The Houston Chronicle ran an interesting article this week about teachers connecting with students via social networking sites.
Facebook and MySpace really do make outstanding fora for teachers and students to communicate. The vast majority of students make use of social networking tools and most younger teachers at least have a Facebook page. Kids are generally quick to send a friend request to teachers if they stumble across their profiles. As the article points out,
What seems like an easy question — Will you be my friend? — is not necessarily so for teachers who have joined the Facebook phenomenon.
The social-networking Web site, whose popularity has grown from the college crowd down to teens and up to boomers, poses a prickly question for teachers who want to connect with their tech-savvy students yet maintain professional boundaries.
From my perspective, teachers need to simply reject the friend requests. It should be a matter of policy, outlined at the beginning of a course. Obviously, this rule doesn't need to hold for college students and instructors, both of whom are presumably adults without the same liability or even the implications of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for discoverability of electronic communications.
While the vast majority of students and teachers could use social networking tools to the benefit of student education, there is simply too much potential for angry parents, appearances of untoward behaviors, and diminishing the appropriate boundaries between students and teachers. While the article notes that sites like Facebook can help humanize teachers, a much better bet is to simply set up a Ning or other school-sanctioned site (preferably via your SIS or existing network infrastructure) that is exclusively for connecting staff and students. There isn't any mixing of your fun weekend adventures with discussions of assignments and parents can easily be added to the mix as well.
When the kids graduate or move on, a case can be made to keep in touch via one of the mainstream sites. With very rare exceptions, though, just ignore those friend requests.