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Nina In New York: Teachers And Students Were Never Meant To Be BFF

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A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York.
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In many ways, it seems that kids today have a real advantage over me and my peers in terms of the resources available to them.

They’ve all had personal computers and the Internet since before they could remember. They developed their technological skills along with their language and motor skills. They’ve got Wikipedia for term papers. Any one of them should have no trouble finding a place in the new media workforce once they’re of age, while the rest of us must strive to catch up and keep up with every new social media platform and app development and mobile whatsiwhosits bloggedy blah blah blog.

Then again, it appears that many teenagers are no longer aware of basic capitalization and punctuation rules, and no one has told them that “u,” “LMFAO,” and “;)” aren’t actually words used in formal sentences. So perhaps it’s a wash.

But when I read about the city Education Department’s new efforts to control teacher-student contact online (and particularly via social media), I couldn’t help but feel lucky to have come of age long before any of this mess was made.

In short, the guidelines are thus: Teachers should not have any interaction with students on Facebook, Twitter or the like, but can create specially designated websites or social media pages for strictly professional purposes. Said pages require approval from a supervisor as well as parental consent for a student to join.

All of this is in an effort to curb and prevent inappropriate and harmful personal dealings between teachers and students, which appear to have increased thanks to the Internet – that great, indiscriminate obstacle-remover. Is it really possible that easier access to students has led more teachers to behave badly?

If that’s true, it means they never trustworthy to begin with, only impeded and now braver or less capable of self-control. Or is this new level of personal contact so discomfiting and easily misconstrued that it has led to just as many accusations inspired by parental caution?

No matter which way you slice it, the future looks bleak.

And, quite frankly, bizarre. It was this quote from the piece in The New York Times which had me scratching my head:

“The guidelines come as education officials around the country grapple with whether to restrict use of social media and other communications, like cellphones and texting, acknowledging that such access is freighted with the potential for misuse or abuse.”

Perhaps I was, and still am, naive. I’m fairly sure, however, that when I was in middle and high school, the absolute last thing any student wanted was extracurricular communication with their teachers – and vice versa.  Sure, there were a few terrible stories that floated around about teachers who did some unbelievable things. And on the other hand, there were also plenty of teachers who were so beloved and popular that they were always surrounded by kids hoping to shoot the breeze for a little while.

But even then, I’m quite certain that kids and faculty weren’t going around exchanging phone numbers. In fact, we had one English teacher who was notorious for looking up home numbers and calling every time a kid was out sick, presumably to “see how you were feeling,” but really to make sure you weren’t a dirty liar. The knowledge that she could descend upon your home, encroach on your personal space, and catch you off-guard like that was tremendously unappealing and unappreciated by all.

There must be an entirely different culture surrounding teacher-student relations nowadays. Somehow the internet has breached the age gap in a way that seems both unnatural and potentially dangerous. And at the very least, just plain weird. Sure, it’s great that kids can discuss homework online and email term papers, and I’m sure group project awkwardness is at an all-time low, but there’s something unholy about a young student and a teacher wanting to receive text messages from each other on their own time. I suppose that’s the point that the Department of Education is making. But if you’d told me fifteen years ago that teacher-student internet socializing would be a problem requiring regulation, I’d have laughed in your face.

Then again, I also wrote an op-ed for my student newspaper about how I would never purchase a cell phone and preferred to ride out the “trend.”

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Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

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