Tuesday, February 21, 2012

When Is a Teacher Not a Teacher?

I just sat through a professional development lecture from a lawyer on teacher and school liability issues. Overall, it was an informative and helpful experience. It raised several questions often missed in the public discussion of education. Primarily, when is a teacher not a teacher?

The issues discussed in this ninety-minute session were vital to the integrity of the teaching profession and the mental, emotional, and physical growth of our students. None of it addressed student learning or achievement. The primary focus of the talk centered on expectations and liability in the teaching profession.

Being a lawyer, the speaker’s point of view represented a “better safe than sued mentality.” The speaker strongly encouraged teachers to avoid “friending” students on Facebook and talked about how our personal and professional lives should maintain a clear boundary.

I don’t accept students as friends on social media sites, but I did think about the teachers’ role in the larger community. As I age into my profession, I am teaching students who have become real friends through connections we’ve made while living in this community. I’ve taught two of my nieces and a third is currently a student at my school. My children’s friends, who’ve been to my home and who’s parents I consider my own friends will soon enter my school. I may find my own children in my classroom in the near future.

Increasingly, I have students sitting in my classroom who I’ve watched grow up. I’ve gone to church with them, lived in the same neighborhood with them, cheered for their sports teams, and more.

These connections remind me of how much responsibility I have both in school and out to the youth of my community and nation. A lawyer will recommend that we keep a clear boundary between our personal and professional lives, but the reality is that with time, a teacher who remains in the classroom and grounded in their community can’t maintain such a clear boundary and continue to be an effective teacher no matter how hard they try. This means that if they continue in the profession they must maintain a personal life that is beyond reproach.

It is a tremendous burden. Most great burdens result in triumph or tragedy… and sometimes both.


  1. This post was good. It would be better if it included a photo.

  2. That is a tough boundary for sure, especially someone who is in your position. The lawyer who 'has' to present the boundaries is doing it from a law perspective, which makes sense. I don't think that takes away from your ability to reach your students, primarily those close to your family and church contacts, in a professional but loving way. There are certain boundaries that you instinctively know and am sure you wouldn't cross. The presentation is probably meant more for those teachers that may be a bit newer, younger and more apt to cross those boundaries. Keep up the great work with the youth...you are much needed in the community!

  3. Thanks Nick. You're right about the lawyer, I actually appreciated his insight. I know that I could never follow the recommendations to the letter, but it is helpful to recognize where problems might arise in order to be careful.

    Community and transparency helps with this a great deal. When we keep things in the open as much as possible and rely on peers and mentors to help us navigate uncertain waters many of these pitfalls can be avoided.