Care and Feeding

Teacher or Confidante?

What are appropriate boundaries between teachers and students?

A teacher consoling a crying child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Carrie Bauer,
middle and high school, New York
Cassy Sarnell,
preschool special education, New York
Matthew Dicks
, fifth grade, Connecticut
Katie Holbrook
, high school, Texas

I see a fair number of news stories about teachers or administrators who help out students in various ways: They give them things, go to their homes and cook or clean, and in one recent case that comes to mind, the administrator took a student to an emergency clinic. The administrator falsely represented the student as her son, and she ended up resigning. While that obviously didn’t end well, more often than not the types of stories I see are “feel-good” in nature, where the student is helped and everything ends happily. My question is this: How do teachers know what boundaries to set?

—Teacher or Confidante?

Dear ToC,

Oh, this is such a good question without an easy answer.

I know the genre of news story you mean, and if I’m correctly reading your unspoken implication that these situations aren’t always as wholesome and inspirational as they’re often presented, I agree with you. In a way, these tales of heroic teachers share some DNA with tear-jerking stories about crowdsourced medical fundraising: While the individual situations might “end happily,” the fact that they exist at all is the natural result of some profoundly broken social systems that allow many people to founder, their basic needs unmet.

So how do teachers know what boundaries to set? To be honest, they sometimes don’t.
Viewed from a distance, with a wide lens, it’s clear that it’s not possible nor appropriate for one big-hearted individual to truly solve some of these problems. Up close, when it’s one endearing child who is both helpless and suffering, well, your judgment can get cloudy. On top of that, our cultural narrative often represents and celebrates teaching as a selfless profession that demands sacrifice. (Not coincidentally, 77 percent of teachers are women—likely socialized to be caretakers in most aspects of life, including work.) It can leave you feeling guilty and selfish if you don’t overextend yourself when confronted with the needs of the children in your classroom. Also, on the best days, teaching is very rewarding; being offered a student’s genuine gratitude and appreciation or forging a strong connection with a kid who admires and likes you is what keeps many of us doing this gig. Some teachers, though, can lose their grip on their professionalism and become too invested in that emotional payoff, buying into the version of themselves as “the only one who cares.” It’s sticky.

Most teachers do want to uphold appropriate boundaries, though, and while there aren’t many ironclad rules, there are several common strategies. School districts often outline guidelines for maintaining appropriate relationships with students (and parents). These codes often include directions about social media contact, personal communication, and time spent with students or families outside of work hours. Many teachers have their own methods to establish appropriate boundaries too. One is to set limits on your hours and space. Some folks leave at the end of contract time every day; some make themselves and their classrooms unavailable to students during certain periods. Another is to communicate with kids and families only through a limited number of channels. My school uses a third-party messaging app to accommodate both parents’ common desire to text rather than call and teachers’ desire not to distribute personal cellphone numbers.

For me, though, the most important strategy is to define my role and not to lose sight of its parameters. In my opinion, a classroom teacher isn’t and shouldn’t be a friend, a confidante, a parent, a social worker, a mental health professional, or a health care provider. Those are separate jobs, with separate expertise, training, and responsibilities, and an important part of my role as a teacher is to recognize when I’m out of my depth and to connect my student with a more appropriate service provider. It can be a bit of an instinctual “know it when you see it” process, and I think most teachers get better at maintaining healthy boundaries as they mature in the profession. It’s a really important skill, though—important for our own well-being and sustainability and, just as crucially, important for modeling to our students how to create supportive, meaningful relationships that also uphold healthy professional distance.

—Ms. Bauer

My 5-year-old son seems to be ambidextrous. He started school a few months ago at a school outside the United States, and he still does not seem to be leaning toward a favored hand. His teacher says while it’s unusual, he seems to be able to write well enough with both hands at this stage.

I’m wondering if we should be encouraging one hand over the other at some point? It seems the world is easier for the right-handed. But then it’s also pretty cool that he can switch hands at will. Aside from the difficulty I’m having teaching him to tie his shoelaces, is it a potential problem for him?

—Lefty or Righty?

Dear LoR,

I’ve got a simple answer for you: No. You should not encourage one hand over the other, and this should not be a potential problem for him. Typically, kids begin developing hand dominance as early as age 2, but they’re not expected to show a strong hand dominance until between the ages of 4 and 6. By 6, a dominant hand is generally established. Even though your 5-year-old isn’t showing a dominant hand, he’s still within the developmental range of it being fine to swap hands so that he can figure out what feels right.

One thing to remember about little kids is that even if they have a slight hand preference, they’re so new to writing (or handedness in general), they often pick up the pen with whatever hand is closer. If you’re curious and want to keep track of his potential handedness, here’s how occupational therapists (who frequently deal with handedness) typically assess that in the classroom: Put an object in front of your child directly at midline (the center of their body, equidistant between both hands), and ask him to pick it up. You can do this periodically, and it doesn’t need to be a big deal; it can be you placing his spoon at dinner directly at the center of his body instead of placing it next to his meal, for example.

It’s also possible that he is ambidextrous, and if so, congratulations! That’s very rare and very cool. Most likely, through schooling, he will begin to default to using one hand (unless you explicitly work to keep him neutral). As for the shoes, don’t sweat it too much. It’s quite common for kindergarteners to struggle with that particular skill, whether they’re a lefty or a righty.

—Ms. Sarnell

My son started kindergarten this year, and he’s been having a really rough time. He is so tired when I pick him up. He has been suspended 16 times for hitting incidents. The school takes a tough stance on bullying, though I’m not of the mind to call a small child a bully. I have him in play therapy, and he’s been to a therapist to rule out any issues like ADHD. He is in a play group therapy session too. I have him in sports. We’ve tried wrestling, and he didn’t like it.

He tells me he’s doing this to get out of school. Should I move schools? I’m worried that the same thing would happen at the next school. I’ve tried punishments, talking about it, and more. I feel I have a good relationship with him. He has always been a child who hits, but it has increased in severity and these suspensions are new. Nothing at home has changed for him except that he has a new baby sister, but he shows nothing but love to her. Thanks in advance.

—Running Out of Ideas

Dear Running Out,

I’m so sorry that your son is having a difficult transition into kindergarten. It can be very stressful to watch your child struggling with school. Please know that you’re not alone—transitions to formal schooling are often hard for children, and your son is not the first (nor the last!) to experience this.

From your letter, it sounds like you’re doing the right things at home. You’re getting your son help from professionals. You’re further supporting him by encouraging him to play sports and be active. My question (and concern) relates to what strategies and systems are in place to help your son be successful at school. Suspensions are a form of punishment. What is being done to help your son learn how to behave appropriately and safely in class? What is being done to positively reinforce his expected and appropriate behaviors?

My advice is to set up a meeting immediately with your son’s teacher, principal, and school psychologist to decide upon a course of action. If a plan is already in place, it’s clearly not working, so a discussion about a change of plan is in order.

No matter what you do, changing schools is unlikely to help the problem and will likely create more transition and uncertainty in your child’s life. Your son needs stability, systems, and routines to feel successful at school, so minimizing disruption while maximizing effective interventions will likely be the key to helping him behave better.

—Mr. Dicks

We have an 18-month-old. We live in a house that we bought before he was born. When we bought the house, the elementary school rating in this area was a 7/8. Now it’s gone down to a 3. My husband thinks that the ratings don’t matter at the elementary school level. I think that the foundation for education starts in elementary school, and if my son doesn’t like elementary school, he might not be interested in learning. I don’t expect my son to be in the top of his class, but I want him to enjoy learning new things and not hate school. My husband and I didn’t grow up in the U.S., so we don’t have a good idea of the school rating system and what this means. How much do the school ratings matter? Should we move to another area with good school ratings?

—Do Numbers Mean Anything?

Dear DNMA,

I assume you’re talking about a rating system like GreatSchools.org? Your question made me curious about how my own neighborhood elementary school might fare, so I looked it up. According to GreatSchools.org, my local elementary school is not so hot. But my neighbors’ kids who are enrolled there love it. The online ratings are based primarily on test score data, which does offer important information but not the entire picture. Test scores don’t show you the butterfly garden or the music room or the outdoor classroom. Test scores do not provide context for why some students may not score well, nor do they reflect the range of things children learn in one year of elementary school.

GreatSchools.org does not even mention that my neighborhood school has a dual language program where children are learning English and Spanish. And the ratings certainly do not reflect the overall happy atmosphere I perceived when I toured the school a few months ago. In the classrooms I visited, I saw teachers who appeared to enjoy their work and children who were gleefully learning. I would also point out that I have taught many students who transferred out of a very highly rated high school in my city because they were miserable. That isn’t to say the school is bad, but the highly competitive culture it promotes is not healthy for many teens. If you only pay attention to the test scores, however, it looks like the perfect school.

A significant drop in the school rating could be cause for alarm, but not necessarily. Since your son is so young, you have plenty of time to decide whether or not to send him to the local school. Talk with your neighbors whose kids attend. Visit the school for events or take a tour. Meet the principal and ask her about the ratings. You may find that the school is doing much better than their rating suggests.

And if not, you’ve got four years to figure out a better option.

—Ms. Holbrook