Tag Archives: boundaries

How Much Do I Want My Students to Know about Me?

When I started teaching at university level in the Netherlands, I realized that teachers often encouraged students to call them by their first name. I did it for the first year, but when I changed schools, I decided that I would be Mr. Baker. Yes, the students at my new school were a bit younger, but it also just felt right to me. They knew my name was Andy, but I always said, “It’s Mr. Baker.” I liked having that boundary. We’re not friends. This is a teacher-student relationship.

Interestingly, when I look back at my own undergraduate program and my favorite teachers, they are Pam, Mary, Jean and Joe. Not a Mr. or Ms. in the bunch. And that was the Eighties in Texas.

This got me thinking about both how much I want my students to know about me and how much I want to know about them. Everyone has their own rules. These are mine.

What They Know

My students know that I am gay, that I am married, that I live in Amsterdam, that I American, that I was born in Texas, and that I spent a good chunk of time in New York City. These are all just demographic bits of information that they could probably find online. I even told a class of students that my mother has Alzheimer’s because I was concerned I might have to take a few weeks off if she were to die. (This was years ago and she is still with us. Alzheimer’s takes its own time and my mother is apparently not yet ready to go.)

What They Don’t Know

But what would I not tell them? I wouldn’t tell them if I had some chronic or terminal illness. I don’t know what would be gained from that. I mean I would if I thought it might come up and that I might have to miss class. (This was my reasoning for disclosing my mother’s illness.) I wouldn’t tell them if I were having marital difficulties. I wouldn’t tell them if I were having housing issues, again unless it would somehow affect them. I note all of these because I have had colleagues share this information with students.

Social Media

I don’t friend students on Facebook until they have graduated. (And then I have to re-train them to call me Andy.) However, I will connect with students on LinkedIn. I have connected with former students on other social media platforms (Instagram, Twitter), but I don’t know that I would connect with a current student. I’ve even had former students visit Toastmasters. I’m always thrilled when that happens.

Being connected to a current student on social media just feels like having a student poke his their nose in the teacher’s lounge. We’re not doing anything illicit, but get out. Mine your own business! There is always the possibility of having a student-friendly version of social media accounts, but I would need a good reason for creating and juggling one more of those.

Boundaries are personal. What feels right to me might not feel right to you, and vice versa. Also, what felt right to me as a student doesn’t feel right to me now that I am the teacher. However, I absolutely believe that it’s something we all need to think about and consider. These are important relationships, and our interactions with our students should be well considered.

What are the boundaries you’ve set with your students?

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How Much Do I Want to Know about My Students?

The flipside of the question about how much personal information I want to share with my students is how much I want to know about them.

Getting to Know You

When I meet a new class of students, I do a ‘getting to know you’ exercise that is outlined in my post about learning students’ names. In it, I ask them to tell me a bit about themselves: their name, how old they are, where they’re from, hobbies, work, and why they’re studying what they are studying. Sometimes I ask them to tell me something that is particularly interesting about themselves.

Each of these components has some reasoning behind it. I want to know their name for obvious reasons: I want to be able to use their name when I call on them. And I believe it makes them feel seen.

I ask their age because I like to know the outliers in the class. I once had a 16-year-old in a class of mostly 17 and 18-year-olds. Similarly, I’ve had 23-year-olds in the same situation. Also, the question I ask is “What kinds of things do you want to know about someone when you first meet them?” And the students always say age.

Knowing where a student is from is just good information. Most of my students are locals, even coming from the same city. Some come from smaller cities or villages. Occasionally I have a foreign student or someone with an interesting background. Again, it’s just information.

Hobbies and work are just so I have something to hang onto when I’m trying to remember their name. She’s the girl who owns a horse. He’s the guy who works in a flower shop.

The same goes for why they’re studying what they’re studying. I generally get “I decided to study _________ because it’s a broad subject and I can decide exactly what I want to do later.” (I’ve heard this with Communication, Commercial Economics, Human Resources and Psychology students.)

I’ve had students who tell me they’re dyslexic. They want me to know, but they’re really nothing I can do. Occasionally I get a student with some sort of medical condition that’s pertinent to them being in my class, as they might have to miss class. Beyond that, I don’t need to know medical stuff. Also, will I really remember it?

What I Don’t Want to Know

The list of things I don’t want to know about students includes anything that does not have to do with their participation in my class. I don’t want to know what they did last weekend in terms of partying. I don’t want to know the details of why they need to rush to the restroom during class. I once had a class of female dancers all in their late teens. At the end of the year, one of them said, “Everyone in our class has had a pregnancy scare this year.” Really? I didn’t want to know that. Also, breakups. I’m not on that committee. I don’t want to know about that. Home address and contact beyond school email? I don’t need to know that.

It’s informative to know about deaths in the family, parental divorces, moving house and other personal life events that might affect a student’s attendance and performance in class, but beyond that, I don’t want to know. Students are teenagers and young adult. They have messy lives. I’d rather not know the details. Does this make me sound callous? In my defense, I have colleagues whose job it is to deal with those issues and to disseminate that information to me if I need to know.

Boundaries are personal. These are mine. Are yours much different?

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