Crossing the Line

Just a quick note about a conversation I had with one of my students yesterday.

I had this student, a sophomore boy, last trimester and he is continuing in my math class this term. In our previous class together he was pretty quiet, kind of kept to himself. Now, he’s grown a strong sarcastic streak. He’s actually quite funny. But, like all teenage boys, sometimes he doesn’t know where to draw the line.

Case in point, yesterday he made a really distasteful remark pertaining to crystal meth use. Completely inappropriate. I asked him to stay in a minute before we left for lunch to chat.

Last year, and really all the other years I’ve taught, I think I would have said something about how the comment was inappropriate, in poor taste and quite possibly offensive. And I would have left it at that. Chastisement given, moving on.

For some reason, this time I did something different. I said to this student that he had crossed a line, but that I recognised that part of what he was doing in his joking was figuring out where the lines are. And I said that I wanted to help him figure that out, which was why I was speaking to him about this.

I’ve always felt that my previous conversations with students about crossing the line into inappropriate territory have been…awkward. I can’t put my finger on what about these conversations hasn’t worked for me, but I always felt like I was not communicating well. I guess those conversations felt more like I was talking at my students instead of talking with them. I communicated to this student yesterday that we were on the same side, and that we were going to work together. That felt much more authentic to me and my teaching style, as well as seeming much more effective.

5 thoughts on “Crossing the Line

  1. oh I’m with you on this. I have that problem myself too. Especially after school or at lunch, I tend to get a little chatty with the kids and we joke around a lot. Sometimes we’ll tease each other and I’ll say something where I wonder if I went a little far. I’ve never had any complaints, but I don’t think they’d be willing to admit that I hit a nerve.

    • Hmm…this wasn’t exactly what I meant. Though it’s an important point. Teachers can cross the line too. And I think you’re right that students may not feel comfortable challenging a teacher on this kind of behavior. I know that when I was in middle school, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that.

      My point was that students are at a stage of development where they don’t necessarily recognize that the things they say may or may not be inappropriate. This particular student was joking around with the other students in his group, none of whom came to me and said that they felt uncomfortable about this particular comment. I don’t know whether or not the other students recognized that he had crossed the line, or if they cared. But I felt that I needed to step in regardless.

      If the teacher is the person crossing the line, things become even more complex because of the power/authority issues involved.

  2. I think this was very perceptive on your part and extremely skillful. It sounds like what you did was to engage in shared inquiry with this student, based on your greater experience with the issues, but in a deeply respectful way. In effect, you were expressing respect for him as a reflective person — and also as a witty/funny person, which is obviously a part of the self-concept he is developing about himself. However you also clarified for him, as a teacher and mentor, that there are potential landmines ahead if he is to unself-consciously continue down this path without considering the potential consequences of his words and actions. This is the best possible teaching of emotional intelligence in action — catching a moment “in the act” and inquiring into it in a non-reactive way.

    I cannot imagine a more mindful approach to this situation, which we all encounter from time to time. Congratulations on finding an effective “way in” to this kind of conversation. It’s great to hear about mentoring techniques that result in getting everybody on the same side of the table. Thank you for making the effort to capture this learning and for sharing it.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth.

      I finally feel like I’ve reached the point in my teaching career where I sometimes do some things pretty well. Especially in regards to classroom management, which has always been a challenging aspect of this job for me. It’s nice to get the positive feedback about that. 🙂

  3. That’s a great idea! I’m not sure they would all respond to it, but I have some 9th and 10th grade boys who are definitely trying to learn about the boundaries. I’ve struggled with them in class because sometimes when they say things out of turn, it is appropriate and funny, but then it starts to get out of hand at times. I think I’ll use this approach. My school actually really emphasizes having relationships (not quite friendships) with the students. You also mentioned feeling awkward… I have a student in 10th that I got into a rather awkward situation with… kind of just to show you how the school works – we only have one counselor for the entire middle and upper school. This boy was in the counselor because his girlfriend from another school was having drug problems. For some reason, I mentioned to the counselor that I’d been in a similar situation, and suddenly she calls me in there to talk to him, and then he starts like following me around to ask me questions and update me on the situation. It’s died down some, but it was a little strange. I just didn’t really feel prepared for that.

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