Adding a personal Touch - A Letter from Our Assistant Head Teacher
I remember in my first teaching job a colleague warning me that, due to the fact that I was fresh out of university and not that much older than some of the 18-year-olds I would be teaching, it was absolutely essential that I did not share my life with my students. My colleague called it “professional boundaries”.
I agree that professional boundaries are important, especially when it comes to safeguarding, but I have to say I found the belief that the students with whom I spent many hours a week should know nothing about me didn’t chime with my innate belief that teaching is, at its very core, about human connection.
I decided not to take my former colleague’s advice and I’m so glad that I didn’t.
The majority of students who have been through my classroom will know many things about me: I’m obsessed with Harry Potter, I love Yorkshire tea and that (before COVID) I had this strange anxiety attributed to choosing a nail polish colour I would regret when I went to the salon, so I used to take a bottle of OPI Brisbane Bronze with me every single time. These details have no relevance to my ability as a teacher, but I think they are unbelievably important in creating a more complete picture of me as a person.
More seriously, I have shared many larger details of my life with my students including my parents’ divorce when I was 15 and my failed engagement in 2017. Two very private and painful elements of my life.
What sharing these details with my students achieved was this: that they felt able to share their lives with me and that they were able to show me grace and empathy in return. As a consequence of this, I have sat with a 15-year-old boy whilst he sobbed about his parents’ separation, I have comforted a 17-year-old whose heart was broken for the first time, I have listened to a student whose brother was diagnosed with cancer. How will they know they can share with you, if they only see the academic you, the “professional” you, the you who can recite the entirety of ‘Macbeth’ but who has shared little else with them?
And they, too, have learned the importance of kindness. When going through a break up of my own, they were able to cut me slack and give me the benefit of the doubt when my lessons weren’t up to their usual standard. In essence sharing myself with them has taught them to realize that everyone they encounter in life has their struggles as well as their hopes and dreams.
During the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to online teaching, I have had to share myself with students in a way that I have never done before and vice versa. We can literally glance into each other’s lives: I know who has a Marvel bedspread and the names of my students’ cats (who regularly Zoom-bomb classes). Likewise, they can see the books on my shelves and can share in my frustration about the endless construction taking place across the road because they can hear it! They also, occasionally, can see Sean, my partner, in the background and have had the chance to say hi to him. They can see glimpses of the life we share together and I love it.
The main reason I love it is because I think it is a salient reminder that we are human beings with lives that exist beyond the educational sphere. As we all try to reconcile our mixed emotions about living through a global pandemic, it is absolutely essential that we share, that we listen, that we validate.
I have a little black book in which I ask all students to write when they have passed through my class. One of my favourite entries is this: “There are literally a million more things I could say, but definitely the most important, and my greatest thanks of all, is that you have the courage to share yourself as a person so openly with your students. I honestly believe this to be the finest quality a teacher can display and it has given me so many fond memories.”
I remember reading this back in 2017 and realizing that whilst good subject knowledge, well-planned lessons and behaviour management are all important, they are nowhere near as important as letting students know you as a person.
If there is one piece of advice I could give to new teachers it is this: share your lives with your students. Tell them about your best ever holiday, your favourite food and your mental health struggles. I promise you won’t regret it. It is absolutely essential that we share, that we listen, that we validate to foster a school environment where communication is prioritized.