Unaffected

Image of 3 desks in classroom like that of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley

Workplaces love surveys, don’t they?

My school is a great place to work. As I’ve written about before, I get constant support from my colleagues, administrators and parents. I know I’m lucky to have this.

So, recently, when I received a “employee satisfaction survey” I was happy to take it. I marked a lot of “extremely satisfied” and “definitely yes” answers.

But then I got to this question, and I paused: “Are you able to present yourself each day in a way that is seen by our students as consistent and reliable (i.e., unaffected by outside-of-school problems)?”

I didn’t have a hard time with the first part of the question, as I believe consistency and reliability are good. It was the part in parentheses that bugged me. Okay, sure, teachers shouldn’t come in and talk about their night out at the club or their latest love dramas with students. Teachers need to have boundaries and need to be consistent.

But why in the world should teachers be expected to be unaffected by outside-of-school problems? Why would that be desirable at all?

I’m not saying that a teacher should be sobbing in front of students every day. But wouldn’t it be strange if, let’s say, a teacher had her husband die from cancer and then never mentioned it at all to her students? What exactly would that teach students?

I’ll tell you what it would teach students. It would teach them that when something bad happens to someone, you shouldn’t say anything. When something bad happens in the world, you shouldn’t talk about it. It teaches them that bad things should be avoided.

I know this is what we’re teaching kids across America. I know it because that’s what many people do in response to tragedy.

A few months after Shawn died, I met up with an old colleague. We were never close, but she certainly knew what had happened to my husband. During our conversation, she spent the entire time talking about her current work and not once did she mention Shawn’s death.

My husband had died less than six months prior. It was the first time we were seeing each other, but she didn’t bring up my loss. It was hurtful.

Maybe this old colleague of mine was just a jerk, but I doubt it. I’m sure she just didn’t know what to say. Maybe – just maybe – she’d never had an example in front of her of someone who showed her how to talk about difficult subjects. Maybe no one had ever mentioned untimely death or great tragedy in front of her.

But certainly she’d been around someone who had been grieving at some point. This woman was in her 30s. My guess is she just hadn’t had an example of being forced to deal, head-on, with the discomfort that grief can bring.

This is why I have a problem with the survey question. Not because it asks about consistency and reliability – those things are important. But because it implies that in order to be a consistent and reliable teacher, you need to leave the outside world behind.

This survey was created by a survey company. My school didn’t make it up, and in fact, my school is great about asking teachers to deal with difficult subjects, including topics like race relations, gender dynamics and historic discrimination. They love when we talk about issues in the news. And I’ve been supported whenever I’ve chosen to discuss my grief with my students.

But surveys like this, made up by people I’ll never meet, show a problem that persists in education. Don’t share who you are. Don’t tell students about the real issues in your life. Continue on as though everything is okay, and then students will have the best learning experience possible.

But I think our students need to see our whole selves. Not just so they can connect with us, but also so that they don’t become that woman: the one who is too uncomfortable to bring up the death of my husband. The one who would rather avoid an uncomfortable situation than face it head-on.

My job is to teach history and government. But it’s also to show students what it means to go through a major life event in a human way. That may mean I am not always chipper. That may mean that I cry at times. That may mean that I talk about Shawn when we’re talking about important people in our lives.

I’m consistent. I’m reliable. And I’m also affected by outside-of-school problems. All of this makes me who I am, and I think it makes me a better teacher when I can thoughtfully and carefully share some of my life with my students.

10 Replies to “Unaffected”

  1. I get where you are coming from. I had someone close to me at work die but total crickets from a lot of people! I was hurt, offended and angry by it.

    In a teacher-student relationship, there is a power differential. They are a captive audience. So I hope your school encourages students to express their feelings about their losses and their feelings about you talking about yours.

    1. I hear the critique in this comment, I do. I think your point is important perspective to remember. I hope my point of the blog post came through, however. Teachers don’t need to share everything – and shouldn’t share everything! But we can also teach students that it’s okay to be human, to share bits of our lives, and to show them how to get through hard parts. I know that many students have shared more with me this year because they know I’m a teacher who understands pain and is willing to sit with them through it. But I’m also lucky to work in a place where students are encouraged to push back, ask questions, and talk about things they may not like going on in their classrooms or with their teachers. So, this may not be the answer for every school – but it works at mine. And I know my own children have been comforted when they see their teachers struggling through hardship (in an appropriate way) and know that they are not the only ones that are living imperfect lives.

  2. Well, you are consistent and reliable – consistently and reliably human. That humanity is what makes you the teacher you are, and you teach lessons far more important than the Mexican political system.

    1. Thanks! 🙂

  3. 100% agree with Henry!

  4. I remember when a teacher at school had died over the weekend in a horrendous car accident (she was pregnant). The whole school was sort of stunned on Monday, and one of my teachers broke down crying and had to leave class. We were early teens, and no one really knew how to react, but his moment of humanity has stayed with me. It’s a great lesson that adults are people, too, and they set the tone and teach young people how to react to situations they have no experience with at that point in their lives.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this. What a terrible time that must have been – and I’m so glad you could see real human emotion then too.

  5. […] support their argument in writing or analyze the Constitution in a debate? This stuff is important. But it’s not all of what I do in class. Trying to describe a student’s overall growth is much more […]

  6. I teach in an elementary school and the school counselor talked to both my class and my daughter’s class before we returned about what they could say and do to help us after the loss of my husband. I was so touched by this and it was such an important conversation to have with kids who may not know how to react.

    1. Yes – I love that counselors do this! It wasn’t always like this, and I think in many schools it still isn’t. But my own kids’ school has been wonderful and my school has also been great. Because what we do as teachers isn’t just about teaching them to read and write correct thesis statements, as I know you know.

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