Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Sharing with students - a fine balance

Janis Joplin: Take another little piece of my heart (YouTube clip)

Over the years that I have been teaching, I have walked a fine line about how much of my personal life to share with students.  The times that I have shared my personal life, though, students have been so grateful, it is something to contemplate. 

Some years ago, when my hands were very painful with arthritis, I was, for a while, wearing the plastic splints that occupational therapists fashion.  I was following the doctor's (not very well-thought-out) advice to wear these ALL the time.  It was only after my physical therapist questioned the advice that I myself thought to question it.  Joints need to move to stay healthy.  Even when they are sore, they need to move and exercise in order to retain the maximum mobility and strength.  I knew that and so did my doctor -- when I asked about it.  So eventually, I just wore the splints at night to hold the joints in a neutral position when they were especially sore.  But when I was wearing the splints constantly, my students were very curious when I came to class looking like the crab woman!  So I told them why I was wearing the splints.  Afterward, several students told me about relatives in similar straits and thanked me for sharing with them.

Then, more recently, I had a student who volunteered for a project.  Completely a volunteer thing, where he was supposed to update a memorandum of law.  I didn't hear from him for quite a while, and then had an e-mail apologizing.  His brother had gotten horrifically sick on the West coast.  All his family had rushed to the brother's bedside, and were keeping vigil, including my student.  It played havoc with this student's semester. Fortunately, he worked with the dean of students, took a leave of absence, and just dropped all those courses.  He was not even sure for a while that he was returning to law school or coming back East.  Eventually, the brother recovered, almost entirely well again.  The student returned to our law school and is working on his project again.

When he popped back up on my e-mail, all apologies, I told him not to worry and that I certainly understood. Then I told him about when my daughter got bacterial meningitis in her freshman year at college.  I just dropped everything.   Projects dropped in mid-stream, e-mail conversations dropped in mid-sentence, I think.  Very unprofessional of me.  I think I must have continued to teach my class, but I am not sure at this point.  I can't imagine how.  I fell completely apart and pretty much lived at the hospital, fortunately in the same town where I live and teach.  So I told my student now, that I certainly understand how one can just drop things, and that I thought he had the right priorities.  I said that afterwards, when my daughter made a complete recovery (a miracle, and thank heavens for Beth Israel hospital and their ICU staff!), I came back to my projects & conversations and explained why I disappeared, that people were so supportive and so kind.  I also began to find out how extremely lucky we were.

My student has been so grateful to have my story back in exchange for his own. I got much more detail as I traded my own story for his.  I completely understand why he dropped away from view. And he seems like a much more sane and reasonable person than when he just "disappeared" from my view on the volunteer project.

And yet this sharing of oneself is a delicate thing and very easy to overdo.  There is a real reason for that imposed formality of the classroom.  It is an unfair thing to invite students to presume too much friendship with a teacher until they are graduates.  I want my students to feel comfortable with me, and feel they can come to me with problems.  But if there is a perception that they can expect favors because I am their friend, or that one or another student is a special friend, that will lead to all sorts of problems.  I am not their friend (yet).  I am their teacher.  Whether I like it or not, I am obliged to judge the quality of their work, to sort the relative merit of the class's output. I would be happy to be the friend of many of my students -- after they graduate. 

Image decorating this is from http://www.weddingbee.com/2011/01/10/wedding-slump/#axzz2gUIijDVh

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