Privacy and Comfort

I recently have experienced some dramatic personal events.  I lost two family members in close succession, eight days apart.  Because of these family sorrows I traveled back to my home state of Utah three times over a six week period.  I tried to keep my missed teaching days down to a minimum, but my students have seen substitute teachers a number of times in the last month and a half.

Teaching became a place of refuge for me during this difficult time. It felt great to dive into the needs and stories of my students, and to focus on preparing for upcoming programs.  During the school day I felt competent and in control.  My life had a normal flow.

However, in the middle of one class several weeks ago, a Kindergarten girl raised her hand.  “I’m so sorry about your sister,” she said.  I was taken aback.  My sense of safety was challenged, and I felt uncomfortable at best, violated at worst.  I was surprised that this Kindergarten teacher chose to give details of my situation to her class.  At my school the students are all young, Kindergarten to 2nd grade.  It felt misguided to talk about my family, both because of my sense of privacy, and because of the age of the children.

More recently, when I returned to school after the third trip to Utah, I found a tall pile of letters and hand drawn pictures.  The substitute teacher had apparently asked the students in each class, eight classes of about 22 students each, to write me condolence letters.  Ouch!  I know that she meant well, but the thought of my students discussing my personal grief was the opposite of comforting.  I would have been so much happier if the teachers and substitutes, when asked why Ms. Keefe was absent, had said simply, “She’s visiting her family.”

So the question that has surfaced for me is: what are the boundaries of personal and private at a school?  What are the actions that give comfort and what are those that violate privacy?  It’s good to feel the support of colleagues, but which personal issues of a teacher are legitimate areas of conversation with students?  The death of a family member of course is not the only problematic situation.  Perhaps a teacher is seriously ill, or is going through a divorce.  What should students be told?  What are the boundaries?

~ Liz


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6 Responses

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  1. Leslie

    Liz, I think the answer to your question differs with each teacher and even for different situations for the same teacher. Wow! Your experience causes me to reflect on my heartaches as well as emotional situations of other teachers. Some cherish the support of students as well as faculty, others do not, and we all grieve in differing ways. Your e-mail reminds me of how important it is to let others know how they can best support me. Thank you for the lesson and peace to you.

  2. Liz

    Leslie, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Perhaps part of this experience is to simply appreciate the heart-felt motivation of the giver, and let the rest go.

  3. Laurie Magarian

    About ten years ago my mother passed away unexpectedly. I was unprepared for her death and took a week of bereavement leave from my music teaching position to deal with my grief. When I returned I had a similar experience to yours: several classes of K-3 children had written sympathy cards to me, and I too felt that some teachers crossed a boundary that felt like an inappropriate violation of my privacy. However, one of the cards, written by a wise 1st grader, touched me deeply. She wrote that she was sorry my mother had died and that she imagined I wished I could have had more time with her. She was absolutely right! It seems sometimes children have the ability to understand some of life’s most profound mysteries. Not only do we teach them, but they also teach us.

  4. Liz

    Laurie, thanks for your stories. We each grieve in our own way, and it is impossible to always hit the right emotional tone when we try to give comfort. How lovely that your student had just the right words for you.

  5. Dawn

    At my school, we’re fairly small, and everybody eventually knows everybody’s business anyways. When my boyfriend was extremely ill, and during several scares since, the caring comments of students and staff weren’t always what I wanted to hear, but the underlying message of ‘we care about you and how you’re doing’ meant the world to me. I teach other subjects besides music, and in one case, the classroom teacher told her class that I was going through a stressful time, and reminded the students to be aware of that. They discussed how to support me. Some of the kids drew and wrote cards (these are grade 6ers), some prayed for me (it’s a Christian school), and they all gave me a bit of leeway when my stress came out in being short-tempered. I felt so supported and loved! I understandt this wouldn’t be appropriate in all schools or situations, but that’s my ‘personal life in school’ story. (Recently, a staff member’s spouse passed away after a difficult and excruciating battle with cancer. We made her meals, prayed for them, attended the funeral, did her yard work…it’s a community.)

  6. Liz

    Dawn, thanks so much for adding to the conversation here. I’m glad that you could see the caring underneath the comments and gestures of the staff and students when you were going through a hard time. We each have our own way of dealing with hardship. It sounds like you are lucky enough to work in a place that takes care of its own.

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