Thursday, August 9, 2012

To Know or Not to Know, That is the Question

Entering the world of education with a background of working with kids in the private sector my whole life, I have received many fantastic nuggets of wisdom about teaching from veterans in the field. I have found these tips on organization, ideas about classroom management, and tricks to ensure sanity invaluable. However, there is one piece of advice I actually received from several veterans that I have never been able to wrap my mind around – “don’t get too involved with the students; it makes it easier to discipline them.” What? What exactly does that mean?

Now, I suppose this could be a way to keep the line between teacher and student unmistakably defined. When I pushed my helpful advisors for a more finite explanation, I never received the clarity I sought. This statement just seems entirely too general in my eyes. I crave specificity.

Don’t gossip with your students – of course not, this is both unprofessional and juvenile. Don’t hang out with your students casually – yeah, I can understand that, after all we are not BFFs. Don’t go out and party with your students – ok, now I’m just being facetious, but I have heard of it happening, so I’ll throw it in here.

These statements are precise and could be helpful to people who have either never been around kids or who are young and lack life experience or who just have no common sense. But “don’t get too involved” – I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it now.

When I decided to go into education, my main reason was because I wanted to be involved in the lives of children. I mean, what better way to help kids learn, grow, and succeed than teaching, right? And it seems to me that the better you know the kids, the better you can anticipate their needs, differentiate to overcome their personal issues, and catch potential behavior problems before discipline or intervention becomes necessary.

TMI – How much is too much?

As I have said before, I am new to the world of teaching. I have however worked with kids in the private sector my whole life. For my “work kids” and those I have tutored over the years, I have provided help with homework and assistance with college entrance exams. I have been there to help my kids and their families fill out FAFSA and college applications. I have given assistance with job applications and resumes.

I have acted as a confidant and offered advice on relationships, parents, school, jobs, drugs, alcohol, and even a couple of unplanned pregnancies. I have always refused to be caught up in their adolescent dramas and have never failed to quite bluntly call them out on drama for its own sake. I always approached them as the young adults they were and treated them with honesty and respect. They never failed to reciprocate.

I am still in touch with many of these kids and their families. And I still refer to them as kids, even though the oldest among them have recently said good-bye to their twenties and now have kids of their own. They are spread far and wide – going to school, working, and living lives of their own. The thing they have in common is this – when they come home, they look me up. They shoot me an email when they can and keep me apprised of the big events in their lives – graduations, marriages, births, new jobs, promotions. Their parents keep me informed of their progress in school and in life whenever I run into them at the grocery store. I have to say that the fact these kids still allow me to be a part of their lives long after I’ve outgrown my ‘usefulness’ in their day-to-day means the world to me.

Did I become too involved with these kids? Do I know too much about the parts of their lives that were not directly related to my professional association with them as a tutor or boss? I’m sure that everyone has an opinion on how much information is too much, but I believe the more important questions are these. Did I help these kids learn, grow, and succeed? Yes, I believe I did. Did I make lasting connections with these kids? Definitely.

So, who gets to decide how much is too much? Aside from gross misconduct or criminal behavior, I can say that I firmly believe the more information you know about the kids you work with, the better you can meet their needs.

In the Classroom

Being present enough to pay attention to what my students are talking about among themselves and taking the time to listen to them when they need someone to talk to has allowed me not only to understand what is happening in their day-to-day, but also to use that information to assist them in improving their performance and experience in my room.

Has this resulted in some TMI overload situations at times? Yes, of course it has, but without this involvement I would have never known:

·         That freshmen girl in your class who has suddenly developed a “diva from hell” attitude has just gotten her first ever boyfriend and is feeling extremely self-conscious and nervous about exactly what that means.

·         That student who has been skipping class and refusing to turn in work has parents who have recently split up; the mother left the state, and the father is out of the country on business.

·         That sophomore who went from falling asleep in class every day to bouncing off the walls and picking fights with everyone sitting around her has made the decision that she is old enough to determine whether or not she needs to take her ADHD medication, and she chose no.

·         That student who seems to have problems with social interactions and quickly becomes combative with his peers just had his little brother and sister taken out of the home by the state which left him all by himself because he has aged-out of the system. He hasn’t seen them in over two months.

·         That student everyone calls lazy is working two jobs to help his family keep a roof over their heads and food on their table.

Now, I’m interested to know exactly how not getting involved with my students serves their best interests or my own? Do these situations influence the way I deal with each of these students? Yes, it does. It doesn’t change my expectations for these kids. I expect the same from them as I do all my students. What it does change is my approach. And isn’t that what individualized education is at its core? Adapting instruction to meet the needs of all students?

If you are a veteran teacher, I have a sincere question for you. Have you ever given this type of advice to a new teacher? What exactly did you mean by it?

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