Wednesday, October 10, 2012

To share or not to share? That is the age-old question

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?


  1. Oh, Bryce. This is the perfect subject to discuss. I could go on and on and on. I'll be brief.

    Although I haven't been teaching for very long, I am very aware of my teaching style, and with that awareness comes a recognition if how it works -- and how it doesn't. At the end of the day, a teacher has to be able to be versatile, but s/he also has to be able to be his/herself. And I could never survive in a job that forced me to stifle my personality.

    I'm a sharer. Although I remember to keep certain information OUT of the classroom (I've had students ask me everything -- from when I had sex for the first time, to how lesbians have sex, to what I would do if one of my students showed up naked at my house; all of which I avoided with snarky, sarcastic answers), I also like to share a piece of myself with them. I think it's hard to learn in a classroom where the teacher isn't (at least to some degree) one of you (while, of course, maintaining authority, which can be a really tricky line). But the opinions of what's appropriate to share and what isn't differs WILDLY depending on the population you're teaching, the region in which you're teaching, and so on and so forth.

    Case in point: My last year teaching in Atlanta was the year that I came out to my students. I didn't have a sit-down talk with them about it, but in all of my classes, a student would eventually ask. "Ms. Fabello, are you dating a girl? Ms. Fabello, are you gay?" And each time the question came up (the first time, I was terrified, but then it got easier), I told them the truth. Because I felt like had they asked another teacher about her husband, they would have gotten the truth. And I felt like I couldn't hide that part of my life from them, lest I alienate all of the LGBT kids in my class. And my relationship with my students is so special (SO special) -- why would I lie to them?

    In each case, the class was grateful. They had amazing reactions, ranging from not giving a shit to letting me know "we love you anyway." (I also had one kid tell me, "Fabello, I don't approve of your lifestyle, but that doesn't stop you from being the best teacher I ever had. I'll pray for you." Alright.) They were flattered that I'd share that with them, and it helped them feel a connection to me. They knew that I wouldn't lie to them. They knew that I felt comfortable with them. But guess who got called to the office. Guess who was told my administration that what I had shared was inappropriate. Guess who got docked down on her annual evaluation. Guess who didn't give a fuck.

    I think that when it comes to your personal life, you have to be really careful. You have to decide ahead of time what you're willing to share and what you're not -- and you also have to be prepared for situations where you might find yourself stepping out of that authoritative role and sharing too much (I've certainly caught myself doing that; I had a girl ask me whether or not I thought sex was overrated; I answered). Also -- you have to make mistakes. It's the only way to learn.

    At the end of the day, this is the question I would recommend that educators ask themselves when deciding whether or not to share a story or a tidbit with a class or a single student: Is this going to add to the learning experience or detract from it? And then take it from there.

  2. This is a great topic! It's one I've thought about a lot, as I'm pretty openly polyamorous in my regular life, but because I'm married to a man it's easy for me to fit into a heteronormative paradigm. When working with students under 18, I will almost certainly not share details of my lifestyle... as much as it grates on me to contribute to invisibility, I just can't see that going well, and there's really no natural context when it would come up.

    When working with adults, though, I'm not sure what approach I should take. Will outing myself as non-monogamous make me lose all credibility in some people's eyes? I know quite well what stereotypes people have about non-monogamy... sex addicts, unable to commit, emotionally damaged, selfish. On the other hand, if I'm talking about my personal life at all, it feels dishonest to talk about "my husband" and let people assume we have a normal heteromonogamous relationship.

    I've already made the decision not to try to cover my tracks for professional reasons... looking me up online takes people to blogs and the like where I'm quite open about my lifestyle. So that raises the further question of, if I do let (adult) students assume I'm monogamously married, and they later find out I'm not, will that hurt my credibility even more than if I was up-front from the beginning?

    I just don't know. I'll probably take it on a case-by-case basis and, as Melissa says, learn from my mistakes (my favorite thing! not).

  3. While I completely agree that being true to yourself is a great starting point, it can be very hard to know where to draw the line and, as Melissa experienced first-hand, it can be detrimental to your career or relationship with your coworkers.
    I was dating and co-habituating with a woman that taught high school English at a very conservative school. She decided it was best to just allow people to assume she was heterosexual. It was hard for me to understand why it was so difficult for her to make our relationship visible…at least to her co-workers. She explained that it she just didn’t want her sexual orientation to be the topic of school gossip and she wanted to be known for her teaching ability over anything else. I respected her choice, but don’t know if I would be comfortable being so invisible on a daily basis.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a world where homosexuality and non-monogamy had no negative connotation?
    Virginia made a great point about distinguishing between adults and children when it comes to disclosing bits of your personal life. I think that is invaluable when sharing any personal anecdote. I am far more on the conservative side when it come s to sharing my personal life. (I blame my background in mental health care.) I’m much more likely to tell a story about “a friend” or use a celebrity example.
    Hopefully, as my career in education continues I will also learn by trail and error and be both appropriate and effectively relatable.

  4. Bryce, you bring up a great topic that I believe ALL educators will deal with at one point or another in a classroom. As a rookie teacher or a veteran, students are constantly watching, listening, and evaluating every moment of the teaching experience. I have had students imitate me, including my intonations, exact wording, and body postures that I have in the classroom. It was hysterical and yet so enlightening about what they observe on a daily basis. I feel that it is a natural curiosity for students to want to know more about the teachers that they connect with, to further that connection.

    With that being said, it is a fine line between personal and professional “stories” with our students. I agree wholeheartedly with Melissa about contributing a story – is it going to enrich the learning and classroom or is it just to hear my own voice? If it in some ways contributes to the lesson and adds credibility and/or connections for the students, then go for it! Yet, if you are not sure, hesitant, and/or unaware of what the classroom/school/organization’s policies regarding disclosing personal information, then I would err of the side of caution and not disclose.

    I think that being personal or sharing stories with students brings in the aspect of social media. I read a great article on the website about policies school districts are enacting to prohibit or limit the personal communication of teachers and students. Many of the districts that prohibit this communication are basing their judgments on sexual scandals that have occurred between teachers and students who are under the age of 18. Teachers and school districts are arguing the benefits and risks of using social media in the classroom.

    Thinking about “sharing personal stories” and the social media – where do you stand on using social media in the classroom?

  5. Something I haven't seen mentioned is cultural difference. In my readings for 501 I've found that some cultures like the distinct delineation between teacher and student. One of the "weirdest" things I've personally experienced during my journey here at Widener is how close the professors are to the students. I don't knock it at all, but I had never imagined calling a professor by their first name, having coffee or a meal with them (or meeting them outside of class on the whole), or being Facebook friends. My background taught me that such things would be disrespectful and an improper cross of boundaries. Extensive sharing would be seen as a lack of decorum, or loneliness ("they must not have anyone to talk to at home"). Initially it was difficult to adjust, but I learned that NOT doing these things would make me seem disrespectful, or at the very least cold (which I kind of am, but whatever, haha).

    Since I'm a rather reserved person anyway, I couldn't imagine sharing personal stories unless using them to make a point (e.g. relating the mistake of taking a frozen squirrel to school to how children may not understand how death works [some things can't be revived]). I could imagine that age would temper things, though, just as it would with any kind of teaching strategy.

    Disclosure also depends on the environment. Since I would like to teach workshops I feel that sharing would not be as much of a "liability," especially if I am teaching in one of "my communities" (e.g., lgbt, kink). Unlike Melissa I am not as much of a sharer (yes I've included you in two of my responses, solely coincidence!). Generally I don't volunteer information but I will answer a question if asked. That said, I would more likely be like Shanna and keep my disclosure minimal.

  6. Like Jessica, I too have a background in mental health counseling. Some of my colleagues in that field are very open about themselves with their clients and some of them disclose almost nothing about themselves, going so far as to take off wedding rings or not have pictures of family in their offices. Their decisions to disclose information or not depend a lot on their theoretical orientations and their own personal comfort with clients potentially knowing things about their personal lives. The settings in which they practice also have a big part to play in that decision about how much to tell clients about one's life, as can be seen throughout Bryce's post and the other comments. What are the politics of the place? Are one's superiors going to find disclosure inappropriate?

    One of the most important factors in disclosure, I think, is its purpose. For what reason are you telling students about your personal life? Is it because your personal narrative connects with the themes of the lesson, such as in Bryce's women's studies course? Or is it because you just want to get those darn kids off your back about it already? I think that's why we spend so much time in this program working to justify everything we write in a larger curriculum or a specific lesson plan. If you can show how your disclosure fits into the greater purpose of your lesson, then it's much easier to defend your actions to those who disagree (like parents, or school administrators). Of course, this isn't always possible--especially for those off-the-cuff disclosures that just seem to "fit" in the moment. But as much as we can, I think it's important to think through why we're disclosing in order to have that justification.

  7. I know I've thought about this topic before. But as I am doing more teaching, it is important to revisit it again. As I was reading the post I was having flashbacks to things I had disclosed without thinking too much about it before hand. Now I'm just thinking, "Oh, I hope that ways okay. Well it made sense to say that because XYZ." After reading this it has refreshed my feeling to be much more cautious. I shouldn't have to think of my justification/reasoning after event. Even though I think my previous disclosures were okay, I should think about it before.

  8. Thanks, Bryce, for introducing such a timely and provocative topic. Context is everything to me: culturally, politically, economically, spiritually. And I think the issue we've all been talking about is an ethical dilemma as well. As Laurie Abraham wrote in the The New York Times last year in an article highlighting a graduate of our program, Al Vernacchio: "It was drummed into him as a human sexuality master’s student, Vernacchio said, to never be explicit merely for the sake of being explicit: have a rationale for every last thing you say." I use that as my mantra and had an opportunity to use it a couple of weeks ago. An ethical dilemma hit me with a group of queer youth. In the context of my class, one of the students asked me, "Jane, have you ever had anal sex?" It was a drop dead quiet moment in an otherwise chatty crowd. It crystallized these issues. How much do I hold back and how much do I reveal? Who was I to these students? We were in a queer youth community center (not in their high school), but even though, what type of response was needed? I took a breath, thought about what I was trying to do, what my objectives were, and who my audience was. I opted for an indirect answer that would also foster vulnerability by pointing to the list of sexual behaviors they had just brainstormed with me (which included anal, oral, PIV, and about 50 other sexual practices)and said, "I'm not going to answer you directly because I have my own professional boundaries, but when I take a look at that list, there aren't many things on there I'm not familiar with, so tell me what you are concerned about" It was my way of allowing them to know I'm a human sexual being without disclosing my own sexual behaviors. And it also allowed me to find the question behind the question. And it worked. He didn't really care about my own sexual life or behaviors. He was more concerned about his own health. And he wanted to know whether I could help him. And he responded by saying, "That's cool, what I'm really concerned about is this: does it always have to hurt?" I relaxed, my heart opened to him and I understood his intention, his pain, and his fear. And that allowed me to give them all important information about human physiology, need for constant communication with a partner, about lube, breathing, and muscle control. What started as a direct question about me as their instructor ended up being all about them and their own sexual concerns. Had I answered it directly with a yes or no would have detracted from the true intention of the original question and the learning objectives I had stipulated at the start of the class. And it would have violated my own personal ethics as a sexuality educator. We've got to keep in mind what Josh reminded us, our lesson plan, when that inevitable question comes to us and then allow that to inform our decisions about how much to disclose. This is a huge issue for us as sexuality educators and these types of discussions allow us to create a new level of understanding that will help propel not only ourselves but our entire field. Using a contextual lens will allow us to make those decisions ethically as we embark on our chosen paths as educators.

    Abraham, L. (11/20/2011). "Teaching Good Sex," The New York Times.

    1. So much has already been covered and so many good points and ideas presented about Bryce's excellent post. I just started a position in which I am working with high school freshman so I expect questions regarding my personal views and life will be asked of me. I believe that reciprocity is a major factor in building a strong relationship and trust. Some websites discuss its importance as well ( In order for the students to have that trust in me I believe that I will have to divulge some things. However, certain things can ruin the safety and trust of a classroom and lose students. It is a thin line to balance on between sharing to better the group dynamic and over sharing to the point it is a detriment. As far as age of students goes is hard to say because it all depends on the maturity of the students and the dynamic of the group. Certain freshman have experienced and seen more "adult" situations than some adults so that factors in to what should be shared.

  9. Thanks for all the wonderful feedback and stories!! I completely agree that the location of the educational session plays a huge role in how much/whether you should disclose at all. In regards to Shanna's post, I think social media and technology add yet another layer to this already charged topic. I'm not sure if you're talking about the same article but I actually know a teacher this is now in hot water over an illicit texting relationship he had with a student at a high school my best friend went to:
    Not to say that no teacher should be allow to have texting or internet conversations with students because it will lead to this, but it does put the teacher under even closer speculation because these technological means of communicating are off school grounds and more hidden just by their nature.

  10. It's interesting reading the blog posts so far and disclosure is definitely a pattern among our conversations! It is so important to discuss this in a profession forum. I almost wish that we had a 'pause' button for when a student asks us a personal question, we could 'pause' the conversation and quickly ask colleagues what type of self-disclosure is best, if any at all in that moment. So... If you could invent that, that would be great... :)

    One of the bottom lines for me is if you are going to share something person, there should be a good reason and eventual education moment. If you say something to the class and you question it afterwards, document the question, your answer, and why you said what you said. It is better to be safe than sorry. There is a funky line between what we should and shouldn't say to our students. We may not know where that line is at until it is too late. However, back it up with rationale and make it beneficial for the students to know.