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Professional Boundaries for teachers: When is self-disclosure appropriate?

When we start teacher college, we are often told how to establish professional boundaries with our students, which can include limiting our social media, not sharing our address/ phone number, and not giving students any personal information about ourselves. Although it is important to establish clear work-life boundaries, self-disclosure can sometimes be a grey area.

(Note: this article will consider your own level of personal disclosure, how it relates to trauma informed principles, and ethical disclosure).

Everyone has their own comfortability around level of disclosure. Some teachers refuse to share anything personal, including information about whether or not they are married, have children or pets, age, etc. whereas some teachers keep photos of their families in their classroom! How much you share is a deeply personal decision, and although there isn't a perfect "right or wrong" answer, there are some important guidelines to consider!

Every year at the start of the semester, I allow students to ask me anything (within reason, of course), and I'll answer honestly. Although I understand that this may not be comfortable for some teachers, this kind of self-disclosure can ultimately help to build meaningful and thoughtful relationships with your students. Students are more willing to open up to you, trust you, and respect you if they feel like they know you!

But where is the line?

In most cases, it's wherever you draw it... but there are some big things to consider as you make your decision about your own self-disclosure practice so that you aren't crossing professional lines. Because, lets face it, personal and professional boundaries have different parameters in terms of what's appropriate!

How do we decide what's TOO much?!

Self-disclosure should be used as a tool for students to get to know more about your life from a safe distance, so they feel they can relate to you, but not have to take care of you.

A self-disclosure should never put a student in agency. For instance, disclosing past trauma, current struggles, marital issues, bereavement, etc. are personal issues that can serve to make the student feel like they need to nurture you, take care of you, or support your recovery. If a student feels as though they have to apologize for your struggle, they are in agency.

This is a dangerous position for our students, especially when, as teachers, we are supposed to be the ones who can hold safe space for them. We risk burdening our students and crossing the line from student-teacher to friends, and that's not who we are to our students.(Before you think I'm saying we can't be friends with our students, read on... I'll get to this!)

Disclosing to relate to students

You may be wondering if there are times in which disclosing difficult situations you've experienced can actually benefit a student and don't risk putting them in agency.


The question you have to ask yourself is "am I still struggling? Do I need support? Does sharing this experience make me, or the student, more vulnerable in the telling of it? WHY do I want to share this part of myself with a student? "

The only acceptable answer to the last question has to be "it will help the student feel accepted/comfortable/safe/supported" or "it will convince the student to receive additional help and broaden their helping network."

Some examples of this type of disclosure are:

* If you have a mental health diagnosis that is currently being treated successfully by helping professionals.

* If your diagnosis sometimes makes it challenging for you to do certain things. For instance, if you have ADHD and find you change topics in class often, or you have chronic pain that prevents you from doing certain things.

NOTE: if you are struggling with these things, please make sure your disclosure is not in a 1-1 setting, and is being used to offer explanations to students that will enable you to best teach them.

* If you have experienced difficulties in your friendships or past work experiences that reflect what a student is experiencing now, and you hope your disclosure will help them feel that they are not alone and this is normal.

Of course, these are just a few examples and there are other situations in which self-disclosure is appropriate!

But if you answer "yes, I am still struggling" or "yes, I need support" or "yes, this makes me vulnerable or opens up old wounds," then the disclosure is not appropriate. If, at any point in your story, historical or otherwise, the student may feel like they need to support you, or hold concern for your well-being, or the disclosure is so shocking that it could re-traumatize them or you, then the disclosure is not appropriate.

Okay, but CAN you be friends with students?

Above I said that we should not be friends with our students, and I stand by this! Kind of... We should, of course, be friendly and warm, share jokes and have a sense of humour, and have relationships that feel meaningful - all of these are very much akin to friendship! However, friendship is a reciprocation of support and nurture, and also like I said above, this is not the nature of our relationships with students.

Overall, there can be room to both be "friends" with students and use self-disclosure to support them! We just have to make sure that we remain the healthy adult that can continue to support our student's growth and autonomy!

What's your stance on self-disclosure? Comment below!

Also, check out Feedspot to see the Contemporary Educator rated top 60 trauma blogs on the web!


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