Working as a professional writing tutor at my university has exposed me to many types of people—some in particular that I’ve worked with really well. I have had some students that come back to me several times, but they usually start to drift away once they have acquired whatever skill they came in seeking to learn. That is to say, I’ve never had anyone get attached to me past their scheduled tutoring sessions. And rightly so—my students are adults, there for a service and done when they’re done.
Recently, though, I got my first experience in post-teaching student attachment. As part of a class, I participated in a three-week online tutoring activity with two seventh graders as they worked on writing poetry. One student was not very active in the project, only revising once. The second, however, really got into it. He would send me back rapid, detailed responses and progressed enthusiastically with his poem. As the three weeks came to an end, (not to my surprise) he sent me an email asking if he can still write to me and if he could ask me for help on his writing in the future.
The answer to continuing his tutoring is obviously a resounding no, because of ethical and time-constraint issues; but I really struggled on what to tell him when he asked if he could still write to me about his poetry, which he seems to be discovering for the very first time. I didn’t want to squelch his momentum. I was suddenly accosted with memories of my own beloved eighth grade English teacher—she left our school mid-semester to start a family. I idolized her, and I wrote to her many times. She wrote back once, and sent me a book. As thrilled as I was to get that first package, I was pretty crestfallen that she never contacted me again. (Okay, I admit it: it pains me to this day!) Looking at the situation now, from a new teacher’s perspective, I realize that she probably just wanted me to leave her the heck alone so she could live her life.
On the other hand, I have had teachers that continued contact with me, in a minor way, long after I’d left their classes. Those interactions have always sustained me with a warmth and inspiration that few others can rival. Even sending one email can eat into a teacher’s already swelling schedule, but it can make such a difference. Especially adolescents, who need to muster up quite a bit of bravery even to contact a former teacher, can benefit from limited contact with special teachers.
So what did I tell this eager 7th-grade poet? I told him that I could not help him with his schoolwork and that I don’t ever have time to respond to emails just to chat. But, if he wanted to share some writing of his after it had been graded, I would love to see it and tell him what I thought. I (discreetly) double-checked the appropriateness of this offer with his teacher, who said that it was a diplomatic, creative solution. Score!
After confronting this issue for the first time, this is what I’ve learned:
-You’ve got to sever your ties, for the most part, once your professional relationship with a student has ended. Time, ethics, and the progressive-cyclical nature of education demand it.
– If you feel that the student would benefit from continued support, and you are willing to provide it, it could make a meaningful, positive difference to a student.
– Part of being a teacher is finding creative, respectful, ethical solutions to issues relating to the emotional concerns of students, self, and colleagues.