by Diana Senechal
In November, a principal in Chester, New York, walked into the home of two students who had not shown up for school. He was accompanied by a school psychologist; the two boys, who live with their mother, were alone at home. The father filed a criminal complaint against him; later in the month, the school board voted to suspend him with pay.
Responding to Joanne Jacobs’ post on the incident, Robert Pondiscio observes astutely:
“In Steve Farr’s Teaching as Leadership, he cites with approval the example of teachers who, rather than get frustrated at their inability to reach the parents of students who are having difficulty in school, walk those students home and wait as long as it takes for mom and dad to come home from work. From one perspective this kind of unannounced “home visit” is an example of the “whatever it takes” school of “no excuses” teaching. From another, it’s trespassing.”
I would take Robert’s point one step further. When a teacher (or principal) crosses over into the role of social worker, babysitter, or anything outside of teaching, he or she runs the risk of emotional trespass. Both teacher and student may become confused over their roles. Students may come to expect something unrealistic of the teacher, or vice versa. It is normal for a teacher to comfort or advise a student; this need not lead to any misunderstandings or problems. But entering the students’ personal lives is treacherous, and teachers should guard against it unless there is an established protocol.
There are several reasons for caution. First, when a teacher steps out of role, one never knows how a student perceives this. In the student’s eyes, the teacher may now be a friend or a family member. If the teacher has to let the student down, it can be devastating for both. Or if the gesture is unwanted, there may be trouble. I had a teacher long ago who became chummy with her students, giving them gifts and talking to them about their lives and hers. At one point she realized she had gone too far, and she pulled away. This was hard on the students who had come to depend on her. Another teacher kept trying to get me to talk to her about my feelings; I resented this, as I preferred to choose whether or not to confide in someone. Whether welcome or unwelcome, a teacher’s intrusion in a student’s life can have serious consequences.
Second, a teacher whose responsibilities extend in all directions may not have much time to do anything well. Teachers who make home visits may not know when to stop. The seemingly urgent matters may take priority over the quieter planning. There are genuine emergencies that call for intervention, but it is not good, overall, for a teacher to be rushing to the rescue all the time, or even much of the time. Students may gather that the more crises they bring, the more attention they will get. They can manipulate even without meaning to do so, even with the best of intentions, as can the teacher.
Third, students actually need the teacher to set limits. They need to learn that a teacher can be formal and still care about them. Many live in environments where people demonstrate loyalty and affection through excess and grandiosity: lavish spending, reckless relationships–even fights. Students learn from their surroundings and popular culture that if you “really care” about someone, you will “go all out” for him or her.
A steady, caring, restrained teacher (who doesn’t go overboard and doesn’t pull away) can do them immense and lasting good. The teacher who can hold back a little is likely to stay in the profession longer. This does not mean working less; it means allowing oneself not to be a savior and to give students something valuable nonetheless. That takes a certain kind of humility, which is not lost on the students.
Fourth, teachers are the ones who can point students to something outside of themselves—be it music, literature, mathematics, history, or another subject. These subjects can ultimately help students make sense of their lives. To erode this even slightly, to sacrifice it for the immediate needs of the students, may be to deprive them of the things that can help them over the years. I think of how much I was helped by French, Latin, Greek, literature, math, music, and other subjects. Yes, teachers listened to me when I was going through difficult times, and I am deeply grateful to them for that. But I am also grateful to the ones who kept pointing me to something beyond me. I have forgotten much of the advice teachers gave me, but I remember the poems, essays, novels, and other works they brought to my attention.
There are no absolute rules, of course. Much of this depends on the school’s policies and culture. Some schools may have clear procedures for home visits, homework help, and so forth. In such cases, the roles are clearly understood and protected, or at least they should be. Even so, if a school expects teachers and principals to undertake such work, it should be mindful of the dangers and complications. Schools should recognize the pitfalls of doing “whatever it takes”—as “whatever it takes” may not be the most responsible, the most instructive, or even the most caring action.
Diana Senechal, a former (and possibly future) New York City public school teacher, is writing a book on the loss of solitude in schools and culture.