Tuesday 20 March 2012

The Hugging Minefield

A heartbreaking end to the working day today. I was sitting in my lab marking some mock exam papers. One of my students appeared and asked if we could talk. And then this tall, confident young man just broke down in tears. Events of the past few weeks, months, years even, caught up with him. Poor lad is terrified of not getting the grades he needs, and he's got an awful lot of mitigating circumstances affecting his chances of achieving this. I grabbed a handful of paper towels in the absence of tissues, and he clung to them for dear life as we spoke. We went over what it was getting to him in terms of workload, how he was feeling, whether he was anxious or depressed, and what action he felt able to take at this stage.

On balance, he was in a better state when we concluded than he was when he came in. He knows he can come back and talk to me. But above all that, he probably needed a hug. I really felt he did. But I didn't think I could. Why? Well, we have guidelines telling us to avoid unnecessary contact with students. I'm normally quite a touchy-feely person. I do hug and kiss my friends when I see them. A hand on the shoulder, a high-five, a fist bump, all feature in my normal friendly repertoire. But I've toned it right down for dealing with students.

If I am seen giving a student, especially a male student, a hug, then that would certainly start a rumour mill going - some of my colleagues have raised eyebrows at my close working relationships with male students (though it is usually because the male teachers have a tendency to be really hard on the male students, oddly enough), and I can do without a lot of gossip about me. Some of my female students have put an arm round me, and one of my BTEC boys decided he would grab my hand and kiss it directly underneath one of the CCTV cameras (doh!), but reciprocation is definitely frowned upon.

Finally, I am aware that I've got a rather insecure (though adult, he was definitely in a vulnerable emotional state) student pouring out his heart to me; I don't want him to think that our relationship is anything more than teacher/mentor and student. Students can become infatuated with their teachers, and though I don't think I'm much of a TILF, I've overheard students talking about the hotness of the most surprising colleagues. Positions of authority appear to be quite an aphrodisiac *boak*.

It was much more straightforward when my poor husband came into the lab half an hour later and also burst into tears. That I could deal with. Teaching is hard work. He had his awful class today. They stole his favourite pen. There is nothing in the guidelines that says I can't hug my own husband at work, and frankly if he thinks I'm a TILF then that's all good...

How do you lot approach comforting students? I imagine for the under-16s it's a no-brainer - no contact at all. But how do you comfort sixth-formers and adult learners? Is it still such a no-brainer? I wonder if it will be easier for me to dish out hugs when I get older. A colleague in her 50s had no qualms about hugging any and every student, but she was by that point easily old enough to be their mother - I'm still just about young enough to be a cougarish girlfriend.


  1. Yep, I had a totally hands-off policy when teaching. At least in the states, males in particular put themselves at serious risk of losing their job, trashing their reputation, and legal action with any sort of physical contact that by any stretch could be misconstrued. But I'm not a very physical person to begin with, so it wasn't as if I had to be alert to avoid it. On the other hand, there were definitely times where I've wanted to offer a reassuring pat on the shoulder, or grip a hand warmly, and it's sad that such an act felt unsafe.

  2. I confess I had a completely opposite approach. I found teaching in the UK such a foreign experience in the sense that your immediate reaction to reach out and hug a crying a female student or put a reassuring hand on the shoulder of a male student about to do something brave (like sit through a whole test for the first time! I had a lot of year 8 and 9 bottom sets)... well you have to curb every instinct. I understand the risks, but to be honest I decided from Day Dot that I was going to be the Best Teacher I could be and that included not hindering that by never touching a student or never being alone in a room with a student (something else I was warned strongly of).

    Fortunately, when I did come across one of those types who will use an innocent (or even accidental) moment of physical contact to end my career, I dunno... you can see them coming a mile away: they are a very particular type. As for the rest, I think it made my relationship with my students stronger... they could tap me on the shoulder, as I could them. Some of the girls welcomed or instigated hugs at appropriate moments. One of the boys did too--he was thrilled at a test result. A fist-bump with a year 8 boy who has just passed his maths test for the first time? hell yeah!

    So while I hear where you're coming from, I kind of wonder what we are inadvertently teaching them when we set up and enforce rules like this. The world outside of school is not like this: so what are we showing them? That we can't stop inappropriate touching without halting physical contact altogether? That it is better to lose something very important if it makes for clear-cut legal lines in the absence of common sense? I can't help but feel that such legislation is leading to a form of negative empowerment for teens while at the same time denying something that most of them probably don't get very often: comforting contact with an adult who cares.

  3. Totally off-topic, but if you haven't seen this, want to make sure you do. http://www.thisiscroydontoday.co.uk/Fianc-eacute-scaled-favour-lizard/story-15577140-detail/story.html


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