Guest Post by Catharine Hannay of Mindful Teachers

It was one of those moments when someone’s trying to be helpful but says exactly the wrong thing.

A student walked into the office while I was chatting with another teacher. In response to our cheerful “Good morning. How are you today?” he looked at us sadly and said, “Bad day.”

“You shouldn’t say that,” my colleague informed him. “In English we say ‘I’m fine, how are you?’”

She did have a point. An important part of our job was teaching American culture, and there’s a big difference between “Hey, how are ya?” and a heartfelt “I know things have been tough lately. How are you doing today?”

But our students also relied on us in a multitude of ways as they adjusted to life in a new country. A ‘bad day’ could simply mean he felt a bit homesick, or it could mean he needed help with a serious problem and had nowhere else to turn. In either case, this young man didn’t need an English lesson just then. He required a very different type of support.

As teachers, we often find ourselves in a de facto counseling position because there isn’t a counselor available or because our students are more comfortable talking to someone they already see every day. Unfortunately, most teacher training programs don’t prepare us for this important part of our work. Counseling skills like thoughtful self-disclosure, deep listening, and maintaining appropriate boundaries are not only useful in one-on-one situations but can also help us manage our classes more effectively and compassionately. (You can learn more about these and additional counseling skills in Dr. Sam Himelstein’s online course on Building Authentic Relationships with Youth.)

#1: Skillful Self-Disclosure

In the BARs course, Dr. Himelstein suggests asking the following questions before deciding whether to disclose personal information: Is what I’m about to share in the best interests of the youth? What purpose does disclosing this serve for me? Can I handle disclosing this now?

Is what I’m about to share in the best interests of the youth?

I assume the headmistress intended to reassure us it was normal to feel nervous. But as she went on and on about her own first-day-of-school jitters, I felt anything but reassured. I remember thinking, “This is the person who’s supposed to be in charge? Now I’m really worried.” As Professor Dumbledore might put it, “There is a time for sharing, but this is not it.”

Remembering that experience, I never mention to my students that I feel nervous on the first day of class. On the other hand, while they’re preparing for their presentations, I always say, “Teachers feel nervous when we give presentations to other teachers because they’re our peers, like your classmates are your peers.” Then we talk about some ways they can help each other to feel less nervous, and right before each presentation I remind them, “OK, everybody. Get into your Fascinated Audience Member positions.”

What purpose does disclosing this serve for me?

It’s not uncommon to have similar backgrounds to our students or clients. That might be the very reason we decide to work with certain populations of youth. Because of this, it’s natural to want to talk about our own experiences. This can be beneficial. For example, knowing we faced similar challenges can help youth trust us so they’re more open to hearing our advice. However, we need to be clear about our reasons for sharing personal information.

When I started telling a counselor about the latest frustrating incident with my mom, he interrupted me and said, “My mother did something even worse than that.” It might have been quite appropriate to share some of his experiences if he’d used them to empathize with me and advise me about my situation. Instead, we spent most of the hour talking about his relationship with his own mother.

I hope he found it helpful. As for me, I left the session feeling invalidated and confused.

Can I handle disclosing this now?

I found out later that the counselor’s mother had recently died, so it’s very likely he hadn’t worked through his grief enough to be able to talk about her appropriately with his clients. He couldn’t help being triggered, but he could have and should have recognized this very early in our conversation rather than letting it snowball into a situation where I was essentially counseling him.

#2: Listen with Your Full Attention

The above incident shows the importance of carefully considering what we say to youth. It’s at least as important to be careful how we listen.

In the BARs course, Dr. Himelstein explains the key components of Deep Listening: we need to show through our body language and the types of questions we ask that we’re not just reprimanding kids or ordering them around. Adolescents (like any of us) are far more likely to open up if they sense that we sincerely want to understand their perspective.

It’s been humbling to realize how often I fill in the blanks rather than having the patience to listen to the full story. For example, one young woman refused to write a required research paper. I kept trying to explain the impact this would have on her grade until she snapped, “Oh, come on! Am I really going to need to do this in engineering school?”

Interesting. Not at all what I expected, and actually a valid question. Since my dad happens to be a retired engineering professor, I checked with him about the types of writing that are typically required in engineering programs. I also explained to my student about the other, non-engineering courses she would have to take in order to graduate from college.

After that, she was willing to write the paper because she understood how it would benefit her. We could have gotten to that point much sooner if I’d started by listening to her reasons for not wanting to do the assignment, rather than assuming I understood what was going on from her point of view.

#3: Establish and Maintain Clear Boundaries

Does this situation sound familiar?

No, you may not turn in your homework late. Well, just this once… No, really, I mean it. I won’t accept any more late homework. Oh, all right, but this is the last time… You’re turning your homework in late again? That’s really not acceptable. No. No. No. OK. But don’t do it again.

It’s important that we convey a clear, consistent message about our expectations. We also have to take responsibility for gently but firmly reinforcing the rules when youth inevitably test our limits.

Being firm doesn’t mean we have to be cold. In the BARs course, Dr. Himelstein explains that the best way to have a healthy relationship with youth is through strong boundaries combined with warmth, care, and responsiveness. Rather than getting flustered by a student who won’t stop complaining about a grade, I can calmly say something like “I understand that you’re still upset, and we can talk about this some more tomorrow, but right now I really need to get ready for my next class.”

Much of the time, we can even have a sense of humor about it. A couple of guys were always coming back late from breaks, so I started to mime using my student-catching pole and invisible fishing line to hook them and drag them back into the room. And most of my classes are familiar with a special feature of the remote control: it not only turns on the projector and makes the screen go up and down, but can also be pointed at students to lower their volume or stop them from chatting with their friends.

It goes without saying that a warm and caring relationship with youth shouldn’t cross the line. When I wasn’t much older than my students, I had to be careful around some of the young men. After a couple of inappropriate invitations, I always made a point of mentioning my fiancé. Despite this, one kid would still gaze at me with puppy dog eyes and say, “I lo-o-ove you” in the middle of class. “That’s nice,” I’d respond. “Do your ho-o-o-omework.”

These days, boys are more likely to say “You remind me of my mom,” but that comes with its own set of issues. As in, “No, I am not going to invite you to my apartment for Thanksgiving dinner.”

In the program where I was teaching at the time, it was actually pretty common to socialize with students. One of my colleagues invited her students home for Thanksgiving, and it was a lovely gesture. But it wasn’t something I had the time or energy to get involved with, so it was important for me not to let myself get pressured into it by my class. (Believe me, they did their best! But I didn’t give in, and they recovered pretty quickly.)

Conclusion

There aren’t fail-proof rules about how to respond to a student or class: “always say this” or “never do that.” It’s impossible to predict how every single interaction will unfold, and there are many situations where different teachers might have different rules or different preferences. What’s essential for all of us is to bring our own best judgment into every interaction with our students and to consciously pay attention to what we share, how we listen, and where we draw the line.


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