Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Appropriate boundaries create integrity. 
                                    - Jewish Proverb

In a chat with a dear friend, she told me her first grader came home from school today abuzz with questions about what "The Biggest Loser" is, and what bootcamp means, and what a trainer does, and how and why you would do squats. After the litany of questions was over, it became clear that her son's teacher had been talking about her new weight-loss plan.

In high school psychology, my classmates gave me the job to ask kindly about our teacher's divorce at some point every class. This lead her to go on and on and on about her divorce, and was probably why when I took Psych 101 in college, it was all new.

I've been thinking about this post for a while based on this and a few other interesting conversations I've had recently with new teachers. Many new teachers have a difficult time drawing clear boundaries with students.  This can be especially difficult for young teachers of high school students, when there is not much of an age difference between teacher and student. It is in these situations, however, that boundaries become all the more crucial.

There are physical boundaries that must be drawn, obviously. And social networking boundaries. But less easy to figure out is finding the line between relationships and friendships in the context of the classroom. Remember, your goal is to be respected as a teacher, not liked as a friend. There were many times early in my teaching that I realized I over-shared with my students. I'm a talker. It happened. Luckily, unlike the way my teacher's divorce superseded the curriculum, what I shared was pretty harmless. But this did not help craft my pedagogy or improve the learning in the classroom. It was just poor judgment. A good strategy I learned to use is to stop and think, "Is this necessary for my students to know and respect me as a teacher?" If not, then it probably doesn't need to be shared. A colleague offers this to consider also: "Why do I want to share this with students?" Perhaps it is to appear hip and relevant to your students. But again, that isn't likely to improve teaching and learning in your classroom, and isn't a valid reason for divulging a personal story.

Does this mean that you shouldn't tell your students that you have children or a passion for horses or like to snowboard? Of course you can. Especially in the context of new things that you're learning or ways that you draw on skills you've honed over years of practice or what gets you really excited about life. Those are very important. But they don't need to know about your dating life or where you went out on Saturday. I didn't give out my home phone number often, but here's an article to help you think about that decision.

I still catch myself in diarrhea-of-the-mouth in the classroom (and out of it!) at times, needing to take a step back and regroup. "Is this necessary?" "Why am I sharing this?" Setting boundaries takes some time to figure out, but in the end, is an essential part of finding your identity as a teacher.

What boundaries are you struggling with in your role as teacher?


  1. It's interesting to think about where legitimate sharing intersects with possible crossing of boundaries. I think that that it's critical to note that young children (3-6 years of age) are tremendously interested in personal stories from their teachers. They want to hear what the world was like when their teacher was a child. These autobiographical stories are an essential way to involve young children in oral communication, listening and telling their own stories. Of course topics involving violence, divorce, abuse, etc. are "off the table." I am a great advocate of this sort of storytelling, which is actually respectful of boundaries. What do you all think?

  2. @Michael D. Hi Michael. I agree that storytelling is a powerful tool, and one that students need to learn to use as well. One important way they learn is through expert modeling of storytelling, so yes, of course, there are times for stories in the classroom. I still think, though, that there are times where telling stories are more appropriate than others. Communication skills can be developed in a lot of ways aside from teachers telling many personal stories that relate little to the goals of the classroom.