Blurred lines and awkward conversations

As teachers of young learners we take on many roles.  We lead our students in class, share knowledge with them, cheer them on, listen to them, protect them, arbitrate between them, care for them… the list goes on and on.  We also have to liaise with parents, keeping them informed on how their child is progressing.  All of these roles and responsibilities are at times difficult to manage but it’s all a part of working with children, especially very young children.

Photo Credit: jenny downing via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jenny downing via Compfight cc

There are times, however, when the lines that define your role as teacher can get a little blurry.  In this case, I’m referring to those times when you notice that a child is having difficulties that may require the intervention of a psychologist but you’re not sure that it’s your place to bring it up with the parents.  If you are their teacher at school and with them all day, it’s deemed quite logical and normal that you should contact the parents with any issues; as their English language teacher who sees them two or three hours per week, it can be tough to decide whether to speak up or not.

Let me give you an example.  I had a student for a number of years that was extremely intelligent and excellent with numbers as well as patterns.  His memory for facts and vocabulary was also outstanding.  He was a star student who acquired knowledge almost effortlessly, but he struggled to get along with his peers.  Even now I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what it was that made his social skills seem so weak but it had to do with him basically ignoring the rest of the students in his class.  His interactions with them were short and to the point.  He often acted as if he was the only one in the room and grimaced when ‘forced’ to collaborate with others.  I have some training in Psychology but I am not the person who can adequately diagnose this sort of behavior.  I mulled over the situation for some time before trying to bring it up with the mother.  Her reaction was merely to minimize my concerns and effectively brush them off, claiming that nothing was ‘wrong’ with her son.  It was an awkward conversation that, looking back, I probably could have conducted in a different (possibly more tactful) way but the mother’s reaction made it impossible to pursue the issue.  So I went back to the classroom and continued to observe while this child failed time and again to understand how to interact with his peers and also while his peers learned to regard him as an odd duck who should be avoided (and at times ridiculed).  It was frustrating and left me feeling like there was more I could do but that I shouldn’t overstep any boundaries.

Another example is the situation I’ve found myself in recently with a student who has been displaying behavior that could be linked to anxiety.  He has always participated a lot in class but he began showing signs of being upset when I didn’t call on him.  At first it was a simple sigh or roll of the eyes but soon enough he was complaining vocally and disrupting the class quite a bit.  I spoke to him about it a number of times, explaining that the other students in the class need an opportunity to participate just as much as he does.  He didn’t take it very well at all and even responded to me in a disrespectful tone.  His behavior in general seemed to become impulsive and reactive.  Any little thing that I or another student said would set him off.  It was very unpleasant as well as distracting for everyone involved.  I sent the parents messages, asking them to please come in so we could discuss the situation but they never did.  They thanked me for my concern and explained that there were some issues at home regarding health that could be the source of his stress.  On the one hand, they recognized that there was a problem, but on the other, they never took any steps to remedy it.

I felt like I was caught between a rock and hard place because I knew that this boy was suffering but as merely an English language teacher who sees him twice a week I could do little to help him.  I did the only thing I thought I could do: I tried to make sure that he saw English class as a safe place.  I talked to him after class one day and asked him why he seemed to get upset when I didn’t call on him.  He didn’t have a very clear answer about why he was feeling that way.  I explained to him that everything I do in class is so that things go well and we can all enjoy learning.  I told him that in no way would I ever try to exclude him nor single him out in a negative way.  I also tried to make it clear to him that he is an essential part of the group and that we all care for him.  The next few days in class he seemed a bit more relaxed so maybe my words got through.  This all happened towards the end of the school year.  We’re now starting up again and I’ve been in touch with the parents but we’re just going to ‘see how it goes’.

As teachers we form a part of our students’ lives but as English language teachers our observations and opinions are often disregarded or at best considered limited.  It is true that we spend less time with the students than their teachers at school but it’s still enough time to pick up on difficulties or issues that they may be having.  In my opinion, we have a duty as people who work with children to make parents aware of any problems their child is having.  There may be times when there is a reasonable explanation or when our observations are off the mark but I believe it’s better to cross those blurry lines that define our role and endure those awkward conversations just in case; we may be the only ones in that child’s life calling attention to or even noticing that something is not quite right.

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About careymicaela

I've been teaching Young Learners and Very Young Learners for over ten years now. My degrees are in Psychology and Spanish. I also completed my TEFL certification in Madrid and the Ih Young Learners Course in Seville. I enjoy working with children and sharing those experiences with other teachers. In my free time (when that exists!) I like to read, listen to music, practice yoga and go on long cycling routes with my husband.
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