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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Managing Student Curiosity about Personal Life

Managing Student Curiosity about Personal Life

Related Tags: Classroom Management
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I'm currently a pre-service teacher (I'll be certified for birth to 2nd grade), and at a recent alumni panel at my university, I heard something I found alarming from one of our teaching alums. She said she didn't even tell her students how old she was because when she answered such questions in the past it undermined her authority and led to chaos in her classroom. I think it is relevant that she was referring to her experiences with 6th graders, but I still find this to be at odds with creating a good connection with your students. I plan to work in the early grades, and to allow my students to get to know me so that they will connect their personal experience to schooling just as they have seen me model connecting personal experience to learning.

Does anyone have stories or resources about how managing what students know about you personally can positively or negatively impacted student behavior and classroom environment?

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Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Personally, I think if a teacher is going to ask students to share personal information, ranging from how many siblings they have, what pets they have, journal about their feelings, and more- all typical information teachers ask kids to share in various assignments, for grades- they should be willing to share the same sort of information with them. It's only fair.

I know not everyone agrees with this, in which case, I have to ask- why do you want to know all that information about your students? Without any emotional quid pro quo (I have a dog, I have two kids, etc.) from the teacher, why should the students share? For the most part, these little pieces of information just serve as jumping off places for discussions, and for kids to ask things like "What is your son dressing up for on Halloween?" or like questions that are great conversation starters.

Teachers and students have a special relationship, that needs to have a level of trust involved. It is not "friendship" but it needs to be mentorship. They don't all have to love you, but they do have to trust you.
Things are trickier in the age of Facebook. Where are the boundaries? When does a teacher's personal life affect their work life? When does this information about their home life and kids become too much information, and when does it make them human and relatable?
When I teach in the after school program at our middle school, we often do podcasting and from time to time, have had kids tell their own stories, or make videos for their parents for Mother's day or Father's day. It often involves me asking questions to them about what makes their parents special, what they love to do together, etc. I will often, before this time, ask the kids to feel free to ask me any question they want about me, or school, or anything. I have yet to have a kid ask me anything inappropriate or something that I would not feel comfortable sharing. And in part, i think this is because we've established trust starting very early on in our relationship in the classroom- I follow through on what i promise, and they do as well.
When a child has told me something about their family- like a divorce, or things like that, I will volunteer that my parents were divorced and I know that can be hard sometimes. I'll tell them that often parents try to do what's best and make the best decisions, but it's not often easy. It's a small thing, but it helps them feel we're all on the same side, and that there's nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about.

I agree with you whole heartedly that contrary to undermining authority, sharing a bit of information earns you greater trust and humanity, which are central to creating a learning community within a classroom.

Here are a few resources and articles I found for you:

http://www.education.com/reference/article/teacher-personal-information/

http://www.teachersatrisk.com/2009/02/14/helping-students-understand-and...

http://nyteachers.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/dont-ask-dont-tell-2/

And a lesson plan of sorts from Australia:

http://www.cybersmart.gov.au/Schools/Teacher%20resources/Lower%20primary...

Let me know what you think and if these are helpful :)

Maggie Deutschbein's picture
Maggie Deutschbein
Early Childhood Education and Special Needs student in Rochester NY

Whitney, thank you for your response. The point that we are mentors, not friends, is particularly important. We want to know about and guide our students, but their information about us should be only what will increase their trust in us. They don't need to know everything.

The resources you offered were helpful. I liked being able to read multiple perspectives. The lesson plan from Australia is an excellent idea for little ones like I will be dealing with because it is ever more important for children to learn who they can trust, and when to exercise caution.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

Whitney did a great job of covering much of what I would have said on this topic, but can I just add that this:

"She said she didn't even tell her students how old she was because when she answered such questions in the past it undermined her authority and led to chaos in her classroom."

I think the speaker may have been oversimplifying. I can't think of any single thing that anyone could do that would singlehandedly undermine one's authority and lead to chaos. Both of those- authority and chaos- are products of multiple choices, stances, and ways of being in the classroom.

If we're authentic in our connection with our students- sharing what is useful in building relationships and trust- and really present when they reciprocate, then chaos is unlikely. (As a former middle and high school teacher, Tthe word "authority" gives me the wiggins as a general rule.)

Holly Willis's picture
Holly Willis
Former Social Media Marketing Assistant at Edutopia

This is such a great question. We wanted to ask our Twitter followers what they think -- but, we had to shorten this complex question into 140 characters. So we asked, "Q: Do students know your age? Pre-service #teacher wants to know how much personal info to share."

Here are some of the replies we got:

@lisaservice: I never told my age. I thought that it could only hurt me.

@MsFlanaganSays: I haven't told my students my age, I'd rather they didn't know (unless they've figured it out). I'm a young teacher

@Teach507: I'm an "old" teacher that would never tell my students my real age! They think 60 is a dinosaur.

@birdmoore: absolutely. Be human with your students.

Lisa Dabbs's picture
Lisa Dabbs
Edu Consultant. Blogger & Social Media Marketing at Edutopia
Blogger
Facilitator

Hi All,

Interesting question. I never shared my age as a young teacher. It simply was not relevant to me and my work. What you give, your passion, care and concern with your students...that's what matters. When I was asked how old I was as a new teacher, I'd usually come up with something funny like "old enough to know better" and smile. My students usually laughed with me and we went right back to our work.
I'd really recommend focusing on building relationships and trust, and move past the issue of age. I'm in my 50's and have to tell you I feel like I'm 30! You will find so many other ways to enthusiastically connect with your students that I hope this will soon become a non-issue.

All the best,
-Lisa

Maggie Deutschbein's picture
Maggie Deutschbein
Early Childhood Education and Special Needs student in Rochester NY

[quote] I think the speaker may have been oversimplifying. I can't think of any single thing that anyone could do that would singlehandedly undermine one's authority and lead to chaos. Both of those- authority and chaos- are products of multiple choices, stances, and ways of being in the classroom. [/quote]

I think Laura hit the nail on the head. The alumni teacher was oversimplifying. But it sent a strong and negative message to me and the other students about developing healthy relationships with your students (with appropriate boundaries). Just withholding your age isn't unusual in American culture, but you do need to be human like @birdmoore says.

Martin Richards's picture
Martin Richards
I train educators to use a coaching approach in their teaching practice

I can certainly speak to the power of authenticity and how it involves students in the discussions, especially about real-life choices. As a motivational speaker, talking about making good choices, I tell true stories from my life up to the point where I had to make a decision, and then ask the students how I can make the choice, and on what grounds, how they might advise me / persuade me. It's deeply engaging. And of course, revealing.

As for losing control just because one reveals ones age... No I don't think that's the cause, even though it might have been the trigger for some less-favourable response from the students. Authority does not come from keeping ones age a secret, nor holding anything else a secret.

Would I tell everything my students asked me? No, probably not, not at their request and not at a time that doesn't suit my lesson. It's my choice, and holding that choice generates respect when it is done in the right way - with authenticity.

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