As a teacher who has spent most of his professional career in boarding, I am clear that my primary motivation to teach is a pastoral one. The opportunity to be a principal role-model in a child’s formative years is both an immensely humbling and a highly honourable responsibility. I feel I have had much success in positively influencing the lives of the children in my care, yet this is not really my doing, rather the work Christ does through me. Through developing close yet professional relationships with those in my care, I see my ministry as incarnationally shining the light of Christ into the lives young people (or at least trying to). It is an immense privilege, and frankly, I love it!
Working closely with students is something all good teachers do but this gets magnified in the culturally intensive routines of boarding school life where the distinction between academic and pastoral grows fuzzier and the implications for the emotional and spiritual needs of our charges’ are more consequential and must be taken more seriously. Under such conditions, it is not surprise that many students will stay in touch with their teachers and houseparents long after they have left.
Except for particular situations, I can see no point for teachers and students to be Facebook ‘friends'; they meet with each other face to face on most days. However, Facebook seems the perfect tool for teachers and past students to keep in touch, not only is it universally simple, but control over viewing rights is significant; whilst I may endeavour to live with integrity online, that doesn’t stop my friends and family posting inappropriate comments. I need to be aware that although my professional responsibility to them may be over, my social responsibility is ongoing (especially if they are still young). It is the same when relating to any young person in either online or offline space, be they a Godchild, family, or child of a friend.
It occurs to me that there is a strongly biblical theme to this model. For a few years, Jesus lived intensively with His disciples, teaching them carefully and developing close pastoral relationships. On Ascension day, Jesus physically departed from their lives and their formative time together came to an end. However, the relationship was one that was able to continue in a non-physical manner because the disciples sought it in the same way Christians today do. If this isn’t digital discipleship, what is?
Working in the kind of schools I have has made it clear to me that these ‘privileged’ children have as deep a need for Christ in their lives as does any child.
In contrast to the sort of school I usually work in, I recently had the opportunity to work in a small school for children from foster and care homes. Needless to say these guys have had more than their fair share of troublesome times and I was struck by just how much they have to cope with at a young age. I worked closely with them, and despite the many challenges they threw in my path, enjoyed my work. One of their regular (and desperately understandable) complaints is that no-one who came into their lives seemed to stay long before moving on. Conscious of this fact and the thought that I had more to offer them, Once I left, I accepted Facebook requests that came my way (as ever, being cautious with my security settings). My few interactions were able to offer the occasional helpful word and support. A little while later, however, particularly bearing in mind the particular vulnerabilities and issues they faced, it was suggested by some in the system that this was not a good idea and I was very much putting my reputation in the danger zone by so doing.
We live in a world where reputation is everything; I am only too aware that my primary access to this ministry I feel called to comes in the form of pink sheet of paper labelled CRB. Reputations, like savings, are hard-earned but easily disposed of; they are not something that we should be putting at risk, especially when it affects our professional status. I took advice and some ‘de-friending’ happened.
What Would Jesus Do?
The trouble is, I feel sure Jesus would do the exact opposite. His concern for the suffering and vulnerable far outweighed any concern he may have had for His reputation as is demonstrated by the types of people he freely associated with.
So, I have become yet one more caring adult to build a rapport and promptly leave again. I feel I have done the right thing but also feel saddened by it. The frustratingly paradoxical points are that
- It is these young people’s very vulnerability and their need for constancy that creates a wariness of relationships outside of those that are professionally sanctioned. Whilst this is absolutely necessary for their safeguarding, it also seems to restrict the support available to them.
- The non-physical, yet more public, nature of social media, far from offering us the protection of transparency, seems to give social media a more sinister appearance in the mind of many.
And so I ask again… is What Would Jesus Do = What Should We Do?