Despite what some students believe, we teachers are living, breathing humans. We do not fold ourselves into wooden crates at the end of the working day and power-down until morning. Most of us have busy, complex lives outside of college; our job title is not our only definition. But how do we find that balance of presenting ourselves as relatable, real-life people who are accessible and sympathetic to our students without giving away too much personal information?
Breaking down barriers to learning depends on how comfortable a student is in their college environment and with their teacher. There may be 20 students in a group, but they are 20 individuals, each with a unique set of experiences that inform their time in the classroom. The more we work to develop respectful relationships with each student, the better we understand their own personal universe and are able to tailor the learning to suit their needs.
Central to the student-teacher relationship is the mutual understanding of boundaries. However friendly we are, we are not a friend or a counsellor. As well as the work we do to support, empower and nurture our learners, we are also the enforcers of consequences, the setters of deadlines and, occasionally, the deliverers of disappointing news. Many students look to their teacher as a leader. The classroom may be the only place in their world that offers a calm, predictable, safe environment, a place of respite from the chaos of their own lives. We need our leaders to appear stable, reliable and devoid of chaos, even if that isn’t an authentic representation of their personal lives. This is just one of many reasons that oversharing can present problems.
Some teachers are experts at developing a professional persona to fit the group that they teach. This slightly altered version of themselves can prove especially useful when working with students whose behaviour is challenging. But if you are a natural sharer, there are certain elements to consider.
1 Think about your own safety
Be aware that an off-the-cuff remark about where you walk the dog, or specifics regarding your car or house, could potentially make you vulnerable, should a critical incident occur with a student. Incidents that compromise the safety of teachers – both in and outside the college environment – are rare, but by no means unheard of.
2 The college’s location
What you share about your personal life can depend on where you live in relation to where you work. The last two colleges where I have taught have been over an hour’s drive from where I live, which allowed me to be more relaxed in what I shared about my home life. However, when I taught in a college close to home, I was intentionally guarded about my life outside the classroom.
3 The college’s size and local history
If you work in a small college and have a long history in the town, the chances are that the occasional student will know more about your personal life than you would otherwise wish to share. Did you go to school with their dad? Has your student tiled your bathroom? In this scenario, it’s even more important to impose strict boundaries between your work and your private life. Upholding a professional relationship in college and keeping a respectful distance in social situations both allow you to retain the authority that your position demands.
4 Be tactful
Waxing glamorous about your jet-set lifestyle, sports cars and designer wardrobe (we can dream, can’t we?) with students who can only just cobble the bus fare together could be seen as cruel instead of aspirational. Be aware of any differences in financial circumstances between your students’ world and your own before you share holiday stories.
5 Sharing on social media
There are a few obvious rules and most will be written into your college’s policy. Don’t accept a friend request from a student on Facebook or follow one on Twitter. If you are using social media as a teaching and learning tool, create a dedicated account and give the login and password details to your line manager. When you post a tweet or a status update, you are publishing to the world. Even if your account on Facebook has the highest possible level of privacy settings, could you vouch for the integrity and discretion of each and every “friend”? As a rule, don’t post anything that would embarrass you in front of your boss, your parents, your spouse or your students.
6 Personal crisis
In the world of entertainment, the term “doctor theatre” describes the adrenalin rush of being in front of an audience that temporarily removes symptoms of illness or negative emotion. In times of personal crisis, some teachers value their time at work (or at least in front of students) as a welcome departure from their own difficulties. It is their coping mechanism.
Some teachers who have developed a more open relationship with their learners may find it appropriate to offer an explanation if they have had any significant time off work. It would be wise to keep any disclosure brief and not too specific. If you are not physically or emotionally ready to step back into the classroom, delay your return. Don’t let teacher guilt be the reason you return to work. Returning before you are fully ready will not aid your longer-term recovery.