Too Personal For Professional


I am shamefully, in some meager and disconnected fashion, still in the loop of my high school rumor mill. I hear things about who is dating who, who had sex with who, who is now gay, who brought a shotgun to school and got arrested – things like this. They are petty. They are trite.

Yet, this time around, the news was big. It was rather horrible, but somewhat expected from an expensive private school that would fire teachers based on the daddy’s-girl-influenced words of major contributor parents whose child failed a test they didn’t study for. This time, a teacher – for the sake of this article not landing Ink 19 in a lawsuit, let’s call him “Mr. Greenspan” – lost his job because he got too personal with students outside of the classroom.

Mr. Greenspan had given his America Online e-mail address to his students and encouraged them to contact him with any questions regarding homework or tests. Before long, a few students decided to send Greenspan an Instant Message under a pseudonym – that of an attractive, promiscuous, libido-driven 20-year-old girl who fancied herself a naughty teacher’s pet. Surprisingly, Greenspan bought the semantics, and soon allegedly forked over rather incriminating information about his smoking marijuana and cheating on his wife. Then, Greenspan and these clandestine high school students had cybersex.

The news stretched out like an octopus. A transcript of the conversation met the eager eyes of almost every student, and soon enough the whole episode made its way to the administration’s office. Greenspan was forced to publicly apologize, and was then “not invited back” to his job.

When I first heard the news, I laughed. Greenspan was an adversary of mine back in high school. He unconstitutionally forced his students to stand for the pledge of allegiance when I’d prefer to sit, he eagerly attended to the more popular kids while disregarding the rest, and he once condescendingly asked if I had seen Rebel Without a Cause. He was the man I plotted to come back and hurl insults at, me being immune to threats of expulsion and detentions and wholly ready to publicly humiliate him. Of course, I never had the gall to do it. Yet now, there he is. Publicly humiliated. Somehow, I feel bad celebrating.

The man lost his job, and it was over something that truly had nothing to do with school. It didn’t take place in the confines of school or, hell, even in person. In essence, it was Greenspan’s personal life that ruined his professional one. Granted, he should have thought twice about getting involved with a supposedly 20-year-old online femme fatale, and he did a poor job of representing the school but, really, is it his job to represent his place of employment 24-hours a day? By letting Greenspan loose, the school sent the message that personal lives are a possibly lethal combination when mixed with professional ones.

With teachers, this creates an incredibly awkward situation. For arguably, the best teaching is when the teacher is truly on the side of the student, can relate to him or her, and takes down the level of professionalism so that the student feels closer to the teacher and, thus, closer to the material. Yet, by the same token, a teacher must remain professional, for otherwise they are at risk of being inappropriate. It is certainly possible to be unprofessional and still appropriate, but that’s a line so hazy that it’s different and only loosely defined in every individual student.

Therefore, if a teacher absolutely wants to keep their job, they must remain distant. They must, like my high school senior math teacher, refuse to tell us their first name and where they shop for groceries. This teacher was incredibly enthused about math, but his depersonalized relationship between teacher and student made me feel lower than him. If I can’t know anything about him, I am separated and I am lower. While he had the ability to clearly teach math, because I couldn’t know him, I didn’t like him. Therefore, I didn’t like math class, and I feel that he then failed as a teacher.

People are very touchy when it comes to being personal, but as hard as it is to tell where students draw the line, it’s unfortunately terribly dangerous for teachers to come close trying. In middle school, a favorite teacher of mine was a history teacher who would come up with nicknames for everyone in the class, usually basing them off of some deviation from their last name or reference to a hobby of theirs. The nicknames spiced the class up, and I felt increasingly more close to this man each time he said my nickname. However, one student eventually complained to the administration about the nicknames. The teacher then sat through a meeting with a few of his higher-ups, and solemnly came back to class and told us that the nicknames were over. From then on, everyone became a Mr. or Ms., and the teacher’s demeanor became much colder. It was hardly fair. This one student’s complaint turned the class’ relaxed environment into one of stoic professionalism. And while this teacher could have easily tried to lighten things up after the nickname incident, it wasn’t worth it to get too personal. With one more complaint, he could have lost his job. By creating a passionless and professional environment, he didn’t do much for the students, but he did get a paycheck. He can’t be blamed for that. The student that was offended by the nickname is the one to blame for that incident. If he had simply approached the teacher privately and registered his complaint without turning to the administration, he wouldn’t have ruined an enjoyable learning environment.

In many cases, it is indeed the fault of the administration or students for creating the depersonalized environment that many schools offer. When a teacher opens up today, it is a rarity, because it is a gamble on the teacher’s career. For this, they shouldn’t be attacked, because while some students may not enjoy their personalization, the majority of students probably do. As well, being personal is something that can’t be pushed onto people, and can easily be avoided. There’s no getting around a professional classroom. But still, people manage to kick the door closed every time a teacher opens theirs.

It’s rather debatable whether Greenspan was truly in the wrong for discussing his personal life online, but it’s obvious that the students were in the wrong for false impersonation. The learning environment is becoming increasingly muddled, students are flowing like the Mississippi and standardized testing has recently been destroying the curriculum. There are very few opportunities left for a teacher to make school an enjoyable experience, and one of those is by venturing to the hazy and unforgiving line of getting personal with their class.

School may be an institution, but it shouldn’t be a machine. The “students come in, students come out” mentality destroys a student’s desire to learn by illustrating just how much of a number the school really considers them. If teachers can not bring themselves wholly into the classroom by evoking their own personal lives, for nothing more than to remedy the detachment students must feel, then there’s yet one more strike against learning.

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