Blurring and Overlapping the Territories of the Personal and Professional

I usually don’t write about my personal life on this blog because I had planned for this blog to be solely “professional” but lately, I’ve found the boundaries to be blurring. Not only with my own life but with those around me.

I went to a teacher’s training workshop today for the teacher training program I’m currently doing with the American Language Institute at SFSU. The workshop focused on exploring the lives of our students outside the classroom and how that can sometimes affect their behavior in the classroom.

The exact situation actually happened in my class this morning, right before the seminar. A student went outside to take a phone call. He returned after quite a while but I didn’t really notice because I was busy trying to follow my lesson plan and manage the class. I asked a question to the class to confirm that they understood the homework for tomorrow and called on the student to repeat the assignment for me. The student had his hoodie on and his head covered in his arms on the table. Immediately, the two students next to him gestured to me to move onto someone else and that this was not a good time for that student. I found out later that the student received news that his friend had passed away in his home country all the way in Asia. That student explained this to me in an email that also included an apology. Of course, he didn’t have to be sorry – I can’t imagine how shocked and shaken he must have felt when he heard the news. And also, to be thousands of miles away in another country where there was nothing you could really do about it.

In the workshop, we brainstormed about the kinds of problems and stresses our students may experience as they study in America through the ALI program. We established earlier that our students are on average in their early 20s so we focused our brainstorm on problems and challenges early 20-year-olds face. Wait… I thought… oh, that includes me. After all, I’m 23 years old. In a sense, I can relate quite well to the sources of stress that our students may experience, such as identity issues, relationship problems, family expectations, and time management skills.

In fact, as I’m going through this training program, I’ve been having a tough time with just keeping up with the schedule and as my mentor teacher calls it, just keeping organized. I recognize that it’s a problem … keeping my life organized, balancing my social, academic, and professional schedules, and prioritizing and distributing the hours in my day effectively. Also, sort of in the backdrop, relationship problems have also triggered a more moody self that has distracted me from, for example, a debriefing session with my mentor teacher.

While being able to relate to the students based on age seems like plus, I often see it as a hassle. Basically, I look like one of the students. So I purposely dress up when I teach, putting on ties when none of the other teachers really do that. I want to make it blatant that I’m the teacher, just in case there are any students that may not respect me since I’m just as young as they are. This reminds me that this weekend, in Oakland, the California TESOL conference is happening and one of the presentations that I’m looking forward to is titled “Managing Students When You Look Like One”. It’s about exactly what the title sounds like.

The factors that blur the boundaries between me and my students are not only age; in fact, just today, I revealed to the students that I can speak fluent Mandarin. I had been a TA for several ESL composition classes and during my time as a TA, I would constantly get asked about where I’m from, where my parents are from, or what other languages I speak. Sometimes I would reveal my ability to speak Mandarin. Sometimes I would not. The reason for withholding it is so I can keep a barrier between me and my students. If I don’t, the students often end up almost being like friends, chatting with me in Mandarin which alienates other students who cannot understand what we’re saying. I’ve come to the conclusion for now that lying about my ability to speak Mandarin is silly and that I simply have to regulate it strictly. For example, if students want to speak Mandarin to me in regards to an issue in class, I would tell them to speak English. If it’s during break and not class related, I would be fine with Mandarin. But I would probably refrain from responding in Mandarin and keep to English.

I worked with Thomas today. Usually, I go to his house to work with him, usually going there from home. But today, I stayed at school longer than usual so I went to his house straight from school. I was wearing my more “teacherly” outfit, a dress shirt, black slacks, and a more casual tie. As observant as usual, Thomas asked why I was dressed differently and I told him this is what I wear when I am a teacher. And he found it fascinating that I was actually a teacher, my secret identity during the day. He asked me question after question about what I teach and who my students are, and his mother took advantage of this situation to tell him to study hard so he could one day be like me.

I chuckled at that statement. One day be like me? Would his mother really want that of his son if she knew me deeper and more personally than the short interactions we have before and after my sessions with Thomas? My faults and shortcomings are many; recently, a lot of things in my life, personal and professional, have not been going according to plan. Sometimes, I’ve blamed them on myself, whether or not they were truly a result of my own doing. It’s difficult to remove yourself from the present situation and mood and evaluate the situation with a clear head.

Teaching Thomas today was refreshing. Working with a child, whose life is so innocent and simple, and answering questions like “Eric, do you like tigers or hippos?” and playing hot hands with him was a nice escape. My TESOL professor was surprised that I’ve continued to work with Thomas. I never thought about it but in a way, I can’t imagine not. Even with teaching Thomas, the boundaries between my personal and professional interests are not so clear. I see Thomas as almost my little brother but I also see him as a student. And if I were really to say which is more powerful and salient in my interaction with Thomas, I would say as a little brother. But does that matter?

Maybe that is the paradox and double life that we teachers lead, simply because many of us who have chosen to pursue teaching as an occupation do so out of passion for teaching. And since we come to know our students personally, as real human beings, and they do the same of us, maybe the very nature of the teaching profession is blurring and overlapping the territories of the personal and professional and that’s what makes it unique and fun.

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