Saturday, October 28, 2006

How Much 'I' is 'TMI'?

In Classroom Management last week we had a long discussion about how much personal information we should or should not share with our students. How many personal questions are we willing to answer? Where do we draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate topics of conversation? What are we teaching through our answers, and what are we teaching through our silences?

I imagine this is a tough issue for all teachers, but I know it’s tough for me. I am not, by nature, afraid to share personal information about myself with others. You’re shocked, I feel it. Through your computer screen, out into the crazy huge insanity of the internet, and into my laptop, I feel the shock emanating from your very core. But I assure you, it’s true – I’m willing to talk about pretty much anything with pretty much anyone. If my students ask me about my personal life, I see no reason not to tell them what they want to know.

But then, of course, I have to remind myself that I am a role model to these kids – a figure of authority. They interpret what I say to them very differently than they interpret what their friends say to them. For me to acknowledge I’ve done something might imply that I’m condoning it for my students. For me to deny experience in certain areas might imply that I’m judging other groups of people who make different choices from my own. For me to express my own beliefs on an issue might imply that I’m hoping to persuade others to my views. So while I might want to share whatever I think about the subject at hand, I have to consider the effects I might have on my students. Inextricably tied in with this, too, is, of course, the ever-present fear of parental or administrative involvement in an issue in which I’ve been declared to have acted inappropriately. For my own safety, I have to be very careful.

On the other hand, in many cases, being honest with my students about serious issues with which they struggle might have tremendously positive long-term effects. Keep in mind that the kids are dealing with these problems with or without my involvement – so if making a sincere connection with them could help guide them through the trials, is it fair of me to lie to them (including lying by omission)? Maybe instead of deluding myself into thinking that never talking about alcohol with them will mean they’ll never engage in underage drinking, I should open up and talk to them about the drinking I did in high school, why I made the choices I did, and what I know now to inform my current opinions on the subject. Maybe that way, they could make smart decisions and take responsibility for their actions, instead of hiding it all (but doing it anyway). Maybe that would be better.

Aside from controversial issues, there are also some issues that are simply personal in nature. A huge part of deciding how much you share with your student is acknowledging the level of emotions tied in with the issue at hand. If a personal question comes up and I know talking about it will cause me to become emotional, I have some difficult decisions to make. First, should I talk to my students about this? Do I feel there is intrinsic value to sharing this information with my students – does it teach them something that would be difficult or impossible to teach them otherwise? If not, then maybe my emotional discomfort should steer me away from this subject. Hopefully I can give an honest explanation of why I’m choosing not to answer, and we can move away from the topic.

If I feel I should answer the question, though, I have to way that belief against the emotional risk. Showing strong emotions to my students – whether anger or sadness or whatever – has the possibility of irreparably damaging our relationship. However, it also has the possibility of strengthening our relationship, because I have made myself vulnerable in a way that invites trust in return. So if I believe the value in sharing the information is worth the trade-off in emotional display, I’ll take the risk and answer the question. If I believe demonstrating that level of emotion is too risky or will cause too many additional problems, I may have to let go of the teaching opportunity inherent in the question.

But not answering would completely go against my natural tendency to share anything about myself with anyone who asks, and that can be very challenging. Over the past week, there have been some notable changes to my appearance, and some of the kids have asked questions about it. I don’t feel, however, that there is any real value in answering them (at least at this time), and I know for a fact that answering them would make me uncomfortable and emotional. So for now, I’m forced to evade the questions and give half-ass answers and I HATE THAT.

Of course, to a certain extent, answering the questions from anyone would make me uncomfortable and emotional at this point, which is why I’m grateful y’all haven’t been hounding me with inquiries as to what, exactly, has been going on. Trust that I share as much as I’m willing, and answers will come with time.

Hmmm… maybe that’s the same route I should take with my students, too…


Anonymous said...

Emotional remoteness from students or, say, employees is, I think, one quality that some of my most authoritative teachers possess. The proper forum for sharing one's personal life with a younger person is a mentor-mentee relationship in an after-school or inner-city program in which the principal goal is not to cover material but to provide a role model for living. Hence one might take up both activities - teaching and mentoring - with different sets of students and behave according to the role.

Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking post. I think "Trust that I share as much as I’m willing, and answers will come with time" might be a good thing for your students to learn. As you mentioned, you teach by what you don't say as well as by what you do.

Juka said...

Thought-provoking indeed. Thinking back on my own teachers, I think the most authoritative ones were those that maintained a high degree of personal separation. However, I did like it sometimes when teachers would mention their families, telling funny stories about their spouses or children, because it made them seem more real. I think that topics such as underage drinking and the like are probably too dangerous, especially for your career.

Lara said...

*first, to everyone: i feel i should make explicit something that may not have been clear in the original post. i am NOT talking about how much of this to discuss during instructional time - that is, in a classroom setting. while some personal information issues may come up there, it is a much more obvious "don't" in that case. i'm referring to one-on-one (or small group) situations before or after school, during lunch, or between classes. maybe that clears some things up?

anon - i would argue it's a quality some of my most authoritarian teachers possessed, but not necessarily my most authoritative teachers. as for the mentoring suggestion, i think the above explanation may help with that. chatting with my students in those situations is more like a mentor-mentee relationship already, and i know that all teachers at my current school have to teach their mentees at some point (stay with them for four years, at some point they'll be the grade you teach).

tali - yeah, that's why after i wrote that i was all, "hmmmm..." not a bad plan to keep in mind as a default, at any rate.

justin - see my comment to anonymous to see my distinction between authoritarian/authoritative teachers. i always preferred to interact with my teachers as people, rather than information-spewing machines, so i always appreciated some level of personal information sharing. however, you're right in that certain topics are dangerous. the trick is to decide when the risk of that danger is worthwhile, given the potential pay-off in positively impacting a student. i'm not saying it's necessarily a great thing to chat with my kids about drinking, just that it's a decision to weigh in each case - i don't think i could just make an all-or-nothing decision that would stand in all situations.

Juliaclare Plezbert said...

I just wanted to say I stumbled across your blog and it is really interesting because I am learning things you learned in class and I could really relate. I especially like your blog on the Equity vs Equality and putting all the shoes in a pile, great idea!