Khairie Hisyam Aliman


Some time ago I was looking at my Facebook feed and noticed a status update by an old friend who works as a schoolteacher. He was wondering aloud about how his students fared in their latest mock examinations.

And his students were commenting back. The interaction then went into other more personal subjects unrelated to the classroom and carried a tinge of familiarity that seemed alien considering it involved a teacher and his students.

It feels a far cry from how things used to be. We Asians have long kept a certain distance from our teachers. It’s a sign of respect and a reflection of our formal education style.

So we go to school and be taught. We ask questions and the teachers answer – we often take these answers at face value (before the Internet that is). We tend to listen more and wait for permission to speak. The relationship used to be formal and controlled, unlike in the West where the interaction is much more informal and two-way.

But the age of social media is changing that. Social media is pervasive in our lives. It’s more common that any particular person would have a Facebook or Twitter account these days than not. And the result is more interactions between the teacher and the student outside of school.

Of course friendliness between teachers and students well pre-date the social media age, even sometimes leading to romance and marriage once the teacher-student relationship ends and the appropriate age is reached.

But these used to be less common. Friendships that form between teachers and students sometimes cool and eventually people fall out of touch. Today, social media is providing a platform for constant (if sometimes artificial) connection on a personal level.

(From my own experience having a couple of my professors on Facebook had been a revelation in my interaction with them. My interactions with them these days through Facebook are arguably more meaningful on a personal level than when I was in university.)

That said there are numerous issues to be considered here such as to what extent engagement is appropriate – teachers should be entitled to keep their personal lives separate, for example. However these deserve a separate discussion.

In any case it is perhaps too early to tell what sort of impact this proliferation of teacher-student relationship brings to our society. One clear positive though is that it humanises teachers.

Times were we sometimes forget the teacher is a human being too. We expect perfection, sometimes unfairly. Sometimes parents berate teachers for their kids’ academic failings. We forget that there are limits to what the teacher can do. We are ruthless in highlighting ultimately minor mistakes and missteps.

Social media helps us understand that teachers aren’t robots, that teachers have life problems and worries and concerns (insofar as they share these things on social media), that they feel happy sometimes and sad some other times and have opinions on a lot of things.

The challenge though is balance.

That sweet spot where students still have respect for their teachers despite being chummy enough with each other to promote active engagement and active learning. Where the barrier of formality drops just enough to help our students learn better without losing respect for the people they should look to for guidance in learning.

Find that and we could be golden.