Have you heard of Jennifer Pastiloff? She's a writer and a yoga teacher in LA. She's an excellent writer -- she writes about life, about being a better person, about a lot of different topics. I love following her articles and posts on her website and her Facebook page. (I actually used the "send to Kindle" Firefox plugin to send a ton of her old blog posts to my Kindle to read on the bus and at the gym.) She leads writing/yoga retreats around the world, and it's my dream to go to one. I just have to learn something about yoga first. :P
Anyway, sometimes she writes for a website called Positively Positive. She wrote a post today (read it here) about the difficulty in maintaining a professional "self" as someone who teaches fellow adults. Her ultimate argument is really beautiful and I recommend that you read the essay. But here, I'd like to talk about my experience with this situation.
I go into all of my classes with this idea that I'm going to keep up this image of a stoic, professional, private Danielle. I can be funny or silly with students, but I really plan to avoid talking about myself at all. I don't want to show anything personal, because I feel like that's (a) unprofessional and (b) a sign of weakness and (c), separately, selfish -- the student is paying me to practice English, and I spend a bunch of time talking? But it's mostly (b). I want my students to see me as a strong, experienced, confident, and stable woman (a professional? Here I go with that word again). I want them to think I am all of those things, even when I don't feel like I am. (I'm not sure if wearing tennis shoes every day helps with that image, but that's another blog post.)
But here's what happens, in practice: I spend 2-4 hours a week alone with someone, or with 2 people, or with a small group of people. We're in an unadorned room alone together. The activities in the book (and usually the ones that I make) always ask the students to talk about themselves and their opinions. This goes on for months -- with a couple of my students, for years. They end up sharing a lot of life experiences. More than a few students have told me (jokingly, but happily) that I double as their psychologist. I got embarrassed and insisted that they just feel more comfortable telling me personal things because I'm outside of their social circles and because their secrets feel less powerful when spoken with the lightness of a foreign language, but all of these students disagreed.
I have to admit that the changes come to my class dynamics when I start to open up a little, too. It usually happens when the student talks about something personal, especially if it's something I can really relate to. I notice that they're feeling a little vulnerable, and I want them to feel less so. I say something like, "that makes a lot of sense. I understand. I had a similar experience when [blahblahblah]." In the moment, a little red warning alarm starts going off in my head -- ::weakness alert! weakness alert!:: -- but it's contradicted by the relief on my student's face.
I also have to decide whether or not to open up when students ask me questions directly. One student loves to ask me, "What about you?" every time I ask her a question. I think it's partly because she likes to practice the expression that I taught her to replace that godforsaken "And you?", but partly because we're almost the same age and we're both twins with our sisters living far away, and our families and many life experiences are similar.
I spend every class trying to find a balance. In her essay, Jennifer Pastiloff's advice is to "always be telling the truth." I think I've got that part covered -- I don't directly lie to my students about things (except my schedule when they want to have class at an inconvenient time); I just avoid saying things about MY life. I always start out resisting. I will say things like, "that sounds normal" or "I think almost everyone feels like that" rather than "I feel like that, too." I don't want to say, "Sometimes I think I should stop drinking, too," or "I totally get you on the being away from your family thing." I have this idea that they'll take me less seriously if they know things like that about me.
But eventually, a strain develops. I'm still not sure if it's on my end (I tire of being so impersonal and feeling inhuman), or if it's on their end (they're telling me so many things about themselves and are curious to know what I'm like, too). But almost inevitably, my "professional" wall comes down. We build a rapport instead.
I'm at a point now where I am aware of these things and I'm trying to accept them:
-Being open and forthcoming is part of my personality;
-As much as I want otherwise, my students see me as a person and realize I have flaws and feelings;
-My students seem to enjoy class more when the exchange of personal information is not 100:0, but more like 70:30;
-Maybe I need to reconsider my definition of "professional," which until now has almost been synonymous with "reserved and closed off";
-Being a private teacher is its own thing. It's not the same as being a psychologist, or a boss, or an employee, or a teacher of children. I have to make my own path for it; and
-The more you share with people, the more you realize just how similar everyone is.