As it so happens, I’m not really a person. I’m more of a sassy tuna casserole because some people like me quite a lot, but those people probably haven’t thought enough about what I actually am or what it’s like interacting with me. Everyone else recognizes that I am a combination of ingredients that never should have happened. Tuna and the oven probably should never have met. Just like tuna casserole, I bounce between liking myself and knowing too much about who and what I actually am, and this is beginning to pose a real concern to my job because, as it so happens, every semester my students get to know me a little better.
There’s a better chance of the apocalypse being brought on by my cat than there is of me giving my actual phone number to my students. I say ‘actual’ because a few have asked what my number is and I either say “9” or “yes.” The phone boundary will never break because it was broken for me last summer by a boss who thought it would be perfectly fine for her program’s students to be able to constantly text their writing instructor. And they did text me. They texted me all the time. If a friend cancels plans, I’m quite happy with a text because it’s brief and I can answer it while rapidly changing back into my pajamas. If a student texts me canceling a meeting, I am left to ponder who exactly they think they are. No phone numbers. That’s an unbreakable boundary.
However, I used to have some other boundaries that imposed some comfortable professional distance from my students. When I first started teaching, I never talked about my life outside of the classroom. I don’t think my students even knew if I lived in town or had to commute from a cave in the forest. I didn’t want them to know anything about me because I felt like that information would intrude on the professional and effective role I had as their teacher. I envisioned myself as something like a writing robot that would power on during class and shut down as soon as they were out of the room. I never wanted my students to know how old I am because I thought realizing that I was barely older than they were would make it difficult for them to take me seriously. Most of my students are 18 and 19, and when I started, I was 22. I’m guessing that’s the smallest the age gap because student and teacher they’ve ever experienced unless they had a middle school teacher they could relate to because their body was also ‘going through some changes.’
In contrast, my students this semester knew quite a lot about me: what my thesis was about, what my thoughts about online classes were, what I did on the weekends, whether I liked teacher, what I was going to do with my life after grad school, how old I am, even why I had adopted my cat. One of them even learned what my favorite bars are because he turned 21 during class and he told me where he was going to go, and I just couldn’t let that bad decision come to fruition.
I’m worried that the robot has been replaced by a delicate flesh puppet, dancing at the head of the classroom, teaching but also entertaining. I’m worried that this move away from a persona that demonstrated no humanity outside the classroom might have been unwise. My toaster is my idol, and I’ve seen the kind of work that li’l robot puts into making my breakfast warm and hospitable for butter. So shouldn’t I take after my toaster? Think of how much work I could get done with my students if I never really worried about building a rapport or demonstrating that I can actually feel empathy. I’m concerned that, as I get better at a lot of things teaching requires, I’m also getting worse at the social aspect of it. Is it better to be taught by a toaster or a person?
The toaster gets shit done, but students like getting work done for the human. Honestly, I’ve never wanted to impress my toaster, except maybe with the really delicious jam I slather all over its work.
Though I’m wondering which is better, I can’t really envision myself as the toaster teacher again. I remember wanting to connect with my students on some level other than ‘we share a classroom and my job is to make sure this room wouldn’t be put to better use as a utility closet for students to get caught smoking weed in.’ I liked that my students knew a bit more about me and chose to work effectively with that knowledge, but my concern is that one day, I’ll look around, notice a student has just hurled a textbook at me, and wonder if this would have happened to a toaster.