that appeared on the “People you may know” listing was that of someone who’s been a friend for the past several years, ever since he was Tim’s third grade teacher. I clicked on “Send friend request” and only after he’d accepted it did I remember he was also Holly’s teacher for the upcoming year, and it might seem awkward to have her teacher reading my Facebook posts (though he would be the first to assure you he doesn’t read all my posts; who could possibly be expected to keep up with my verbosity?).

After the school year was under way, I would often forget he was a Facebook friend and realize only midway through a posted exchange in which other parents and I kvetched about an annoying and time-consuming third grade assignment that it was all visible to him.

I’ve read a raft of articles in recent years about college deans who are astounded by how over-involved the parents of incoming freshmen are in their children’s lives. They rail at the inappropriateness of parents calling their offices to complain about a rooming situation or a course load rather than having the students fight their own battles. I doubt I’ll ever be like this; I tend to lean the opposite way when it comes to expecting my kids to do their own dirty work, and from that perspective it seems reasonable for a kid to send an email to a teacher. At the same time, recent media coverage of schools that prohibit teachers from friending students on Facebook (or vice versa, by definition). But in some ways, we’re still testing the waters when it comes to social media, and I’m just not sure where a sixth grader emailing his social studies teacher falls on the spectrum of acceptability.

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