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Setting limits for sharing with K12 students

What personal information is appropriate for teachers to share with their students? (Gettyimages.com: a-digit).
What personal information is appropriate for teachers to share with their students? (Gettyimages.com: a-digit).

In fall 2017, an elementary school art teacher in Mansfield ISD in Arlington, Texas, introduced herself to her fourth-grade students with a slide show about her life. It included a photo of her partner, who the teacher presented as her future wife.

The photo, and a lesson about an artist and his same-sex partner, led parents to complain that the teacher was promoting a “homosexual agenda,” and she was asked to resign, according to a federal lawsuit filed against the district. As of this writing, the lawsuit is pending and the teacher is on administrative leave.

The case raises a larger question: What personal information is appropriate for teachers to share with their students?

“We know through research that teacher-student relationships are really important to student learning,” says Peter DeWitt, education consultant and co-author of School Climate Change: How Do I Build a Positive Environment for Learning? “Sharing parts of your personal life is completely appropriate.”

This holds true no matter the sexual orientation of the teacher, DeWitt says. “If it’s appropriate for a heterosexual teacher to share information about their spouse and children, then it’s appropriate for a gay teacher to share that as well,” he adds.

District policies

Most districts lack a policy, and let teachers decide what personal information to share, says Julie Underwood, a professor of education law, policy and practice at the University of Wisconsin. Teachers should consider several factors, including the students’ age group, Underwood says.

For example, a teacher whose parent passes away might tell an elementary class they will miss school because their parent is sick.

It also depends on what is instructionally sound. A teacher could discuss their pet cat in a lesson about animals, Underwood says. “Teachers always first need to think about children’s needs, and good pedagogical and instructional practices,” Underwood says. “Are they sharing information for a reason that makes sense in a classroom?”

Subjects to avoid

Many districts already have policies regarding contentious subjects like religious and political views. “You want to be open about differing opinions, and give students a voice and provide information, without pushing your own view on them,” Underwood says.

It’s common for teachers to show get-to-know-you slideshows to introduce themselves to students, as the Texas teacher did, DeWitt says. Having a person they admire normalize her life and sexual orientation in this way was “vitally important”—particularly for students who may be gay, he adds.

“If we want to prepare kids for the greater world, they’re going to meet lots of diverse people,” DeWitt says. Administrators and teachers should discuss how to approach lessons on controversial subjects, DeWitt says. Bringing in an outside organization to find a common language and framework can help, he adds.

For example, with larger numbers of students coming out as transgender and many schools left unprepared with how to address their needs, some administrators have turned to organizations such as GLSEN to educate teachers on the terminology involved and how to support these students in class.