Friday, November 30, 2012

Year 3: Week 12 – Boundaries

On my first day of new teacher orientation at my first teaching job, the lawyer who worked for the district gave us a presentation about the legal issues related to teaching.

This was a sobering presentation, but a necessary one.

Being a teacher in our increasingly litigious society presents unique challenges. Like other aspects in life, extreme situations influence our everyday practice. Most of the time wearing a seatbelt is completely unnecessary when you ride in a car, but we wear them all of the time for those rare instances when we get into a car accident.

Most of the time when a teacher hugs a student, it’s a mutual expression of care, but there are the rare instances when a student feels uncomfortable or when the teacher initiates a hug in an inappropriate way. This makes us think twice as teachers when it comes to hugging a student.

I’ve heard teachers mourn the fact that we have to be more careful than they used to around students. I not really sure how to respond to this thought. I never taught in the “good old days.” I grew up hearing about Mary Kay Letourneau and other similar cases. And I came to be a teacher in a time where the trust that our society placed in adults who work with children was called into question.

Is it annoying that I have to be careful around my students? Not for me, because it’s how I’ve always operated as a teacher. I can see how this shift could be annoying for veteran teachers, but so was wearing a seat belt once upon a time. It’s worth it for that one car accident. It may be worth the precautions for that one student who is saved from a traumatic experience that could effect the rest of his or her own life.

I don’t doubt my own judgment, but that’s not what this is all about. This is about how other teachers view my interactions with students and the atmosphere that the choices we make about the boundaries we have with our students create.

I refuse to hug my students. It’s awkward sometimes but I’ve made that call not only because it could make a student uncomfortable but also because I’m not comfortable with that level of physical contact with a student. Does this mean I don’t care about my students or that I don’t develop meaningful teacher-students relationships? No. In the same way that capital punishment is an easy way out to correct a student’s behavior, hugging students can be the easy way out to show affection.

Our practices as a teacher have to reflect societies changes and concerns.  Some of these restrictions can be annoying but they also challenge us to be more thoughtful about the relationships we have with students.  I'm not any less invested in my students than teachers who taught generations before.  I simply express my care in different ways.

Teachers, we need to be careful out there.  If you're not sure about the legal boundaries and liabilities related to being a teacher, education yourself.  That knowledge will liberate you the same way classroom rules make students feel more comfortable. 

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