To share or not to share? That is the age-old question.
We talk a lot about what makes a teacher more effective, more able to connect with their audience, and the all around the best educator they can be. Though my college years are not that far behind me, I know I will remember certain professors more clearly than others because of the connection I felt with them and how that facilitated my learning. When I spoke with others about the wonderful teachers/professors they had in the past, a common thread emerged. It seems that what sets these exceptional teachers apart is the way they were able to connect their personal lives with the subject(s) they taught.
Not to say that educators who do not share information about their personal lives with students are thus ineffective or less memorable. For me, however, the personal stories my professors shared in class, makes their courses feel more meaningful, even now. I can remember a Women's Studies professor telling the class about her experiences with rape, abortion, gender roles, etc. and how these shared experiences enriched many discussions in class. Through her stories, she was able to create an environment that “propelled [students] to move in the direction of active learning” as Edward Roy Krishnan describes in his Affective Teaching blog. I can also remember a very detailed Human Development class whose vast content would have been nearly impossible to remember without the teacher connecting the material to stories of his kids growing up. By adding the human element to the topics at hand, this style of teaching can create a deeper impact and stronger connection for students of all ages.
This technique isn't only used in college settings – parents and motivational speakers have used the "learn from my mistakes/experiences" adages for many years with inconsistent success. This raises the question, what types of personal stories have more of an impact on youth? Is there a formula for choosing which ones will be effective and which ones will not? Krishnan discusses the value of sharing “inspirational stories” in his Affective Teaching blog, but also cites their antithesis as being the “look-at-how-good-I-am stories” where teachers try to only present themselves as infallible and perfect. Are there ways these types of stories can be turned into “inspirational stories?” Do you agree with the way he categorized the types of sharing, or do you feel there is a better way to distinguish which stories might be advantageous to share with youth?
In a middle or high school classroom setting it seems that this issue is even trickier to handle. In his blog, A New Teacher’s Dilemma a veteran teacher, Larry Cuban, describes a situation where a teacher was unsure how much to share with her new class about her personal life. She also struggled with how to define her identity to the class without getting tangled up in debates about racial and ethnic stereotypes (even though she ended up taking on these important discussions head on). This situation begs the question: how can you make inroads with students culturally if you do not share your personality and identity with them?
When it comes to sexuality education there seems to be added cautionary measures that are taken. The topic itself is already so personal that it both incites personal comparisons as well as threatens against them. A co-worker once brought to my attention how sneaky some students can be when it comes to asking personal questions. She warned me that sometimes they are asking one thing, but really trying to get different information. They may ask, “do you have kids?” but what they really want to know is if you've had sex; they may ask “what birth control do you use?” to see if you have sex or because they think you know some secret about which methods are better than others. These questions might seem benign, but once you start answering them the students take that information and run with it. Because of this, and for many other reasons, our staff has a policy to not answer any personal questions from students. This strategy definitely makes avoiding sharing anything about yourself easy, but at what cost? I often wonder if my students would be gaining more of a connection to the topic and to me if I were able to share information about my life with them.
An added dilemma for many sexuality educators is that when you are a "mobile educator" (like myself) that goes into many schools and community based organizations to teach sex education classes once or twice a week, you don’t get your own class or group of teens that stay static for longer than a month or two. With this constant changing atmosphere it is hard to strike a balance between establishing one’s credibility, not getting too personal with the details that are shared, and not to becoming just a robot spouting facts and facilitating discussions.
Another thing to consider when weighing all these factors is how parents are going to react to a teacher’s decision to share their lives with the class. Especially in terms of middle and high schools there can be a fear of a backlash from parents when they feel a teacher has crossed the line. The example of a blogging mother who asks "How far is too far when a teacher shares personal information with their students?"shows the possible contempt for teachers sharing their personal lives with their students. Besides the clear homophobic undertone of the post (which she denies over and over again, but then she gets schooled about by many of the commenters) she brings up some interesting opinions from the parent point of view about where you should draw the line when it comes to sharing personal information with students.
What types of personal stories, if any, do you think should be shared with classes?
How does the age of the students impact the amount and/or type of stories being used?