How Chicago Teachers Relate To Kids These Days

As technology and communication evolve, educators have to adapt to maintain a workable student-teacher relationship in and out of the classroom.

Photo: John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune

Being a teacher today goes far beyond what’s in the lesson plan.

One of my oldest friends is a grade-school teacher in the city, and she loves to regale me with tales from the front. Our sepia-tinted memories of what it’s like to be a kid in school are frozen in time in 1990s Evanston. And, well, things have changed.

Today, apparently, it’s not unusual for male students to ask for a hug in an attempt to learn a lesson about a female teacher’s, um, anatomy. When I relayed this anecdote to some other teacher friends of mine, they confirmed that it’s true. (The solution is to offer a friendly handshake instead.)

But physical familiarity is only the beginning when it comes to the changes in relationships between students and teachers. In fact, that area is pretty straightforward—with emerging technology, the rules are not so simple. Should a teacher be friends with a student on Facebook? Follow a student on Twitter? How should a teacher send a text if it’s uncomfortable to give out a personal cell phone number?

As CPS teachers head back to the classroom today, with the students to follow next week, I interviewed a few educators to ask how technology will change their jobs this school year. Here are the new rules for teachers in 2013:

Privacy is for old people.
Colleen Sanchez, a 9th, 11th and 12th grade teacher at De La Salle Institute, discovered to her dismay that during her first year, a student had posted a photo of her (without asking permission) at prom, where she was a chaperone. “I was really uncomfortable with it and felt that she was being inconsiderate.” However, Sanchez eventually realized that “Students of this generation don’t really apply any sort of etiquette on Facebook.” It isn’t necessarily a sign of disrespect, it’s just teenage behavior. Since then, Sanchez has resigned herself to the fact that she’s graced numerous Facebook pages.

But the students’ casual view of privacy can still be harmful.
A Chicago Catholic high school teacher I spoke with relayed the following anecdote: “Last year, I saw a photo that a girl took of a teacher writing on the board—which [the student] Photoshopped to look like [the teacher] was writing a nasty comment about another girl in the class.” While teenagers being cruel is nothing new, there are novel ways young people share their unkind acts. “What worries me is that they tweet those cruel comments like it’s nothing. I was really surprised to learn how little they understand how public and permanent the internet is.” Related to that:

If students fight at school, it’s safe to assume it stems from social media.
According to Sanchez, her students’ drama occurs on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Vine, and then escalates once the kids meet at school.

Students view their phones as an appendage.
As is the rule at most schools, phones are not allowed in class at De La Salle. “I am pretty positive this causes some weird form of separation anxiety,” says Sanchez. “Many would rather pay the consequences (which at my school can add up to a pretty penny) than be without their phone in class.”

Email is now a thing of the past… 
“My students text or Facebook,” says Sanchez, who thus sometimes finds it challenging to contact her students outside of school. “I generally think it is not acceptable to have students’ cell phone numbers or to be Facebook friends, yet these are their primary forms of communication.”

…as are the rules about written communications in general.
When Sanchez does receive emails from her students, “they are generally lacking capitalization, punctuation, sentence structure, any form of greeting or closing, and please/thank you.” This, however, is not a reflection of students’ writing ability or respect for adults: “Rather, it is how teenagers communicate with each other using social media, and therefore how they think they should communicate with everyone.” Sanchez gently reminds her students that sometimes the old ways have their charms: “I have a chat with my students as a group regarding communication with adults. I try not to criticize their methods of communication, but remind them of the expectations for communication when trying to get into college or get a job.”

The students are probably talking about you online. Just try to ignore it.
Sanchez knows students write about their teachers at sites like ratemyteachers.com, but her philosophy is that it’s best to avoid looking: “You will spend a bunch of time trying to figure out who wrote it. It is usually student who just adores you (and you will already probably know this) or student who is failing your class.” She adds, “It doesn’t really matter if they like you anyway.”

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