Establishing and Maintaining Boundaries: When Classroom Limits Are Tested
Posted January 30, 2017
By Jason S. Spiegelman
"I get paid to teach them physics. It's not my job to care about their personal lives."
This was what I heard from a colleague during a professional development conference. The session emphasized understanding the personal needs of our students, and during an experiential demonstration this is what a professor of physics had to say. To say I was astounded would be an understatement. Flabbergasted? Getting closer. Disgusted? Bingo! How can a professional educator be so obtuse? We are not babysitters, but to suggest that we need have no interest or investment in the personal struggles of our students was so antithetical to everything I thought my job was about left me wondering how this man was still employed. (hint: tenure isn't always a good thing!)
On the other side of the coin, however, we have the student who does feel that their teacher is their own personal sounding board. You probably know that student if you've been teaching for any length of time. She always stays after class to talk about how today's lesson really hits home for her. He always wants to discuss a family member who he "thinks has those exact symptoms." They want you to diagnose them, to second guess their doctor, to fix their friend, or to tell them if they are on the right prescription. These situation call into question the professional boundaries that must be established and maintained with students, and if we are not prepared can leave us fumbling for a way to tell the student that they have crossed the line.
At the 2016 National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NITOP) I presented a Participant Idea Exchange that was meant to focus on the over-disclosing student. I had envisioned an interactive discussion about the student who monopolizes class time, often to the chagrin of other students. The idea was born from a section of abnormal psychology I had instructed that included "that student." She was very nice, but did not seem to understand that self-identifying a history of at least one diagnosis in every – EVERY – DSM category had gone beyond useful personal revelation and into the realm of "now the class is your own personal group therapy." But the attendees of this PIE also included the issue of students who do not respect boundaries during office hours, turning that time into a personal psychotherapy session. Too often the student who does is unreceptive to subtle cues and fine spun hints that the conversation is inappropriate. In point of fact, they may be equally dismissive of obvious, direct statements that their needs are more appropriately addressed in a different office.
What are some strategies for dealing with these delicate situations? How do we balance appropriate caring and concern with professionally necessary distance? Where is the demarcation line between trying to help and becoming a de facto psychotherapist? How do we support without offending? The ultimate outcome of this PIE was that there appears to be no singular technique. Some of the suggestions that came forth were as follows:
IN THE CLASS
It all begins with the messages that are given in class and in the course syllabus. A clear statement of what class time and office hours are for is essential, but it may also be necessary to make an equally clear establishment of boundaries.
Dealing with these issues when they first arise, though sometimes uncomfortable, is essential. As we all know, behaviors that are repeated can become entrenched. Thereafter, they become harder to disrupt. So sparing the student a bit of discomfort early can actually set them up for more embarrassment or awkwardness later. Addressing a student in private and making a clear statement of appropriate in-class boundaries is well-advised. Including a plan for how this can be accomplished is also helpful. In the semester following this PIE, I had another student who presented in a similar way. We spoke privately, and agreed on a very subtle facial cue from me (an extended eye blink in her direction) that would be a code for "It's time for you to pull back"). This cue was only needed twice, and her behavior improved within two weeks.
IN THE OFFICE
Keeping the office door open prevents creating a private space where inappropriate disclosures are likely to happen. When a student asks if they can close the door, you may respond by saying, "I prefer to keep it open." There is still some privacy, but not the intimate space that resembles a therapeutic setting. In an era where faculty members must also be cognizant of the appearance of impropriety with students, this is doubly important.
Operating Within Your Expertise
The risk of bruising a student's feelings must sometimes be met head on. Statements like, "I'm sorry but this time is really reserved for classroom issues," "perhaps we can walk together to the counseling center" (if your campus has one), or "these are issues that are not really appropriate for us to be discussing" might be met with some displeasure. At the same time, they provide an unequivocal message to the student about what topics you are and are not comfortable discussing.
I strongly advise that a professor avoid using phrases like, "I'm sorry, but…" before setting a boundary. It sends a mixed message that you may, in fact, be receptive to a topic even if your words are suggesting otherwise. Students with boundary issues are likely to receive a mixed message but to attend primarily to the part of that message that serves their immediate needs.
Kind, but Firm
Be prepared for pushback, and be willing to re-assert the boundary. Students may not be intentionally pushing you into an uncomfortable place, and may need to hear where the line is more than once, in different words.
This list is certainly far from exhaustive, and is open to interpretation based on one's personal style, theory of teaching, and desire to attend to the students' academic and personal needs. Demonstrating sensitivity to our students' personal challenges will only enhance their engagement and ultimately their success in the classroom. But for the student who demonstrates diffuse (or absent) boundaries, the academic professional is well-advised to have some appropriate interventions at the ready.
Jason S. Spiegelman is an Associate Professor of Psychology at The Community College of Baltimore County in Baltimore, MD, where he lives with his wife and three sons. He teaches a variety of courses, including introductory, abnormal, social, and developmental psychology among others. He is an expert in the preparation and revision of psychology textbook supplements, having worked on such projects for over 150 textbooks over the years. He also serves as an advisor and contributor to The Noba Project.