Thursday, July 9, 2009

How personal is too personal? - #34

How much of a personal relationship with students is TOO personal?

Your mind probably jumps to those very obvious lines that were crossed by Mary Kay LeTourneu and others who join her ill-reputed ranks. Let's just assume that a sexual relationship with a minor is TOO personal. I'm not talking about sexual relationships. I'm talking more along the lines of blurring the lines of mentor & friend.

In classes and other pedagogical conferences, I've heard encouragement that teachers should share some of their personal lives with students. They will respect you if they can see you as a real person instead of a robot or just an echo of authority. Though I've heard that encouragement - and thinking back to being a student, I remember enjoying learning more about my teacher - I'll admit upfront that I don't get personal enough with my students.

In my professional, as well as personal life, I'm fairly private. I'm rather reserved and don't make a lot overt offerings of personal info; if someone asks me about my life, I'm willing to open up, but until I really get to know ya, I'll just take a quiet backseat. In my classroom, then, I don't know that I am able to push those natural personal boundaries. Because I prefer to be private, I don't naturally extend those personal questions to students, and I'm somewhat reserved in my answers to their personal questions. Additionally, the reminder is ever present in my mind that I'm their teacher, not their friend. Sometimes, I don't want to know what goes on in their personal lives -- very often, I look at them differently because of it (sometimes sympathetic, sometimes not). There's some things I don't want to know; likewise, there's some things that I don't need to know.

Still, I need to be better about engaging them personally. I am aware of my personal inhibitions, so I need to be more purposeful in overcoming them.

But then I question, how much is too much? Yes, we should be accessible to students for consultations or help. Most of us have school email addresses that students & parents could contact with questions or information. But that's a professional email address. Would you give out your personal cell phone number? There are some teachers at my school who give students their cell phone numbers and will allow students to text questions about schoolwork (I presume that's all there is). Some other teachers may need those students' cell numbers if the teacher is also a coach who may need extra points of contact. What about Facebook & Myspace? I've seen some teachers who befriend students on Facebook once the student is no longer in his/her class. I'm still uncomfortable with that. I don't want my students to see the goofy pictures/videos I take with friends/family. They already know I'm crazy, but they also need to know I'm professional. Teens like to categorize & label their world - in general, they have difficulty with "Gray" areas. Which means the pressure is on the teacher to maintain a firm line between student & teacher...and I think teachers make it more difficult on yourself, as a teacher, when you begin blurring that line. Or at least re-drawing it.

Or am I just being over-cautious & paranoid?

What do you think: where's the line? Would you give a student your personal cell phone number and allow them to text/call you?

What do you think? How much personal information/contact is too much?


  1. Defining a line for dealing with appropriate vs inappropriate teacher/student behavior is a highly personal choice. I don't agree that students should ever be befriended on Myspace/Facebook, unless it is years later and they are adults. Pictures, videos, comments can all be misconstrued when taken out of context; the last group of people you want to risk that with are your students, their parents, or your employer. This is an extreme case, but it shows how you may not realize how your comments, status updates, feelings, etc can show you in a manner you didn't expect: Many employers are even using Facebook/Myspace accounts as a type of “background” check on their potential employees so that makes what you post on the internet even more important.
    Although I believe a teenager can distinguish between a friend and a mentor, I also don't believe students should have your personal cell phone number. If you're given cell phone through your school that's different, but it should be a number that is given to each and every student and should only be used for school related circumstances. Obviously if a student seems to be reaching out to you in a mentoring capacity, it would be appropriate (to me) that you help facilitate that type of relationship possibly after class; although the only personal information I would suggest divulging would be what you feel is warranted. Always keep in mind that teens have big mouths—and the end result of the game telephone never turned out so well--so be aware that anything you tell them will probably make it to the ears of your colleagues, employers, parents, and other students.

  2. I used to get really close to my students, now I don't do it anymore.
    I must admit that I felt better doing it but I don't think my new school is the right place to do it. So I think it's up to you, something withing you lets you know what's right and what's not.


  3. I obviously get pretty personal with my kids. You read my blog, you know that I get involved in their lives and, to some extent, vice versa. I do find that when I tell personal stories, it can help us connect. There are some lines I don't cross, of course, but I'm generally a pretty open person and that's true of my teacher persona too.

    It does make for some awkward conversations at times - occasionally kids will ask me about things or bring up topics of conversation that I'm simply not comfortable discussing. So I tell them that, and I explain why if they push, and usually it works out fine. A few have kept pushing and I've had to push back, but no harm, no foul. And in the end, I feel being open has helped me as a teacher significantly more than it's hurt me.

    Cell phone numbers…well, I just shared that with a couple of kids for the first time this summer. The two kids I mentor have it so that we could get in touch over the summer, as does one kid who made my name out of M&Ms and took a picture of it – I wanted a copy of the photo and she had to text it to me (though she promised to erase it). So far, I haven’t had any kids abuse the information (knock on wood), and my admin knows I’m in touch with those students and thus sharing some contact info. One of the kids calls me, one texts me, but both are just to set up or cancel meeting times, not just for a conversation or anything. If that were to occur, I’d tell them that I’m not comfortable with that.

    Sorry, me being me, this got really long and I haven’t even touched on MySpace and Facebook! But I’ll post on those later.

  4. Sometimes it's necessary to give out cell phone numbers - e.g. for field trips somewhere, in case kids get separated from the group. Otherwise, no no no.

  5. I tend to be reserved, too -- but I learned to share stories in class -- it helps to remind them that I am a person, too, and that I can remember (even if it gets dimmer every year) what it was like to be their age. I share stories of my own education in high school and college -- mostly the big lessons about How It Doesn't Really Matter Where You Go To School If You Make The Most Of It, etc. Sometimes funny stories from childhood. If I'm helping a kids through a crisis, I sometimes share more personal items on an individual basis, but that has more to do with establishing rapport and showing them I understand than actually sharing for sharing's sake. And that last one is rare.

    I have former students who have my number and home email because we go to lunch sometimes. I have accepted former students as Facebook friends. Never current. If, like teachin', I were on a field trip, I'd likely get a pre-paid cell dedicated to that one activities (or others like it).

    I have colleagues who have developed reputations as being too kid-friendly, and that's not the reputation I want. So I refuse it. It means I don't always know who is going out with whom, or what the latest scandal is, or who's jealous of whose college acceptance...but I can live with that. I also have teacher frineds who DO knowthose things, so if it's important for me, I can ask them!